Potentially unpopular opinion: the 2010 version of The Karate Kid is the best one of the series. Before you navigate to some other website, determined never to read another review from The Legionnaire ever again, allow me to explain. First, credit should be given to the first four. Obviously, without them, there would not have been a fifth one. Further, the latest iteration relies on the tried-and-true formula of the others. Kid moves to a new place, kid gets bullied, kid learns martial arts from an older mentor, and kid wins tournament and gains respect for himself and from others. With some slight variations, this is the plot for all of them, and the first three focused on the same character. My other reason for my bold statement is, admittedly, a stylistic bias. As somebody who spent a few years learning some kung fu, I prefer the methods that Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), this one’s Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) stand-in, learns. My only regret is that they had to stick with the title, and I suspect that has to do with most Americans not knowing the difference between karate and kung fu. Indeed, most lump everything Asian together, usually leaving out India and a whole host of other countries, in a latent form of racism that has proved difficult to let go, strangely. Anyway, on with the review.
One of the first things you notice in The Karate Kid is that Dre’s father passed away. Having been transferred by her company to Beijing, Dre’s mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) is trying to bolster her son’s misgivings about leaving their Detroit home. When they land and begin settling into their new apartment, Sherry sends Dre to find Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the building’s maintenance man, in or to fix the hot water in the shower. When Dre finds Mr. Han, the maintenance man is eating his lunch and cannot be bothered. Instead, Dre ends up going to a nearby park where he begins interacting with some of the locals. Among them is a young Chinese girl that catches his eye, Meiying (Wenwen Han). The attention he pays to her draws the ire of another boy present, namely Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng immediately begins bullying Dre, telling him to stay away from Meiying and other Chinese people, and using his kung fu skills to underscore his threats. Dodging his mom’s concerns, the next day at school Dre finds, to his delight, that he is classmates with Meiying. This excitement is quickly dispelled when he sees Cheng at the school too, who continues his bullying. To get revenge, one day Dre throws a bucket of dirty water on Cheng and his friends, who all chase Dre back to his apartment building where they have him trapped outside. They are beginning to give him a beating until Mr. Han steps in and is able to dissuade Dre’s attackers in a physical, but gentle way, if that makes sense? While treating Dre’s injuries, the boy asks Mr. Han if he can teach him kung fu. Mr. Han says no, but agrees to go with Dre to Cheng’s kung fu school to see if things can be settled peacefully. At the school, Cheng’s instructor, the brutal Master Li (Yu Rongguang), says that the only way they will leave Dre alone is if the kid agrees to fight in an upcoming kung fu tournament. Does any of this sound familiar yet? The long and short of this is that it means that Mr. Han agrees to teach Dre kung fu. At first, Dre cannot fathom Mr. Han’s lessons. The only thing he has Dre doing repeatedly on a daily basis is putting on his jacket, taking it off, hanging it on a hook, dropping it, picking it up, and doing it all over again. This is done every day for hours at a time. After a while, his impatience boils over at having to perform seemingly inane tasks. It is then that Mr. Han shows Dre how these movements, that have become muscle memory, have actually been teaching him martial arts. Not long thereafter, Mr. Han takes Dre to a mountain temple to show his student the source of their kung fu. There, Dre witnesses a woman standing on one leg and looking like she is controlling the movements of a cobra. Mr. Han tells Dre that this is something that takes many years to master. After many weeks of intensive training, Mr. Han gives Dre a day off. Dre spends it with Meiying, and at the end of it he sees her give a violin recital. After the performance, Meiying’s parents notice Dre in the back and tell her that she can no longer be friends with the American. Dre seeks out Meiying for advice, and finds his instructor smashing up a car he had been rebuilding inside his home. He is doing this on the anniversary of the death of his wife and son in a car crash for which he blames himself. In order to distract him, Dre gets Mr. Han to resume the training. In return, Mr. Han helps Dre craft a letter in Chinese that he reads to Meiying’s father (Zhensu Wu). This gesture warms Mieying’s father’s heart, and he allows them to see each other again. It also means that she can be on hand to see Dre compete in the tournament. Of course, the final bout comes down to Cheng and an injured Dre, the result of one of Cheng’s teammates intentionally going after Dre’s legs on Master Li’s orders. When it comes down to the final point, Dre is able to reproduce what he saw with the women and the snake at the mountain temple, which leads to him landing a backwards flip kick to take home the trophy. And the crowd goes wild.
The Karate Kid, like its forbears, has a great deal to offer a practicing Catholic. One thing that should be noted, though, is that much of what Mr. Han teaches Dre has its roots in Eastern religions and philosophies. In terms of exercise and physical activity, there is nothing wrong with kung fu. What a Christian must watch out for is doing anything that is designed to be a specifically religious practice. This is why yoga is a tricky matter for us. But as I always do, I am here to interpret what is said through a Catholic lens. One of the best lessons Mr. Han gives is when he tells Dre that kung fu lives in everything we do, and in how we treat people. Put more succinctly, everything is kung fu. That is an excellent way of thinking about God. Further, this is told to Dre after he has become fed up with putting on his jacket and taking it off seemingly ad infinitum. When Mr. Han demonstrates in spectacular fashion what these movements have done for Dre, these words are spoken in response to Dre’s bewilderment. It is a great way of looking at Faith. It makes me think of male and female religious, who attempt to look at their entire day as a prayer. It is a model that I know I daily fail, but try to master nonetheless. To echo another Mr. Han-ism, my focus needs more focus. What I would focus less on in the movie is when Mr. Han talks about chi. In Eastern philosophies and religions, chi is essentially a life force that can also be used as energy. I have heard some Christian thinkers attempt to rationalize it as our souls or the Holy Spirit. That is fine, as long as you do not imbue the Christian versions with qualities that Buddhists or Hindus might use. There are some things that are best left to God, and He alone.
I could go on for a while about the great things Mr. Han tells Dre in The Karate Kid. Dre even makes a reference to himself as a Jedi Knight, which totally made me geek. I will never get why they had to insist on the title, and there are some other light racist moments in it. At the same time, I will always take kung fu over karate. I mean no disrespect, but it is the superior martial art.