Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Love: The Karate Kid

Let's turn through the pages in our pop culture photo album and look back on this project in its infancy. Ah, yes, I remember the days when the rumors of a Karate Kid remake/reboot were just a little rumor seed on the internet.  Oh, the outrage that came from those rumors!  For the love of god why tamper with a nostalgia classic?  How can Jackie Chan replace Pat Morita?  Is no one else questioning the obvious nepotism involved with casting Jaden Smith as a lead actor?  I was amongst those people, I have to admit.  I have fond memories of the entire Karate Kid series, even of Hilary Swank becoming the Next Karate Kid.  These films were the tools my father used when he pushed me into tae kwon do lessons.  They worked, and many were the times we watched them together.  Now, the plots of all of them run together into one massive martial arts epic.  I don't know when the parking lot fight happened.  I'm not sure which sequel took us to Okinawa.  What I thought I knew was that we didn't need a remake.   If you've been paying attention to the critical reception of the new, upgraded 2010 kung fu edition of The Karate Kid, you already know:  I was wrong.  The formula still works, and there was plenty of room for tweaking and small improvements.

The new Karate Kid is quite similar to the old one.  A skinny kid moves with his mother to a new city, gets a crush on a girl, gets beat up on constantly by an overzealous martial arts student who takes an interest in said girl, and is taught how to defend himself by the apartment handyman who enters him in a tournament to prove to his tormentors that he is worthy of respect.  The differences are in the details.  Here the kid, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is a mere 12-years old.  He moves not to California, but to Beijing - a place where he is truly an outsider in every sense of the word.  The martial art in question is kung fu, not karate.  The girl he takes an interest in is, in reality, one of the only kids who treats him with any decency.  The villainous dojo is here not a group of beefed up meatheads, but a gaggle of petite, easily influenced territorial kids.  Our Mr. Miyagi is Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a little bit younger, a little bit more menacing.  Somehow, all of these slight changes make the same old same old concept feel completely refreshed and utterly different.  The story is cast in a different light and with glorious settings.  We are shown the traditions and made to feel as separated from the world Dre inhabits as he is.  When we root for him, it's not just an underdog, Californian sports story; the happiness of Dre's entire childhood depends on it.  
Jaden Smith, luckily, inherited his father's (Will Smith, of course) likability and charisma.  He's optimistic and persistent, even as he's knocked down and punched out on the black top.  His size alone (teeny tiny) is enough to bring the audience to his side, but he doesn't stop there.  Jaden Smith is trying.  He's putting some effort into it.  He's got personality and sometimes it feels like you're catching a glimpse of the Fresh Prince's secret childhood abroad.  While the opening scenes feel like a lead-in to a story explicitly designed more for children then the original, once the story finds its groove Jaden seems to settle into his character and makes a fair go of it.  There are some shaky moments, sure, that tend towards the cheesy or overacted, but Jaden is ultimately quite believable.  Jackie Chan, too, makes a surprisingly fitting replacement for Pat Morita's teacher/father figure.  He puts away a large part of the slapstick humor so many Americans associate him with and gives us an empathetic character with a surprising amount of depth for his supporting role.

Ultimately, The Karate Kid is a family film, and as a family film it has much to offer.  The lessons of the original on the uses of violence as last resort and the persistence of the human spirit return in spades, but this time with an increased emphasis on bridging cross-cultural gaps.  There's a little bit of something for everyone here, with a fair mix of drama, comedy and action that will keep kids and parents entertained.  While the film runs a little bit too long for a simple popcorn entertainment heading towards a predictable end (it's 140 minutes), the characters have been revamped enough for the most cynical audience member to want to see the story through to its showdown conclusion.  It's a simple film, but sometimes that's all you need.   

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