Hollywood loves remaking movies to update them for a new audience. Often times that means destroying what made the original so great in the first place. (Anyone see the horrid remake to the comedy “The In-Laws”?) Sometimes the remake can be faithful to the original while still being fresh as in the case of the remake for “The Karate Kid.”
What makes “The Karate Kid” (both the original and the remake) so good is the story structure. Despite different types of characters and locations, the main plot beats are intact with the basic story of a boy thrown in a strange world and needing to battle bullies in order to survive.
The first scene of the new “Karate Kid” grabs sympathy for the hero right away. We see the hero in an empty apartment, looking at the marks on the wall that measured his height at different stages in his life such as when he lost his first tooth. Then further up, there’s the height he was at when his dad died.
Very simple and very effective. Who wouldn’t feel for a hero who lost his dad? Now we feel for the hero right from the start and we’re willing to see where the story takes us.
As soon as the hero arrives in China, we also feel for him when faced with the strange world of different people and customs. When the hero goes looking for Mr. Han the maintenance man, the hero faces a staring and uncomprehending bunch of Chinese men who don’t speak English. Once again, we feel for the hero as he struggles to deal with a foreign world.
Two things “The Karate Kid” does right. First, it always sets up ideas that payoff in the end. One setup is when the hero is learning kung fu and explains that he’s very athletic, then demonstrates by doing cartwheels. This helps make the hero’s fight scenes more believable later on when he does acrobatic takedowns of his opponents. Subtle, but effective.
A more important setup is when the hero discovers the car in Mr. Han’s living room and asks about it. Then when Mr. Han takes him on a train ride, he asks Mr. Han why they didn’t just drive? Later when he sees Mr. Han drunk and smashing his car, he discovers why. Apparently Mr. Han was driving when he got into an argument with his wife, lost control, and his wife and son died in the car accident.
The importance of this moment is that it shows that the hero isn’t the only one stuck in a dead-end world. The most effective movies are those where every major character is also stuck in a dead-end world and the hero’s actions helps the supporting characters as much as the supporting characters help the hero.
In “Star Wars”, Luke changes Hans from a self-centered smuggler to someone who cares for others. In return, Hans literally saves Luke by shooting down Darth Vader’s wingmen.
In “The Karate Kid,” the hero helps save Mr. Han by helping him deal with the grief and blame he put on himself about letting his wife and son die in a car accident. In return, Mr. Han helps the hero deal with his problem of fighting the bullies.
Another example of setup and payoff occurs when the hero keeps throwing his jacket on the floor. Mr. Han makes him constantly put it on, take it off, drop it on the floor, and pick it up again. Then the hero learns that he’s learning the moves to defend himself in the process.
By the end of the movie, the hero wins and the supporting characters also win, just like Luke and Hans in “Star Wars.” By having a supporting character with goals of his own, similar to the hero’s goal, any movie can be more interesting and more effective at the same time.
Having a supporting character stuck in a dead end world who needs to change makes your story deeper. In bad movies, supporting characters seem to exist solely to help the hero for no apparent reason of their own. Think of why all those people risked their lives for the hero in “The Day After Tomorrow.” Why? No reason other than the hero needed some help and the movie needed to show someone dying.
The two things to take away from “The Karate Kid” are the multiple ways it sets up and pays off crucial plot points such as Mr. Han and the car or the hero and his jacket on the floor. Second, look at how the hero helps a supporting character achieve a similar goal and escape a similar dead end world while the supporting character helps the hero.
“The Karate Kid” works because it follows the same plot beats and structure as the original. If you have a strong story structure, the actors and the scenery doesn’t matter as much. If you don’t have a strong story structure, then you’ll be left relying on special effects and explosions, and that almost always results in eye candy that’s amusing but ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable.