Blu-Ray Review: Crowd-Pleasing Extras Elevate ‘The Karate Kid’

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CHICAGO – If I were 12 years old, I’d probably think “The Karate Kid” was one of the best Blu-Rays of the year. It’s got everything: a crowd-pleasing feature film, several superb extras, and strikingly sharp picture quality, with colors that pop. Yet since I’m twice as old, I’m cursed with the clarity to see through the splendid spectacle and linger on its utter superficiality.

“The Karate Kid” is barely a film at all, but merely a celebration of brand names, the first of which is the title itself, which makes no sense in the context of this remake. While John G. Avildsen’s 1984 classic was about a sensitive teenager learning karate in California, this film is about a cocky kid learning kung fu in China. When the kid corrects his mother on the precise name of his favored martial art, she goes, “Karate, kung fu, whatever!” This certainly must have been the filmmaker’s philosophy, since “The Kung Fu Kid” wouldn’t have drawn in big enough box office numbers on opening weekend. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

The second brand name this film celebrates is that of Will Smith, who has surely become a one-man media empire. He serves as producer of not only the picture itself, but its lead actor, Jaden, who memorably co-starred alongside his father in the 2006 tearjerker, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Jaden is appealing, confident and sports a natural screen presence, even though he appears to have taken a few too many lessons from his dad’s charm school. This film makes a blatant attempt to cement Jaden’s status as a full-fledged movie star. Young Smith is required to be both a romantic lead and an action star, and he’s simply not up to the task. His performance is too slick and underdeveloped to carry an entire movie, especially one as bloated and indulgent as this one. He’s oozing the sort of swaggering charisma that his father specializes in, but it’s sort of off-putting to see it coming from a 12-year-old, especially once he grows a sudden six pack. He’s too self-assured for viewers to believe that he needs assistance in defending himself. His acting is serviceable, but pales weekly in comparison to the work of other child actors, such as Kodi-Smit McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz (whose extraordinary performances in the new thriller “Let Me In” have largely been ignored by audiences).

Jaden Smith stars in Harald Zwart’s remake of The Karate Kid.
Jaden Smith stars in Harald Zwart’s remake of The Karate Kid.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The picture is wall-to-wall excess, but what else can be expected from filmmaker Harald Zwart, the man behind such enduring family classics as “Agent Cody Banks” and “Pink Panther 2”? His direction never stretches far beyond the philosophy that bigger equals better. The film runs nearly two and a half hours for no purpose other than the fact that most summer event movies (such as “The Dark Knight”) have recently ran at this self-important length. Yet the story is so shallow that it could’ve been packed into a half-hour after-school special: Dre (Smith) is a fatherless American kid who moves with his mom (the wasted Taraji P. Henson) to China, where he doesn’t fit in. He instantly gains a love interest (Wenwen Han), who instantly ignites the jealousy of a bully (the fearsome Zhenwei Wang). Thus, Dre seeks the martial arts knowledge of a new father figure, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who gives him much Yoda-like training.

Chan single-handedly saves the film with his subtle, touching performance, which may be the best dramatic work of his career. Yet his usual exuberance and ingenuity is never in short supply. His stunt team choreographed the film’s delirious finale, which is so absurdly spectacular and exciting that viewers are advised to simply skip to it on Blu-Ray. Why bother sitting through the endless montages and cute cutaway gags? I look forward to the day when Jaden Smith is allowed to play a character rather than a commodity.

The Karate Kid was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 5, 2010.
The Karate Kid was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 5, 2010.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

“The Karate Kid” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English and French audio tracks, as well as an audio description track for the visually impaired. Young fans will appreciate the disc’s excellent array of special features, which include an interactive map of China, offering factoids about each location and links to production featurettes narrated by Zwart. There’s some impressive behind-the-scenes footage illustrating that the filmmakers actually shot a pivotal training sequence on the Great Wall of China, which proved an exceedingly difficult place to hide crew members. There’s also visits to the Wudang Mountains, Olympic Park, the Beijing Shaolin Wushu School, and the Forbidden City, which hasn’t allowed film crews such thorough access since Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” back in 1987. Smith’s father is often seen in various shots, though his words to the camera are minimal. Zwart recalls the most difficult day of the shoot, where language barriers led to confusion among local extras, one of whom failed to hear “Action!” during a take that the director decided to leave in the film (the extra is seen frozen in the background, waiting for a cue). Chan hosts thirty minutes of production diaries, one of which follows Smith during a normal day of production. There’s some impressive footage of the tireless young star training under the tutelage of Chan’s longtime collaborator Gang Wu.

The disc also includes a superior alternate ending, which provides justification for the film’s all-too-tidy resolution, while giving Chan to opportunity to kick more butt (only the hokey climactic bit of wisdom from Smith mars this sequence). A 20-minute making-of featurette repeats some footage, but also includes an interview with producer Jerry Weintraub, who initially was hesitant to remake his own 1984 classic, which is sampled in several clips that effectively contrast with the remake. There’s even a series of Chinese lessons that provide kids the chance to learn everything from basic greetings to general vocabulary. And as for the Justin Bieber/Jaden Smith music video…well, let’s just say it will make a lot of twelve-year-olds swoon.

‘The Karate Kid’ is released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and stars Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Rongguang Yu and Zhenwei Wang. It was written by Christopher Murphey and directed by Harald Zwart. It was released on Oct. 5th, 2010. It is rated PG. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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