The basics of the plot are pretty much the same - kid moves away from home, is bullied, learns to fight back. Except this time the move is made from Detroit to China, a much smoother and more believable setting for the story to unfold, which also allows for some visually impressive set-pieces (the training on the Great Wall Of China for example, see above) and a kinder visual aesthetic.
The first thing that has to be addressed about The Karate Kid is its length. The original was by no means a brisk venture at 120 minutes but Zwart's version runs at 140 - far too long for a story as simplistic as this one. That's not a slight against the film - its premise is basic but allows for a wealth of character development which, with credit to the slog of a running time, it certainly foregrounds with credibility. The first half hour of the film consists of Dre (Jaden Smith, son of Will) settling into his new China home with mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson). He soon wins the attention of Meiying (Wenwen Han) and some unfriendly bullies who quickly beat him down in a surprisingly brutal playground smackdown. The Karate Kid has a questionable PG rating and the reason the drama is so effective in the first third is because of the intensity of the violence and the way the film deals with bullying as a theme - Dre cautiously tiptoeing around corners as to avoid his assailants, addressing makeup to a black eye and venting his frustration on the wrong people - namely his mom. There's a really at ease pace to the film that fits with the meditative and concentrated state that the final two thirds explore thematically. But in the first third this pace actually gives the impression of a social drama. This may sound like I'm trying to add unnecessary weight to a popcorn movie but Zwart, previously a hack for hire on movies like The Pink Panther 2 (2009), shows a real sense of visual artistry here - he restrains any impulse to make a sentimental action movie and focuses on character, theme and location. Beautifully shot by Roger Pratt (a Harry Potter veteran), a key scene sees Dre, Sherry and maintenance man/kung fu teacher Mr. Han (Chan) attending an evening theatre performance. In typically Chinese fashion this is a decorated and vibrant event, mixing bright lights and colours - a gentle shade of blue, blossoming red and gentle white light give a sense of atmosphere and romanticism. James Horner also provides a wonderfully evocative score, mixing traditional sounds with exciting action beats. Hs sensitive side is perfectly shown on the track Leaving Detroit, a quietly disarming and memorable piece that soars in its final minute, recalling the composers best work.
Of course I can sing the praises of the drama for paragraphs and what many will want to know about is the training and fight sequences. Training takes in the same relaxed pace as the drama and the two are beautifully balanced. A scene of Han revealing his inner demons is emotionally intense and darkly sad (Chan really pulls out the stops to deliver his best ever performance) but followed by an energized training montage that ends in a fizzing high kick. It's this balance that makes us so invested in the finale - a twenty minute sequence of the championship. If we didn't care about the characters (and this was the case for me in the original) then the fighting really doesn't matter. But Zwart has invested (perhaps too much) time in these people, who feel real and relatable. And on this note the fighting begins...
Zwart brings a real emotional centre to the action too. The focus is on the fighting, which is shot with flair and edited with brio. But occasional cutaways to Sherry and Meiying in the audience, and Mr. Han watching, and hoping, in the sidelines, give motivation to the action. Jaden Smith is also an appealing lead - he has the same relaxed charm of his father and hits all of the comic cues perfectly. But he also brings weight to the central character arc and you believe in him as a fighter. Pain is written across his face at every knock down and even though a scene involving an injury sways too far into sentimentalism, he still makes me care. The film is quite violent but treats martial arts with respect - basically as a tool for defense. If you know how to fight you won't have to fight, is the final moral message. Dre is instilled with a sense of honour and its this that he fights with. This is kung fu in the traditional sense of Hong Kong cinema and the scenes are as exciting (if not as inventive) as some of Chan's own work. When the final three round finale comes there's an urgency to the action that few films of this type can match, and it makes the outcome just that little bit sweeter.
While The Karate Kid may not be a perfect film it is a perfect example of a remake. Smart, funny, exciting and respectful, this is a character drama of substance that knows when to hold back and when to go full throttle. Photography, music and choreography are the name of the day but Smith impresses in his first leading role, Chan delivers a sensitive and nuanced turn as an actor and despite the swelled running time I had a blast and would happily re-watch it.