Personally, I had no strong emotional connection to the original 'Karate Kid.' I've seen it, but it wasn't something I watched a lot when I was younger. And I have only passing memories of the franchise as a whole. In fact, my most vivid recollections come from the one where they're protecting that tiny tree. (Was that the third one?) Still, I knew enough to chuckle at the 'Karate Kid' reference in 'The Social Network.'
So when the news came that Sony would be doing a big budget remake of the original, transposing the original American location to China, turning the young New Jersey boy into an African American youth (Will Smith's son, Jaden Smith), and making the central martial arts form not karate, as the title suggests, but kung fu, I didn't bat an eye. But I also really didn't care, either.
So it pleases me to report that 'The Karate Kid' remake rebuffs my previous indifference: it's a solid little sports movie - well shot, well acted, and well directed. It's rousing in all the right ways, will have you on your feet at the end, and has a surprisingly solid emotional core, rooted in heartache, that gives the movie a nice twinge of melancholy.
'The Karate Kid,' directed by Norwegian commercial director Harald Zwart, begins with Dre (Smith), moving in with his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson, stealing every scene she's in), from the mean streets of Detroit to Beijing. One of the movie's greatest assets is its ability to put you in the shoes of a ten-year-old kid moving from America to China, wary and unknowing, besieged by his mother to accept the opportunity with open arms while feeling insecure and out-of-place.
Dre is picked on by schoolyard bullies and eventually befriends the maintenance man in their building, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). Han teaches him self defense, taking him into the beautiful, ancient Wudang Mountains for one lesson; on top of the Great Wall of China for another. Eventually, the master and the student learn more about each other (and about themselves), with all of the required underdog sports movie story beats all present and accounted for, including the climactic, big scale arena showdown, with Dre entered into a huge kung fu tournament.
And while the story is by-the-numbers, the movie is still quite an accomplishment. Whoever decided to set it in China, and to take full advantage of the cultural and geographic landmarks, was a genius. You see so much of the country, from the urban sprawl of Beijing to the aforementioned Wudang Mountains, a setting so beautiful that it will take your breath away, and it adds a whole lot to the production and scale of the movie. Zwart, for his part, does a great job, with lush, sweeping shots and well-choreographed fight sequences that really make you feel like you're a part of the action.
But the biggest, most welcome surprise of the new 'Karate Kid' are the performances. Jaden certainly has some of his father's swagger (there's a great, cute sequence with him wooing a female classmate), but he also has a shockingly resonant emotional presence. This could have been a cloying, whiny kid actor performance, but Jaden makes it so much more. There's tragedy in this Karate Kid's past, and Jaden brings that to life, beautifully.
Ditto Jackie Chan. I really like Jackie Chan, but I see him more as a comic actor. So for him do such a great job, with a performance with so much depth, really took my breath away. His Mr. Han is damaged goods, for sure, and the way that he brings this to life, with a combination of mystery and pain, is totally stunning. (Taraji P. Henson is always incredible; this isn't news to anybody.)
Is 'The Karate Kid' going to redefine what you experience at the movies? Um, no. It's your pretty basic underdog sports movie. But its rigid compliance with genre norms kind of wraps you up like a warm blanket. And that's okay with me. The strength of the remake is the handsomeness of the filmmaking, from the lush cinematography to James Horner's magnificent score (maligned, ever so slightly, by an overabundance of of-the-moment pop songs), and the emotional strength of the performances, from Jaden Smith to Jackie Chan and everybody in between (including an un-credited by Michelle Yeoh – see if you can spot her!) As far as slick family films go, you could do a lot worse than 'The Karate Kid,' circa 2010.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Karate Kid' comes as a Blu-ray, DVD combo pack. The 50GB Blu-ray disc is Region A locked and BD-Live enabled. The DVD features a DVD copy of the movie, as well as a Digital Copy and a Digital Copy specifically for your Playstation Portable game system. So you can take 'Karate Kid' wherever you go! The disc automatically plays, which then unleashes some previews for stuff (including the PS3) and eventually halts on the main menu.
The 1080p, MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer (2.40:1 aspect ratio) for 'Karate Kid' is absolutely stunning. I was impressed with the cinematography on this thing, but doubly so in glittery high definition.
The movie has an amazingly naturalistic color pallet, owing much to the scale and variety of settings, and is peppered with bright colors. The transfer handles everything amazingly well. Detail is strong, to an almost mind-boggling degree; skin tones are absolutely pitch-perfect, and everything looks so realistic that I was shocked to learn on the special features that some key locations were actually sets.
Black levels are deep and inky, but never overwhelming (for instance, you can count the braids in Jaden's hair), and there are no technical issues to speak of, either technically (no artifacts or macro-blocking) or in terms of film quality (if there wasn't a cinematic layer of grain, it'd be downright perfect).
This is the best kind of "new movie" transfer – one that is more or less pristine but still maintains a deep, filmic dimensionality that really makes your jaw drop. Great!
And as great as the video transfer is, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix is just as amazing.
The basics: dialogue sounds crisp and clear and is always well prioritized, even in the more frantic, action-packed sequences (like Jackie Chan and Jaden's chatty training sessions); James Horner's lustrous score booms across the sound field; sound effects sound crisp but never overwhelming; atmospheric nuance abounds; and the surround channels are always used very well, and not only in the boastful action sequences, but in the smaller sequences, like Dre and his mother on the plane to China.
It's been a while since I've heard a new movie's mix bring this much life to the movie, and while it may not rattle your posters off the wall, it totally brings you into the movie. Thanks to this superb sound mix, you feel every punch and kick in the final fight, you are enveloped by the grandeur of the locations, and, thanks to the delicate way that sound effects and the score are handled, bring you in more emotionally in the more tender scenes as well.
There's really nothing negative to say about this score - it hits all the right notes with a nice level of subtlety and grace. Sit back, turn up your surround sound system, and prepare to be dazzled. Rarely do I get to say stuff like that, but I'm happy to for this mix.
Additionally, there is a French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and subtitles in English, English SDH, and French.
There are a nice collection of extras, many of which are Blu-ray-exclusives that nicely balance the more "kid friendly" aspect to family movies on home video, with legitimately informative behind-the-scenes stuff.
'The Karate Kid' took me by surprise, in all the right ways. While in many aspects it's a fairly traditional, big budget sports movie, it's also a story of deceptively nuanced emotional content, anchored by a breakout lead performance by Jaden Smith and a great elder role by Jackie Chan. The cinematography is beautiful, the score is breathtaking, and everything looks and sounds absolutely great thanks to reference-quality audio and video, and anchored by a whole host of special features. You might not think it, but 'The Karate Kid' is one of the most pristine looking-and-sounding Blu-ray discs that I've had the pleasure to review lately – and one of the most entertaining!