'The Karate Kid': Eveything Is Kung Fu

In The Karate Kid, Mr. Han and Dre deserve each other, in a good way.

The Karate Kid

Director: Harald Zwart
Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Rongguang Yu, Zhenwei Wang
Rated: PG
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-07-16 (General release)

Like a lot of movie kids, 11-year-old Dre (Jaden Smith) keeps track of his growth by a series of tics on a doorframe. As The Karate Kid begins, he's looking unhappily at this record of his life so far, the camera following his gaze, year by year, event by event: "First tooth lost," "first home run." When he reaches the marker reading, "Daddy died," his brief back story is apparently complete.

The movie doesn't explain this loss or Dre's ongoing dislocation, but instead goes directly to the next plot point, that is, Dre and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) are headed to Beijing. She's been transferred, and she does her best to sound grateful and enthused for this chance to start a "new life in a magical new land." Following a seconds-long goodbye to friends and family (one of Dre's classmates hands him his skateboard, a carry-on emblem of Americanness), they ride to the airport past graffitied walls and foreclosure signs. You see the point: the land they're leaving behind is distinctly un-magical.

Unsurprisingly, Dre resists the change anyway: he refuses to learn Chinese with his mom using her laptop and doesn't want to play in the park across the street from their new apartment (the film doesn’t make a big deal of it, but the first kid he meets is a blond American transplant [Luke Carberry], underlining that like big cities in the States, this one has a multi-national population). When Dre first sees his new apartment building, his upturned eyes betray a subtle blend of wonder and desolation. (Throughout the film, Smith proves a remarkably expressive performer, and if it's plain he's picked up more than a few moves and expressions from his dad, he also infuses this kid -- alternately grumpy, selfish, and obnoxious, as well as earnest and sympathetic -- with impressive nuance.) But even as he surveys the crowded street and institutional-looking apartment complex, the film is setting up to challenge expectations: when Sherry is dismayed to find there's no hot water and sends Dre in search of the superintendent, it turns out that the building is not actually deficient but green, with hot water available at the flip of a switch.

More importantly, the process by which Dre learns this lesson involves his first encounter with the sullen super, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). As this film's Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), Mr. Han is initially reluctant to mentor Dre, put off when he spots the kid disrespecting his mother, specifically by not hanging up his jacket. Mr. Han (who is an expert in kung fu, not karate, but okay, there's a brand name at stake) will use this simple-seeming action -- picking up the jacket and putting it on the coat-rack -- as this film's "wax on-wax off," and Dre spends long hours rehearsing it until the big-music moment when he discovers the true meaning and potential of his movements.

Dre is inspired to seek instruction from Mr. Han is, of course, by a local bully. Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) first spots Dre in the park, his insta-mean-face prompted by Dre's flirtations with Meiying (Wenwen Han). The reaction is immediate and frankly brutal: Cheng bears down on Dre, hitting, kicking, and generally walloping the smaller kid -- and Dre is smaller than everyone, including Meiying -- as the other kids watch in subdued horror. Only Meiiying tries to stop the beat-down, which only makes Cheng more intent: a pile-on of close, energetically mobile shots underscore both his ferocity and Dre's alternating spunk and pain.

When it's over, Dre's left with a black eye (though you'd guess he'd have broken ribs or even a concussion, based on the scene's PG-pushing violence) that he hides with his mom's makeup and a pulled-down baseball cap (Sherry is less than perceptive when the script calls for it). At school, however, he has no cover, as Cheng and his minions skulk in shadows or stride down hallways, ever ready to menace Dre again and again. (That said, Cheng and company have reasons for their surliness, namely, their kung fu teacher, Master Li [Rong-guang Yu], who instructs them to have "no mercy" on opponents, drilling them in formation and relentlessly, a method that good teacher Mr. Han immediately identifies as "bad teaching.")

Dre is resourceful even if he doesn't anticipate consequences very well: but even his mistakes have a potty purpose: when he executes a revenge that's satisfying for about four seconds, the resulting chase scene through hectic streets offers a bit of baby parkouring and the expected intervention by Mr. Han. Dre is caught and smashed to the ground, left to watch through blurry POV shots as Mr. Han uses the bad boys' bodies against each other, in a very Jackie-Channish spate of frankly delightful entertainment.

Seeing this, you realize that the film has more than one idea in play: the formulaic plot provides little bits of spotlight for what both Chan and Smith do very well (and very differently), and their subsequent bonding scenes are, surprisingly, increasingly charming. Even the moment when Mr. Han reveals the tragedy that has left him so alone -- clichéd as the plot point may be -- is rendered in a way that showcases each performer's strengths. By the time they're performing an elaborate kung fu shadow-play (and Sherry shows up just in time to provide a happy-tearful reaction shot), you know it's over the top, but... okay again. Mr. Han and Dre deserve each other, in a good way.

Dre's other growing-up plot, the romance with Meiying, who happens to be a violin prodigy, is equally trite but less convincing. If there are cultural differences and race anxieties hovering nearby, the film lets you worry about them, and focuses instead on Dre and Meiying's immediate connection and shared dilemmas. Both are determined students and good kids, wanting to please their elders. Meiying's father and teacher expect her to be perfect, and Dre, having learned Mr. Han's lesson -- "Everything is kung fu" -- is thrilled to praise her excellence no matter what else happens around them. He may not be a karate kid, exactly, but he's definitely a cool kid.





Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.


Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings Team for Wonderfully Sparse "Where Or When" (premiere)

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings' "Where Or When" is a wonderfully understated performance that walks the line between pop and jazz.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.