The Master & the Karate Kid

Written by Clint Morris

How Jackie Chan transformed Jaden Smith into a karate – or should that be kung fu? – kid


The original Karate Kid (1984) is, like its lead character in his final bout with Cobra Kai — unbeatable. It has the performances, the script, the plot and, well, Pat Morita. Why would anyone even want to remake such a wonderful film?

“The teenagers who made the original Karate Kid a hit are now parents with kids of their own,” says producer James 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.”

Consider our arm twisted. But it wasn’t just the idea of a remake that had many questioning Hollywood’s sanity – for instance, remember how we all ruptured into a dazed snigger when it was announced that martial arts funny man Jackie Chan had been cast to play Mr Miyagi? How wrong we were to laugh! Honestly, and for two reasons: the first being that Chan is actually magnificent in the role; and the second, that even Morita wasn’t known as a dramatic actor when he was cast in the ’80s original — he was a comedian! It’s testament to Morita’s performance that we tend to forget that.

Let me remind you how Morita came to be in the original film. He was best known as a comic actor – stemming from his role as Arnold on Happy Days – but had heard about this dramatic martial arts film, which John G. Avildsen (Rocky) would direct, and wanted desperately to prove to the producers that he was capable of playing the Mr Miyagi character. Understandably, the producers had their reservations about casting a comedian in the role, so they kept looking, and all the while Morita kept ringing the production office begging them to reconsider. They ultimately did and the rest, as they say, is history. Morita went on to score not only a legion of fans for his touching and commanding performance, but also an Academy Award Nomination.

In some respects, Chan’s anointment as this film’s Miyagi (or ‘Mr Han’ as he’s been renamed) isn’t anywhere near as inconceivable as a Happy Days funny man playing a wise martial arts guru. But whatever the case, once you see Chan in this film, you’ll no longer be doubting the veteran movie man’s ability to do films that don’t encompass explosions or car chases. He’s sublime — Morita-sublime!

Let’s backtrack. Once producer Will Smith (yes, the Fresh Prince) volunteered his pre-teen son Jaden for the role of this film’s titular hero, the search was on to find Smith’s mature mentor. But there was only one name on the casting office’s whiteboard.

“Really, who else could do it?” says Ken Stovitz, another producer on The Karate Kid. “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.”

When his mother (Taraji P Henson) gets a job in China, 12-year-old Detroiter Dre (Jaden Smith) is less then pleased to relocate. Once they arrive, Dre discovers China is quite different from America. He takes an immediate shine to classmate Mei Ying (Han Wen Wen) but cultural differences make any kind of friendship impossible. It’s through trying to court Mei that Dre makes an enemy in school bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a hard-hearted student of martial arts who is quick to let Dre know who’s boss around these parts. Beaten and bloodied, Dre is in desperate need of help.

It’s then that maintenance man Mr Han (Chan) steps in. Rescuing Dre from a fight, he ultimately agrees to teach the youngster martial arts, planning to have his student ready in time for a tournament in which he will take on the bullies who’ve been beating him.

Chan, who a few short years ago had sworn off Hollywood movies, was easily swayed to reunite with the fickle studio system for this one. “I understand the fish out of water story,” Chan says. “About 30 years ago, I went to America for the first time by myself. When you’re in a completely different culture, it’s very frightening.”

And as for the fear that people would compare Chan’s performance to Morita’s: “For me, it’s another movie. I’m not thinking about a remake, just a totally new movie. I’m not Miyagi, I’m just Jackie Chan.”
In the film, Mr Han actually teaches young Dre kung fu, as opposed to karate, which has the raised the question, why wasn’t the film simply titled ‘The Kung Fu Kid’?

“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 producer Stovitz. “But in China even the kids know kung fu and they’re experts. So if Dre is going to survive, he has to learn kung fu.”

Jackie Chan decided the best and fastest way for young Jaden Smith to learn kung fu was to enlist Wu Gang, stunt coordinator of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, to train him. Chan and Gang were taken aback by how quickly and proficiently the Fresh Prince’s son picked up martial arts. “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, who taught the 11-year-old Chinese martial arts. “He proved himself: he is very talented and he worked very hard. And it wasn’t easy. I loved training Jaden.”

Gang trained with Smith for four months in Los Angeles and then continued to teach him wushu throughout the film. And though the film is now complete, Smith has decided to continue his training. “When I first met Jaden, he was just a kid,” says Wu. “A few months later, he was at the same level as kids that have been training for five or six years. He was very focused, very talented and never complained. I’m very proud of him.”

Gang explains his approach to martial arts as being more about a mindset than physical ability. “Whenever I teach anyone kung fu, but especially a kid, the first thing I teach them is respect for other people,” says Wu. “Kung fu isn’t about fighting, but about helping people.”

“I’ve never seen a child that’s as clever as Jaden is,” adds Chan, who recently worked with several tykes on the comedy The Spy Next Door. “He learns whatever I teach him. I mean, I’d show him something and, boom, he got it right away. He’s amazing!”

Chan helped choreograph the action sequences, and was responsible for the ‘jacket on, jacket off’ scene, an homage to the ‘wax on, wax off’ scene from the original, that features prominently in the film. Says Chan: “I just wanted to use everything around me — use the chair, use the light pole, use everything as training things so it’s not necessary to go into a club.”

The other children in the film had a bit more experience with martial arts than Smith, but they still had their work cut out for them. “All of the kids in the film are full-time wushu students, but none of them had movie fighting experience,” Wu says. “It’s not easy to get the timing, the rhythm and the reaction when you get hit. Also, the drama and the acting in the fight are just as important as the action — the kids needed to tell the dramatic story of the fight with their faces and bodies. It’s very challenging. But the big difference with this movie is that the movements are real.”

Chan choreographed the entire end sequence, where Dre takes on the bullies at the kung fu tournament. In Hollywood, someone else would probably have set up this scene but with The Karate Kid shooting in China, everyone was quite happy for the master to do his thing. “Everything you see is Jackie’s interpretation,” says Gang, adding that the sequence took over a week to film.

Chan and Gang auditioned hundreds of kids to appear in the tournament sequences. “A lot of these kids had good skill but no movie-fighting abilities. I had to train the kids five-to-eight hours every day for timing, rhythm and reaction when they got hit,” Wu says.

Even Chan, at 56, was put to the test on the film. “I forget how old I am,” Chan says. “Sometimes I find out, wow, I am not like I used to be. It’s not easy anymore.”