by Dana Stevens
Hanging over any remake, but especially over the remake of a classic, is the question "Why?" Sometimes that syllable is muttered with a shrug of resignation ("The Wicker Man with Nic Cage? Why?"). Sometimes it's bellowed to the uncaring heavens in agony ("Last Tango in Paris with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? WHYYY?").
The notion of remaking The Karate Kid (Sony Pictures) elicits a "why?" of midlevel outrage. The 1984 original, in which Noriyuki "Pat" Morita coaches bullied teenager Ralph Macchio to victory in a karate championship, may have seemed like a standard-issue inspirational sports picture at the time, but (as with another box-office hit of the same year, The Terminator) a generation of remove reveals what a well-crafted movie it actually was. Rewatched today, the original Kid, directed by Rocky's John G. Avildsen, feels smart and fresh, with a wealth of small character details and a leisurely middle section that explores the boy's developing respect for his teacher.
The first job of the new Karate Kid, then, was to not defile the spirit of the original—at that task this version succeeds almost too well. The script, by Christopher Murphey, reproduces the story of the earlier film beat for beat, and, at times, line for line. It's respectful to the point of reverence, an odd stance to take toward a film that was fun in the first place because of its unpretentious pop schlockiness. To the credit of both Murphey and director Harald Zwart, that unhurried middle act remains intact—instead of using the nearly 2 ½-hour running time to cram in extra fight scenes, they give the mentor/student relationship at the movie's heart time to unfold. While the fight scenes have been (literally) punched up by the inclusion of more spectacular martial-arts stunts—along with the bonecrunching sound effect now required to accompany all onscreen fisticuffs—this Karate Kid isn't the rushed, coarsened, CGI-infested ripoff that fans of the original may be dreading. It's as sweet-natured a movie as you could expect about a 12-year-old learning to beat the crap out of his schoolmates.