Wax on. Wax off.
Admit it. You just smiled.
There are few movie lines in contemporary cinema that have the staying power of "Wax on. Wax off.," as spoken by Noriyuki "Pat" Morita to Ralph Macchio in the 1984 original version of The Karate Kid.
Sure, it was a flawed film. Sure, it was goofy and silly and not even that particularly well acted. Sure, it had virtually every sports cliche' in the book.
Oh, but we loved it. Director John Avildsen, who'd created similar feelings in the even more iconic Rocky, managed to create a film that appealed to adults and children alike with its simple story of friendship, perseverance, overcoming and the good guy triumphant.
Deep down, we knew it was a lame film. We didn't care. We loved it.
The Karate Kid wasn't begging for a remake, though one could certainly put forth a decent argument that it has been remade just about every time there's ever been a sports flick released by Hollywood.
As remakes go, however, 2010's Will Smith produced and Jaden Smith-led version of The Karate Kid manages to both pay tribute to its source material while carving a niche' all its own by transplanting the actor to China.
Dre (Jaden Smith) is a 12-year-old forcibly relocated from Detroit when his father dies and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) lands the gig overseas. It only takes what feels like a few minutes for Dre to find himself falling victim to a local judo thug and his equally bullying thugs. Of course, not all is lost as Dre takes a shine to a local girl, Meiying, and has caught the eye of his building's maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who we all know isn't quite as he seems initially.
To say that The Karate Kid feels fresh would be a huge stretch, but moving the film to China, ethnically diversifying the cast and intensifying the tone gives the film a rather surprising degree of freshness that makes the film feel more emotionally satisfying than the original even if the entertainment value itself is markedly less.
Jaden Smith is definitely no Ralph Macchio but, if we're really being honest, Macchio was no real standout himself. Smith, or pint-sized Will, definitely continues to grow as an actor since his debut with his father in The Pursuit of Happyness, though one can only hope he continues to forge his own identity and dumps a few of his more obvious Will Smith-inspired mannerisms. Here, though, a touch of vulnerability with an abundance of macho bravado isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Smith's natural screen presence but rather slight size really drives home the whole underdog theme. While Smith is outsized, his scenes are convincing as he reportedly trained with Chan and Chan's trainer in preparation for the film.
Jackie Chan has been trying to tell us for years that he can act, unfortunately he's been doing so in such godawful flicks as Around the World in 80 Days, The Spy Next Door and a host of other films too abysmal to mention. Here, however, Chan shines like he's never shined before with a wonderfully satisfying mix of aging martial arts star, wise mentor and weary, wounded warrior. If you've always loved Chan, but mostly shaken your head at his attempts in non-martial arts roles, The Karate Kid is definitely the film for you. While Chan has, especially in the Rush Hour films, proven himself at least modestly adept at comedy, he wisely avoids any comparisons to Morita's Mr. Miyagi and, instead, turns Mr. Han into a darker, even more wounded and yet, perhaps, an even more deeply caring man. Chan's scenes with Smith are rich and satisfying, though the training scenes themselves occasionally fall a bit flat and a bit too often Zwart opts for irrelevant photogenic shots rather than focusing on the relationship between the characters.
While she's left with not much to do on paper, Taraji P. Henson makes the most of her turn as Mrs. Parker, while Wenwen Han is strong as Meiying and Zhenwei Wang makes for a captivating bully.
It would be difficult to completely avoid gratuitous camera work given the film's locale of Beijing, and there's little arguing that D.P. Roger Pratt beautifully captures an everyday side of China that is utterly hypnotic. James Horner's original score avoids overt histrionics, blending in moments of frivolity amidst its soaring instrumentals once the inevitable battles begin.
At nearly 140 minutes, The Karate Kid could have easily been edited down 20-30 minutes though the final battles themselves feel remarkably brief and, at least to a certain degree, anticlimactic. The film's PG-rating is maxed out and its arguable that without the Smith influence this flick led by a 12-year-old really should have received a PG-13 rating with fight scenes that are considerably more intense than the 1984 original. The faux romantic touch between Dre and Meiying, as well, feels unnecessary and forced. While there's no denying that a 12-year-old is starting to "feel," here it feels awkward and adds nothing to the film.
Kudos to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith for continuing to encourage their son's growing interest in stage work, going so as far as to serve as co-producers for The Karate Kid and taking great care to choose appropriate films in terms of subject matter and his growth as an actor.
Given the audience's response for the film's sold out preview screening and the dozens of people turned away, it appears that Americans may very well be craving yet another "underdog" story. While The Karate Kid 2010 doesn't have quite the charm and entertainment value of its predecessor, it far exceeds any of the original's sequels and is a worthy remake likely to bring this simple, straightforward and inspiring story to an entirely new generation.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic