Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: "The Karate Kid"

I guess this is just the week for unnecessary but good-natured remakes of 1980s stuff. After the goofy but fun "The A-Team," now we have a new version of "The Karate Kid," which was a hit in 1984 and spawned several sequels, including a female version with a teenage Hilary Swank.

Now the role moves to preteen territory with young Jaden Smith as 12-year-old Dre Parker, a cool kid from the Detroit 'hood who has to readjust big time when his mother is transferred to Beijing. I liked Smith in the role, even if he is obviously being coached by dad Will Smith to take on some of the superstar's non-threatening, hip mannerisms.

Smith, who's actually still 11 years old, is small for his age and frightfully thin, which makes him an even more sympathetic figure when he's getting beat on by a gang of native bullies, led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), the star pupil of the local martial arts super-dojo. There Master Li instructs his students not to forgive weakness or grant mercy, and Cheng and the gang seem to be taking the lesson to heart.

Now, the style of fighting depicted the movie is explicitly stated to be kung fu, not karate. At one point Dre even corrects his mother when she mistakenly calls it karate. And the Mr. Miyagi role, as the quiet but powerful Japanese instructor, has obviously transformed into a Chinese one with Jackie Chan. But I guess no one would buy tickets for "The Kung Fu Kid."

It's a good role for Chan. Though in his mid-50s he still looks quite capable of laying down some serious kick-ass, but Chan plays the role older, adopting a stiff-legged amble and puffing purposefully during his fight with Cheng and his crew. Chan also seems to be intentionally speaking English with a thicker accent than we've heard him use in recent films.

Taraji P. Henson plays Dre's mom, looking exasperated and worried when necessary and otherwise disappearing for long stretches so her boy can learn to stand like a man. Wenwen Han plays the love interest, Meiying, a violin-playing student at Dre's school whom he befriends mainly because she speaks English.

Interestingly, Dre never seems to make any progress in learning the native lingo, despite the admonishment of another American expatriate kid: "Dude, it's China ... might be a good idea." Helpfully, even the local kung fu competitions are emceed in English.

Dre and Mr. Han, the local maintenance man who takes him under his wing, travel to remote areas to observe the sorcerous ways of kung fu masters who can charm a snake and other nifty tricks. Mr. Han also seems able to heal any injury through some little trick with a burning cotton ball -- one wonders why he doesn't put a shingle for that instead of fixing toilets for a living.

"The Karate Kid" is directed by Dutch filmmaker Harald Zwart, which seems to be in keeping with the Smith clan's disdain for working with name directors. The screenplay is by rookie Christopher Murphey, and I thought he did a good job of updating the story while keeping the bones of the conflict intact.

The final showdown at the kung fu tournament is a virtual repeat of the original film, right down to the evil instructor ordering his students to intentionally cripple the upstart's knee, leaving an opening for a jaw-dropping kick at the end.

There's a few other cues from the 1984 flick. Instead of "wax on, wax off" we have Dre forced to put on and remove his jacket a million times. And instead of Mr. Miyagi's collection of vintage automobiles, Mr. Han has a single 25-year-old Volkswagen Scirocco that he keeps in his living room and constantly tinkers with. We just know it has some sort of significant to his life because, well, nobody is that in love with a VW.

I'd also like to comment on the cinematic portrayal of bullies. In the movies, all you have to do is stand up to a bully and he will instantly transform into an OK person. The original "Karate Kid" made this explicit, with villain Johnny Lawrence wresting the trophy from the judge so he can hand it to the victor himself, saying "You're all right, Larusso!" -- despite having spent the previous two hours trying to beat the holy snot out of him.

In the new film, Mr. Han states the old saw that "There are no bad students, only bad teachers." So Cheng has a last-minute change of heart after Dre defeats him, abandoning his sadist instructor to give Mr. Han some very public props.

All this sounds well and good, but the truth is that bullies bully because they like doing it -- they enjoy having power over others. In real life when a dweeb stands up to his tormentor, he usually gets his ass handed to him. And on the rare occasion when he wins, or at least makes a decent show of it, the bully simply finds someone else to pick on.

But again, these complaints belong to the real world, not the fantasy one of "The Karate Kid." I'd like to live in it, even if for just long enough to land a few drop-kicks.

3 stars out of four

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