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The Karate Kid
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Madison Gate / 64m

There are a number of unlikely things about the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid – there’s the small fact that it isn’t actually about karate, for one, but more surprising still is that it is actually quite good. Nothing however is more unlikely than having had James Horner score it – he struck up a great friendship with the director Harald Zwart while the film was in production.

Horner opens the score with the lovely “Leaving Detroit” – a warm slice of Americana hinting at the main theme (which is a variant on his theme from Avatar, which immediately preceded this) but with an unexpected addition of homely electronics and a tune not entirely unlike his theme from Dad many years earlier. “Looking for Mr Han” offers the first hints of ethnic Chinese music – it’s subtle, as it mostly is throughout, and relies primarily on western orchestral instrumentation but there’s no doubting some of the chords and harmonies.

James Horner

“Kung Fu Heaven” is a glorious standalone cue with stunning modal progressions – I know it’s essentially Vaughan Williams, and it only lasts for a minute and 19 seconds, but what a minute and 19 seconds they are. “I Want to Go Home / The Forbidden City” offers the most overt ethnic music of the score and is another treat. The Dad-style theme gets a fuller airing in “The Lunchroom” before the score’s first real action music, the surprisingly gritty and electronic-heavy “Backstreet Beating”. Horner had definitely started making a few concessions to modern trends at this point and while the sheer class of everything that’s happening with the orchestra would never have you confuse it for a Remote Control piece, it’s clearly a tip of the hat in that direction. The following track, “Han’s Kung Fu”, steers even closer that way – to the extent that the track title would still work without the apostrophe in it – it’s another short track (there’s a very unusual number of them on here for a Horner album) but in its second half the composer offers a bit of a preview of the grand action music to come later.

There is an interesting contrast between a traditional Horner suspense device from the piano (think The Pelican Brief and things like that) and the Chinese style in “Ancient Chinese Medicine” before a romantic tinge appears in “Beijing Valentine” which is then explored much further in “Mei Ying’s Kiss”, the score’s main theme being revealed fully for the first time, mostly as a piano solo here. It really is only a minor variant on Avatar‘s “I See You” melody even though in this arrangement it sounds rather different; in any case, it’s lovely. The second half of the piece explores the score’s other primary theme more, which remains lovely.

In “Jacket On, Jacket Off” (is that a joke in a Horner track title!?) the composer employs his oft-heard synth choir within a fairly traditional (and satisfying) “training montage sequence” type cue. The lengthy “Journey to the Spiritual Mountain” opens with an unexpectedly sprightly classical flourish from the orchestra which seems divorced entirely from the style of the rest of the score (or indeed anything else I ever remember from this composer) and after it appears for a second time, we hear a big performance of the main theme from the strings but it soon goes into more expected territory, with some dynamic action/drama that often soars away just as any journey to a spiritual mountain should. About midway through Horner introduces a new idea, with a solo choirboy accompanying magical shimmers from some exotic instrument – it’s really very relaxing and does indeed have more than a slight spiritual sound to it.

“Hard Training” gives another nice version of the main theme, with some urgency to it this time; and then the home theme gets a gentle arrangement in “All Work and No Play”. Those two tracks only run three minutes between them (is there any comparable situation on any other Horner album!?) but things get meatier afterwards as we near the finale, starting in the eleven-minute “From Master to Student to Master”. It takes a while to get going, actually – a lot of piano noodling dominating the cue’s first half – but it’s worth the wait for what happens later, a powerful blast from a rather large-sounding drum the portent for a rousing arrangement of the main theme which has the kind of epic sweep to it that no other film composer would have pulled off in 2010 in a big studio film and the piece has a huge conclusion (complete with shakuhachi – I wonder if this was the last time the composer used it).

“Dre’s Gift and Apology” is a lovely standalone piece (with some echoes of The Spitfire Grill) and then “Tournament Time” marks a return to the action. It’s quite different from the rest – quite dark at points, as the first parts of these final showdowns always are in films like this, and I have to wonder if Horner himself really wrote the first half of it (at times it doesn’t really sound much like him at all, especially with the electronics); but there’s no doubting the authorship of the last track “Final Contest”, an epic piece of sweeping music where Horner offers an unbelievably rousing version of the main theme – by far the score’s standout track.

It’s clearly not one of his best scores of the period but there are numerous nuggets of joy for Horner fans in The Karate Kid. More casual listeners could probably just download “Kung Fu Heaven” and “Final Contest” and be satisfied enough with that; but I love the sweep Horner was able to bring to this. The album could do with a bit of fat trimming to make it more satisfying, but still – as unlikely a project as this was for the composer, he clearly enjoyed it (and was going to score Zwart’s next film) and there’s some real quality in it.

Rating: *** 1/2 | |

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  1. mastadge (Reply) on Monday 25 May, 2020 at 17:50

    If I had the time and patience and some music editing software, I’d probably take the front half of “Journey to the Spiritual Mountain” and the back half of “From Master to Student to Master,” edit them together, and call it one of my favorite Horner cues. This score as a whole isn’t a favorite but it has some of my favorite Horner moments.

  2. Orxan (Reply) on Tuesday 26 May, 2020 at 12:49

    Great Review! Wanted to ask you will review Mandalorian by Ludwig Göransson?

  3. Andre---Cape Town. (Reply) on Saturday 30 May, 2020 at 23:56

    Jaden Smith wanted best friend Justin Bieber to score the film–but his dad, Will Smith (one of the film’s producers) who had A-Listers such as JERRY GOLDSMITH and JAMES NEWTON HOWARD underscoring his movies, thankfully opted for HORNER’S music. And, as you pointed out, James, no other composer, in 2010, would have been able to create the symphonic masterpiece, with its emotional triumph, that is the Final Contest cue that concludes the album. And Bieber’s ‘”Never say Never” song was part of the End Credits exit music, thanks to Jaden.