12-year-old Dre Parker could've been the most popular kid in Detroit, but his mother's latest career move has landed him in China. Dre immediately falls for his classmate Mei Ying - and the feeling is mutual - but cultural differences make such a friendship impossible. Even worse, Dre's feelings make an enemy of the class bully, Cheng. In the land of kung fu, Dre knows only a little karate, and Cheng puts "the karate kid" on the floor with ease. With no friends in a strange land, Dre has nowhere to turn but maintenance man Mr. Han, who is secretly a master of kung fu. As Han teaches Dre that kung fu is not about punches and parries, but maturity and calm, Dre realizes that facing down the bullies will be the fight of his life.
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 to 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. 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
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'The Karate Kid (2010)' to Blu-ray under the distributor's new "Mastered in 4K" line of products, supposedly optimized for UHDTVs but not actually presented in a native resolution of 2160p. The Region Free, BD50 disc arrives inside a blue, eco-lite case with an UltraViolet Digital Copy code and a shiny, cardboard slipcover. At startup, viewers are taken straight to a menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
A screenshot comparison is provided for your viewing pleasure. Top images are from the original while the bottom pics are from the new edition.
As with the newer movies participating in this "Mastered in 4K" marketing bundle, 'The Karate Kid' doesn't really yield any significant improvement over the previous Blu-ray release. The differences are negligible, but this new edition does have the slightest edge. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is just as highly-detailed as before with sharp, distinct definition in clothing, hair and the surrounding foliage. We can make out each, individual brick in the buildings and practically examine every trivial imperfection along the walls where the paint is peeling or where cracks plainly run up to the ceiling. Facial complexions appear natural with splendid, lifelike textures that expose every pore and wrinkle in the cast.
The 2.40:1 image seems a tad more washed-out than its predecessor, which is a notable difference, but thankfully, this is doesn't ruin the presentation or distract from its enjoyment. Contrast remains comfortably bright and well-balanced with lots of clean, crisp whites throughout, allowing for some amazing landscape shots of the mountains and city. Colors are slightly affected by the somewhat washed-out appearance but not too badly, so primaries still look vibrant and energetic, pastel hues are warm and full-bodied, and skin tones are healthy. Black levels are inky rich, with impressive gradations and intelligible detailing within the shadows, making this a great high-def transfer even if it doesn't offer a significant improvement.
Also not showing any discernible difference but still far better than initially expected is this fantastic DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, full of life and constant background activity from beginning to end. It's identical to the previous release with lots of ambient effects occupying the rears, expanding the soundfield and generating an immersive listening experience. Exterior scenes come with the sounds of trees rustling all around, birds flying and chirping above and city traffic, full of crowd noise, chatter and the honks of people on bikes, keeps the room alive with the daily life of Beijing streets. James Horner's music and the several song selections also spread into the back to keep things animated, but best of all is the fight tournament towards the end when the cries and cheers from the crowd surround the listener with satisfying envelopment.
The front soundstage is broad and expansive with excellent channel separation, as action fluidly pans from one side of the screen to the other and creates a highly-engaging image. Dialogue and character interaction are superbly clean and precise where we can plainly hear the emotional tone and inflection changes in the performance of actors. Dynamic range is extensive with pitch-perfect clarity in the upper frequencies and accurate, distinct acoustical details which widen the soundscape. Given the amount of physical action, I would've enjoyed a bit more in the low-end, but as it stands, bass is mostly reserved for the music yet very responsive with a clean, tight punch when called upon.
This is a bare-bones, standalone release.
'The Karate Kid (2010)' is a welcome surprise, with several excellent performances from Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. With the recent deluge of remakes and reimaginings of many favorites, this is far better than initially expected while staying true to the heart of the original. This new "Mastered in 4K" Blu-ray edition arrives with essentially the same audio and picture presentation. Although a disappointingly bare-bones release, the overall package should satisfy most fans.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.