Director: Harald Zwart
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
If the words “wax on, wax off” mean anything to you, you’re probably already familiar with The Karate Kid, a fondly remembered part of many an 80s childhood.
Sadly you won’t be hearing those words in this slick remake, one of quite a few changes - some worse and some for the better. For one thing the kid really is a kid this time out, instead of the 22-year-old Ralph Macchio we got in 1984. Replacing him is 12-year-old Jaden Smith, son of Will, as Dre. And instead of suburban USA, the action now takes place entirely in China where Dre and his mother have moved for her work.
Most fundamentally, the martial arts involved is no longer karate but kung fu, but really that’s neither here nor there, expect for purists. Replacing the late, Oscar-nominated Pat Morita (the much loved Mr Miyagi from the original) is Jackie Chan, playing Mr Han, the jannie in the building Dre and his mother move into.
For all the superficial changes, the template of the original is closely adhered to, as Dre falls foul of local bullies and is taken under Han’s wing and trained for the big competition where he’ll be able to restore his pride and honour.
Jaden Smith has the natural, easy charm of his father and the makings of a real star, while he also pulls off the kung fu action extremely capably. And it may be Chan’s best English language role, one that actually allows him to act and even pull off a big emotional scene with some success. He only gets one fight scene, but it utilises some classic Jackie tomfoolery to allow him to take out the six boys attacking Dre without actually hitting any of them.
The Karate Kid nods to the original without aping it, replacing “wax on, wax off” with the somewhat more prosaic “hang up your jacket”. It’s all part of Mr Han’s muscle memory techniques that will help prepare Dre for the big fight. Training scenes are done with imagination and humour, and without making a meal of oriental mysticism like the original was wont to lean on.
For an action drama aimed at youngsters it’s unusually well paced, with a slow, deliberate build and no flashy editing, treating its target audience intelligently. But though its leisurely pace is to be commended, it could still easily stand to lose 40 minutes from the generous running time.
But that’s not a major problem in a highly entertaining film that still provides pleasures for fans of the original and newcomers alike.