No offense to Jaden Smith, but for me Ralph Macchio will always be THE KARATE KID. And I doubt Jackie Chan can hold a candle to Pat Morita. I vaguely remember the 1984 original as a pleasant diversion, but it’s lost in the haze in which most mid-80s films reside in my brain. So I wasn’t particularly looking forward to listening to James Horner‘s new score, especially after the massive disappointment of AVATAR.
But I’m here to report that Horner’s KARATE KID is a pleasant surprise.
The score begins on an up note. “Leaving Detroit” combines a tender melody with simple, genuine, heartfelt emotion for one of the loveliest cues I’ve heard from Horner in years. This is the early Horner sound that I love, the Horner of FIELD OF DREAMS and SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER.
Asian harmonies are brought to the forefront in “The Forbidden City”. The orchestrations veer between Asian instrumentation, contemporary electronics, and orchestral, sometimes combining all three. One never outshines the other and all work in tandem to create, for the most part, a harmonious blend.
There’s an odd mix of TITANIC pulsating chorus and Asian influences in “Jacket On, Jacket Off”. And you’ll find hints of AVATAR in “Kung Fu Heaven” and the former’s love theme in “Mei Ying’s Kiss” before transitioning into the beautiful main theme in the piano.
The three big musical set pieces include “Journey to the Spiritual Mountain,” “From Master to Student to Master” (with obvious echoes of AVATAR) and the exciting “Final Contest”. In these lengthy cues, Horner runs a gamut of musical styles. But for me, it’s the tender moments that resonate, especially that beautiful opening theme for Dre (Smith) that weaves throughout the score, most memorably in subtle counterpoint with an Asian secondary theme in “The Lunchroom”.
At 64 minutes, the score is a generous one. While action cues like “Backstreet Beating” and “Han’s Kung Fu” have their share of contemporary electronic overlays, they never overwhelm the music. I’m thankful that the score feels more acoustic than other recent Horner efforts. While the music still contains (sometimes none too subtle) whiffs of earlier work, for some reason it didn’t bother me as much this time.
Maybe my mantra of “lowered expectations” allowed me to be a little bit more open-minded. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this score. Perhaps because there was no pressure to create something grand and epic, the music feels more relaxed and heartfelt. Or maybe I’ve grown soft. While it may not kick butt exactly, THE KARATE KID is a nice transition back to hints of earlier Horner that I’ve sorely missed of late.