Growing older problematized this film to an extent. I recognized Daniel as whiny, immature, and less of a passive victim than a conscious instigator in a number of the situations in which the Cobra Kai bullies ended up pummeling him. Just the same, a combination of perfectly reasonable storytelling (particularly for movie geared toward children in the 1980s) and nostalgia shored up its spot as, at the very least, a sentimental favorite that survived into other periods of my life.
When I heard that there would be a remake of The Karate Kid, my initial reaction was positive. I romantically considered the possibilities of a new generation of young people getting exposed to this story, and how whatever new production bells and whistles, and fresh-faced young actor were attached to the Daniel role might make it more palatable to that next generation of fans.
I learned of Jackie Chan taking on the role of Mr. Miyagi. As much as it stung to imagine a Miyagi not portrayed by Pat Morita, Chan’s real-life and action movie credentials as a martial artist made him a perfectly sensible fit. I could get behind that. Then I learned of Jaden Smith stepping into the Daniel role.
I didn’t love the choice. Child actors who are the sons and daughters of established movie stars always provoke a degree of skepticism for me, and the only film I’d seen Jaden in was The Pursuit of Happyness which I adored begrudgingly—won over by all of its sentimentality in spite of myself because I was so conscious the film’s most saccharine moments were also its most manufactured—a plain as day architecture of a feel-good, overcoming the odds story, albeit one based on reality.
I didn’t have a problem with Jaden Smith, but I did see him as carrying a log of Hollywood baggage, that would necessitate this film ticking off the checkboxes of a 2010-ish family underdog story.
I only saw the new iteration of The Karate Kid once, and in the theater, so forgive me for not having the sharpest memory of its story or all of the differences and similarities between incarnations. What I remember most, though, had far less to do with what happened on the screen than what happened in the theater.
Yes, I remember my friend who had never seen the original Karate Kid commenting that this movie wasn’t very good, and my desperation to explain that no, really, the original is so much better.
Even more so, though, I remember the reaction of the audience.
In the year 2010, a packed movie theater audience clapped their hands for the cinematic experience they had just undergone.
Some of that—nay, a lot of that—surely has to do with the high volume of children in the theater, who have just learned the concept of applauding, who haven’t learned that it isn’t the social norm to cheer in an actual movie theater, and who weren’t self-conscious enough to stop themselves for expressing their delight at this film. But I would argue there was more to it than that.
In 2010, I lived in Baltimore. And all the more so than watching any old great underdog story, these kids were a black kid beat the odds, learn kung fu, and win something. And that’s important.
Intellectuals and critics discuss the value of and issues of casting with an eye toward diversity. One of the truest values there is that a theater full of kids could much more readily see themselves represented in a black Karate Kid, and there’s something beautiful about that.
The new Karate Kid earned a middling-to-positive reception from critics, and was a big enough success at the box office that it justified a sequel for itself (in production as of the time I’m writing). All of that business aside, the most rewarding aspect of the remake for me was the conversations I heard after the applause had died down, as the latter stages of the credits rolled, and as the theater began to empty out. I heard a boy insistent that he wanted to take karate lessons. I heard a mother telling him it would take a lot of hard work.
The boy gave her a steady, straight-faced nod. “I know.”