Intended to be the initiation of Jaden Smith into a mainstream movie career, ‘The Karate Kid’, produced by his parents, was championed by Jackie Chan, as being an entirely new venture, but is primarily a remake of the 1984 Karate Kid movie starring Ralph Macchio, the story of a young boy plagued by bullies who manages to overcome both his victimhood and his preconceptions about martial arts in order to triumph over his oppressors.
Jaden plays Dre Parker, bestowed with a suitably stereotypical moniker, who hails from Detroit; a somewhat paradoxically aloof but curious child with cynical eyes who although inherently vulnerable and alienated by Chinese culture and customs, nonetheless possesses an oddly distant warmth. Jaden is only mildly reminiscent of his father; he is neither instantly endearing nor likeable – he slowly encroaches and grows in your estimations as the film progresses. Jaden is ultimately, a fairly confident and cock-sure young man whose humour and light-heartedness emits from a stoic and reserved demeanour, unlike big daddy Will who was always visibly playful. Jaden perfectly captures the torment, suffering, perplexity and homesickness of a young boy ostracised in an exotic land facing barriers of language and uniform. Dre moves from the concrete jungle of Detroit with his mother Sherri (Taraki P Henson), who is, unfortunately, the most glaringly obvious stereotype of the film. Although humorous and adequate, she seems miscast and misplaced, portraying a character alarmingly close to Regina Halls’ Brenda Meeks of Scary Movie. In the midst of the trials and tribulations that young Dre must inevitably conquer, she is nothing more than a squeaky, squawky cheerleader at odds with the nature of the film.
Chan reclaims his role as the peculiar and erratic Master who must train and tame the wayward Dre. Always captivatingly innocent and bewitchingly humble, Chan glows as the sidelined, forgotten expert of an ancient art. Initially sullen and detached, Chan and Smith forge an exquisitely tender friendship that breaches race and age and lights up the screen. Watching Parker transcend from sulky, stroppy child into an obedient but liberated pupil is an empowering experience. The film does not shy away from representing excruciating scenes of violence primarily inflicted upon Dre by the ruthless Cheng portrayed by Zhenwei Wang who encapsulates a cruel, coal-eyed bully who manages to emit a dreaded combination of ice and fire in his dead stare. The fighting sequences are beatifically barbaric, marrying danger with grace, particularly as the two boys face one another as enemies in the ring. But the film does not only focus on fighting, a budding friendship and romance develops between Dre and Meiying, played by the adorable Wenwen Han, one of the few natives to show Dre kindness. Their friendship is touchingly sincere particularly as Asian and Black friendships are not often represented on the screen.
The film also explores race relations from a Chinese cultural perspective, being a homogenous country, the movie reveals the difficulties China has accepting and integrating a black family into their cultural make-up. This is obviously a very realistic issue; a combination of Chinese patriotism, pride, adherence to tradition and almost institutionalised racism, the lack of black faces in Asia and misleading interpretations of black people, means that many Asian people either are very ignorant of black culture or have prejudices towards them which the film inferred in my subjective experience, illumining the xenophobia evoked by the other. Many scenes portray an incredibly tense experience of race relations as Cheng and his friends warn Dre away from Meiying.
The film is slow-starting and slow-burning, languishing on the natural beauty of China, such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden Kingdom in a similar fashion to Visconti’s meandering and breathtaking pauses on Venice in ‘Death in Venice’ but the film finally finds its pace and projects the beautiful story of fearlessness, of honour, dignity and pride and the beauty of working together as a collective team to face the unfair and unjust forces of this world. This film is not perfect, it’s somewhat over long and has been done and seen before, but it is not a bad first film for Jaden Smith to cut his first acting tooth!