Twelve-year-old Dre Parker and his mother, Sherry, are the newest residents at the swank-sounding Beverly Hills Luxury Apartments. But this abode is anything but swank. And they’re a long way from California. The mother-and-son duo now calls Beijing, China, home, after Mom’s automobile-manufacturing job gets transferred there.
For Sherry, it’s an exotic new start. For Dre? Well, the pintsized African-American expat has a different perspective. “I hate it here!” he soon screams at his mother.
Things had begun with promise for Dre. A new friend named Harry seemed eager to show him the ropes. And an intriguing young violin player—who speaks English!—had caught his eye. Maybe China wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Or maybe it would.
Dre’s chemistry with Meiying instantly attracts the unwanted attention of a young thug named Cheng. No problem, the headstrong Detroit native thinks. I’ll show him who’s boss.
Dre does find out who’s boss—at just about the same time he finds out what asphalt tastes like.
Enter Mr. Han, an aloof-but-kind maintenance man who takes notice of Dre’s trials … and who bails him out of a lopsided, six-on-one beatdown. With Han’s help, Dre negotiates a truce with Cheng’s kung fu teacher, Master Li. There’s only one condition: Dre must face his tormentor in an upcoming kung fu tournament. (Yes, it’s kung fu, not karate in this Karate Kid remake.)
And so Dre’s training commences.
Dre’s mother is conscientious, and she wants the best for him. She tries to understand why being in China is hard for him, even if Dre isn’t always interested in talking.
But Dre’s relationship with Mr. Han, of course, is the movie’s emotional focal point. The older man is a recluse—until he takes Dre under his wing. Stepping into those mentor shoes brings new life to Mr. Han. Near the finale, he tells his protégé, “You have taught me a very important lesson, Dre. Life will knock us down, but we can choose whether or not to get back up.” Dre responds, “You’re the best friend I ever had, Mr. Han.”
Some of Mr. Han’s teachings about kung fu involve spiritual elements (noted in more detail below). But Dre’s teacher also sees the marital art as a philosophical framework for a certain way of living:
Because Dre often fails to hang up his coat, Mr. Han initiates a training exercise for him that involves the boy dropping his coat, picking it up, hanging it up, then repeating the process. Those movements, of course, become a template for defensive maneuvers in a fight. But in explaining his training rationale to Dre, Mr. Han says, “Kung fu lives in everything we do. It lives in how we treat people. Everything is kung fu.” Mr. Han also teaches his pupil to see that “kung fu is not about fighting. It’s about making peace with your enemies.” We also hear Mr. Han’s belief that “there are no bad students, only bad teachers.”
Regarding Dre’s conflict with Cheng, Mr. Han believes that standing up to him is what matters, not victory. “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. Fight hard, earn respect, boys leave you alone.”
Dre and Meiying’s relationship is complicated by cultural divides. Meiying’s parents forbid her to see Dre after he accidentally embarrasses their family, for example. But Dre takes the initiative to apologize to her father for offending him. Meiying’s father softens and allows his daughter to keep her promise to go to the tournament.
Mr. Han teaches Dre that kung fu depends upon tapping into the concept of chi, which he calls “eternal energy and the essence of life.” He says that chi “moves inside of us … inside our bodies” and “gives us power from within.” Dre translates: “I get it! It’s like the Force from Star Wars.” Some of Mr. Han’s teaching also includes telling Dre to “empty your mind” to connect with these internal energies.
Mr. Han leads Dre up a mountainside staircase to a place he calls the dragon well. There, we see a water basin bearing the yin and yang symbol. Mr. Han calls the basin’s contents “magic kung fu water,” and he says that after you drink it, “nothing can defeat you.” The well is located in a temple of sorts, where people practice martial arts. One woman stares down a cobra while balancing on an ornate stone outcropping.
Twice, Mr. Han sets what looks like a cotton ball on fire, then uses this “magical” fire in some mysterious way to heal Dre of injuries he’s received. He calls it “ancient Chinese healing.”
At a festival that celebrates love (Mr. Han calls it the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day), Dre and Meiying lean in for a kiss in the middle of a puppet show about a lovelorn goddess who’s separated from her lover.
On a date, Dre and Meiying play a dance video game that blares portions of two songs with sexual lyrics: Flo Rida’s “Low” (which is about strippers sliding down a pole) and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” (which merges gambling metaphors with sexual suggestiveness). Meiying, who looks as if she’s barely entered adolescence, does a suggestive dance to the later song, complete with sexualized hip movements and seductive facial expressions.
