The biggest surprise of the year (so far)! I had been hearing good things about The Karate Kid, and I've always liked Taraji P. Henson and Jackie Chan. So this piqued my interest enough that I wanted to see it, but I was still skeptical about a few things. First was the running time; at 2 hours 20 minutes, it's nearly epic-length, something that I don't feel is necessary with family films. Second: Jaden Smith, whose presence at the Oscars a couple of years ago filled me with rage. It seemed that he had inherited his father's charisma, yes, but also the obsession with maintaining that likability no matter what. And that can sometimes be annoying. I wondered, too, if the boy was genuinely talented, or if his famous daddy just insisted that his offspring be a movie star too.
Sure enough, about ten minutes in, I wondered to myself, "Is this kid ever going to change his expression?" To be fair, this was a good question to ask of all the kid actors up to this point, from Blonde Kid Who Disappears After Three Scenes to the love interest. Jaden could do charm, though, as we see in his initial flirtations with classmate Meiying (Wenwen Han), or in his banter with his hot mom (Taraji P. Henson, who proves yet again that she can do no wrong). It seemed my greatest fear was to be realized. This was a processed charmer, courtesy the Will Smith Corporation.
I don't know when it was, exactly, that I suddenly realized the greatness of the film. Was it when Jackie Chan gets the bullies to beat each other up? Was it the field trip to the Forbidden City? Could it have been when Jaden and Meiying flirted in the auditorium as she practiced her violin? I don't know, all I know is that there was a definite moment where I thought, "Actually, this kid's pretty good! Boy's got potential, and seems willing to grow. I get it!" And that soon developed, with the introduction of kung fu lessons with maintenance man Mr. Han (Chan), into a full-on love and admiration for everything about the film and its stars. Smith has to play the role one-dimensionally at the beginning, because his character is merely going through the motions as he tries to navigate this new life in China! And of course he comes alive in his scenes with Meiying, because that's when the character comes alive! Why did I underestimate the scion of the Fresh Prince clan?
So, yeah, the story. Dre and his mother move from Detroit to China after she gets a job transfer. Dre has a hard time fitting in, especially once a school bully, whom I shall from now on refer to as Little Satan (Zhenwei Wang), targets him for a punching bag. Tired of being bullied, Dre enlists the help of Mr. Han to teach him kung fu. He soon learns that kung fu is not about kicking ass, but about "making peace with your enemies". While delivering flying kicks, yes, but the spirituality of the sport is not lost on Dre or the audience. Dre learns respect for his elders, respect for his peers, and respect for his new home as Han trains him to take part in the Kung Fu Tournament that serves as the film's climax. Cool.
So very, very, cool. This is a movie that had the audience applauding, laughing, high-fiving each other across rows, sitting on the edges of their seats, wiping tears from their eyes. The movie just has it all, from capable kid actors (well, except for the "best friend" role that is quickly dropped from the story; worst kid actor ever) to a Dancing Arcade Game scene. Jackie Chan's moving performance as Mr. Han is the best of his Western career (admittedly, I've yet to see his original martial arts films), especially in a touching scene involving his car, June 8, and a message of getting back on your feet.
Those who feared that this would be an East vs. West, USA USA USA film can put those concerns to rest. The Karate Kid is more about an American learning to appreciate a culture different from the one he's used to, learning the language, customs and traditions of his new home. The climactic showdown between Dre and Little Satan is not about East vs. West, but about Good vs. Evil. I won't even tell you whether or not Dre wins. You may think this movie is predictable, but it takes some unexpected turns that make it fairly atypical.
At one point, I turned to my friend and muttered, "David Lean's The Karate Kid." This movie doesn't do things by halves. James Horner's score is his first of note since A Beautiful Mind (Sure, I like Avatar's score, but it mostly sounds like a riff on Titanic's), and it is an epic marvel. Roger Pratt's cinematography is ingenious. Sometimes hand-held, certainly low-key in the home sequences, it naturally gives us that widescreen "whoa" factor when Dre visits the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of the Dragon Well. The night scenes are gorgeous, and the "first kiss" scene is beautifully done, superlatively lit, effectively edited by Joel Negron.
My God, and I could follow the action scenes! And it doesn't over-explain things! And there's chemistry and believable/consistent character arcs! The worst part is probably the title, actually, since every character insists on the difference between kung fu and karate. Strange, that. But, hey, whatever: the movie's brilliant! Kudos to director Harald Zwart and his team on creating an epic and sincere, family-friendly, universally delightful cinematic wowser!
Why are you reading this? Take ten dollars out of your wallet and see this movie NOW!