“Dre Parker is a cool American kid who’s left Detroit and now is just trying to make it in China,” says Jaden Smith, who previously starred alongside his father in the worldwide hit The Pursuit of Happyness and now takes the star reigns himself, headlining The Karate Kid. “He’s definitely having a rough time – he feels like he just doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t mean to, but he gets on the bad side of some bullies. He’s got no friends and nowhere to go, and that’s when he finds out that his building’s maintenance man, Mr. Han, is a kung fu master. Mr. Han teaches him kung fu, and they end up having a special bond between them.”
It’s a theme that has long resonated with audiences – and explored in the hit movie of the same title that starred Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita. Morita’s portrayal of the stoic sensei, Mr. Miyagi, earned an Oscar® nomination and passed into legend.
Producer Jerry Weintraub, who produced the first series of films as well as the new film, says that the story endures because its underlying story is universal. “Ultimately, it’s the tale of a father and son,” he says. “It’s not so much about the karate. What endures, what kids look to, is the story of a boy searching for a father and a mentor.”
It would be up to producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, James Lassiter, and Ken Stovitz, as well as director Harald Zwart to bring around this new version of the classic, updating it for a new generation. “The teenagers who made the original Karate Kid a hit are now parents with kids of their own,” says Lassiter. “We wanted to remind them of the movie they loved so well – that we all love so well – but also make a modern movie that their kids can enjoy, too.”
The new film couldn’t be a remake – it would have to capture those themes while standing on its own. “The key for anybody in touching material like this is to make sure that you pay homage and respect to the original but somehow find a way to expand upon it and bring it to 2010,” says Zwart.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was in casting the role of the mentor. The filmmakers would need an icon—and they found one, in Jackie Chan. “Really, who else could do it?” says Stovitz. “Jackie is the only man who fits the bill. When I would say to myself, ‘We’re making Karate Kid with Jackie Chan in the Mr. Miyagi role,’ well, frankly, that was a movie I wanted to see.”
Chan felt a particular affinity for the story, as he admits he can actually relate to the young American character. “I understand the fish out of water story,” he says. “About 30 years ago, I went to
for the first time by myself. When you’re in a completely different culture, it’s very frightening.” America
With Chan excited to be on board, it seemed natural to the filmmakers to open up the story. The karate kid would now pick up and move from
Detroit to – truly upping the ante for a fish out of water. And since the setting is changed to Beijing, China , it was clear that a number of things would be different – including the fighting style. China
“We’re in a new country, and I learn kung fu,” says Jaden Smith.
“The reason the movie is called The Karate Kid is that at the beginning of the movie, Dre thinks he can fight the bullies with a little karate he knows,” says Stovitz. “But in
even the kids know kung fu and they’re experts. So if Dre is going to survive, he has to learn kung fu.” China
Of course, calling the movie The Karate Kid also seemed like a good way to honor the movie that came before. “The first movie has the famous wax on, wax off sequence,” says Zwart. “In our movie, Mr. Han tells Dre to put his jacket on and take it off a million times. If you’ve seen the first movie, you get the reference.”
Of course, the part required Smith to learn kung fu. He would learn from the best: Wu Gang, the stunt coordinator of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. Because Chan performs most of his own stunt work in his films, Chan formed his Stunt Team in 1983 as a way to facilitate the fight choreography.
“When I first met Jaden, I liked him, but you can never be sure. I wasn’t sure if he’d really be up to the task,” says Wu. “He proved himself: he is very talented and he worked very hard. And it wasn’t easy. I loved training Jaden.”
Of course, in addition to the invaluable training from Master Wu, Smith had another way of learning kung fu. “I watched a lot of Jackie’s movies and even copied some of his moves,” laughs Smith. In fact, an entire sequence – in which Mr. Han and Dre train and spar with sticks – is a reference of sorts to one of Chan’s earliest and most famous fights.
Smith’s relationship with Chan really did mirror their characters’ in the film. “He is amazing. He was always teaching me things,” says Smith. “How to stretch correctly, how to be in a scene, how to focus. He was right there with me the whole time.”
Harald Zwart says that the young star dazzled the filmmakers with his performance. “Jaden is charismatic and charming, but he’s also a fantastic actor,” says the director. “He fully committed to every aspect of the part. Not just the kung fu – which he worked very hard to learn – but the emotional story of the boy who becomes a man.”
The director has equally high praise for Smith’s veteran co-star. “Jackie is just fantastic to work with,” notes Zwart. “He never stops, and he loves the process of filmmaking, so he helps out with every practical aspect. For example, if an extra didn’t get a particular message due to the language barrier, he went over and respectfully whispered direction to them. He’s just wonderful and so helpful.”
The story tells the tale not only of a master and student but of the bond that’s formed between a lonely, childless man and a fatherless boy. Says Chan: “At first Mr. Han thinks he is only helping this bullied boy, but in the end, his life is also transformed.”
“Dre is like boys everywhere – they want to kick something, a way to get revenge,” says Chan. “But kung fu is not about hurting people. It’s about helping people.”
Chan observes of his young co-star: “I’ve never seen a child that’s as clever as Jaden is. He learns whatever I teach him. I mean, I’d show him something and, boom, he got it right away. He’s amazing!”
Zwart recalls one poignant moment from the shoot: “I saw Jackie and Jaden relaxing between set-ups sitting on a little beach, you know, skipping stones in the water, and I was thinking if I was 11 years old and
just hanging out with Jackie Chan, that would be a dream come true.”
Portraying Dre’s mother, Sherry, is Taraji P. Henson, who received an Academy Award® nomination for her stunning performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Henson says she was attracted to the role because it reminded her of the relationship between she and her own son. “We’re great friends, because it’s just the two of us, and that’s the thing that spoke to me when I read the script,” she says. “The new film also gave Sherry a larger ‘parental’ role. You really get to know Dre by watching his interaction with his mother,” Henson continues.
“She’s a strong yet supportive woman.”
Henson was impressed with how open the Smiths were in allowing her to form a credible relationship with their son. “We had three weeks of rehearsals before we went to
. Both Will and Jada created such a comfortable environment for Jaden and I to bond,” she says. China