In Dre’s first showdown with Cheng, he lands one punch … which, of course, sets Cheng off. Dre then absorbs about 10 punches and kicks before being flipped hard onto the ground. Later, Dre unwisely picks another fight with Cheng by throwing a jug of water on him. As Dre flees, he makes a mess of a marketplace. Cheng and his posse catch Dre, and they administers five or six severe blows with fists and feet. Mr. Han arrives to save the day, initiating a lengthy kung fu battle in which he mostly tricks his assailants into repeatedly hitting one another.
Several matches in the kung fu championship are surprisingly savage, with opponents trading nasty blows. Dre gets pretty beaten up en route to the final match with Cheng. And in the semifinal, Master Li instructs one of Cheng’s lackeys to take Dre out by hurting him. “I don’t want him beaten,” Li says. “I want him broken.” The student obliges by delivering wince-inducing strikes to Dre’s knee.
[Spoiler Warning] But Dre perseveres and meets Cheng in the final. A heavy hit early in the match forces Dre off the raised combat platform. When things go badly for Cheng, Li instructs him, “I want you to break the leg. No mercy.” The resulting kicks to Dre’s wounded leg send him tumbling—in agony—to the ground. Then, using the “cobra technique” he’s been practicing, Dre delivers a backflip kick to Cheng’s head to win.
Elsewhere, Cheng flips Dre’s food tray up in the air at school in an attempt to provoke a fight; later he and his lieutenants menacingly empty Dre’s backpack. Master Li wickedly slaps a timid student who refuses to finish off an opponent. Li’s philosophy: “No mercy. … Our enemies deserve pain.”
In an intense scene, Mr. Han takes a sledgehammer to the Volkswagen Scirocco he’s been restoring. Every year, it seems, Mr. Han restores the car (in which his wife and 10-year-old son were killed), then mangles it again in a violent explosion of unresolved grief.
One use of “d‑‑mit.” Twice, Dre complains about not wanting to get his “a‑‑” kicked, after which Mr. Han tells him, “Don’t say a‑‑.” Later, Dre says the word again, then remembers he’s been told not to. God’s name is improperly interjected two or three times.
Han gets drunk on the anniversary of his wife’s and son’s deaths. The camera gives us a close-up of an empty liquor bottle.
Dre ignores a text message from his mother to come home, and he often displays a bit of a resistant attitude when it comes to obeying her.
For anyone who grew up in the ’80s, the thought of remaking a film that introduced an appreciative generation to the catchphrase “wax on, wax off” seems risky at best. Why tamper with something that’s so iconic to so many? The cynical answer, of course, is that Hollywood seems short on good stories. But that’s exactly the point: This is a pretty good story, and Columbia Pictures knows it. That’s why it’s back, 26 years later.
As far as how the new film stands up against the 1984 version, my rose-colored view of the original renders me incapable of providing a completely unbiased answer. But I can say that the narrative trajectory and the moral messages are similar, remaining solid and inspirational. The emphatic emphasis on perseverance, friendship, discipline and mentoring is still impossible to miss.
The biggest difference between the two films, apart from the shift in setting from California to China, has to do with the age of the characters. Whereas Daniel LaRusso was a senior in high school (as were his girlfriend, Ali, and his blond-haired arch nemesis, Johnny Lawrence), Jaden Smith’s Dre Parker is supposed to be 12—though he looks like he could be as young as 9 or 10. Instead of adolescents on the verge of adulthood, then, we see children on the verge of adolescence. That changes the feel of things, even if the feelings the film eventually elicits are similar.
Before writing this review I watched the original again—mainly to try to give new perspective to my emotional reference points. And I suspect most parents will think the new version feels more family friendly, largely because there’s less profanity and no drug abuse. (The original had a couple of s-words and uses of “g‑‑d‑‑n.” It also included a scene in which Johnny rolls a joint in a school bathroom stall.)
That said, this new Karate Kid’s kung fu scenes are in fact amped up. And the same can be said of the story’s spiritual content, which is both more specific and more frequent. In 1984, Mr. Miyagi made one joking reference to Buddha. In 2010, Mr. Han waxes eloquent about chi and dabbles in some very mystical-feeling rituals. And then there’s Meiying’s maddeningly unnecessary sensual dance scene—easily the most disappointing moment of the film for me because of the way it projects grown-up sexuality onto a character who’s still mostly a little girl.
A postscript: The Karate Kid deals with the issue of bullying, a subject that’s been in the news a lot lately. For generations, the conventional wisdom has been this: Stand up to a bully, and he’ll learn to leave you alone. That’s the message in the original film, and that’s the message this time around. In today’s world, though, standing up to bullies may be riskier than it used to be. Most might indeed back down, just as the films suggest. But, sadly, an increasing number of teens or even tweens might be just as likely to bring a gun to school and shoot someone who stands up to them. Whether the so-called conventional wisdom still applies, then, should be carefully dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.