Saturday, June 12, 2010

"The Karate Kid" - spoiler movie review

For a lot of people around my age, "The Karate Kid" was definitely a common reference point. "Wax on, wax off" entered the general everyday lexicon. Pat Morita, who'd previously been known as eccentric owner Arnold in "Happy Days", then became revered as the venerable Mr. Miyagi. Ralph Macchio is probably best known for playing the title role.

It was a heartwarming story with a lot of humour, and while the outcome was expectedly predictable, it was an uplifting story nonetheless that you couldn't help getting caught up in. I saw "The Karate Kid, Part II", which I loved, but I didn't have any interest in the third or fourth installments of the series.

Fast forward to 25 years after the original film, which I think is when I first heard that they were doing a remake. Ummm, ok, not really all that interested, especially when I heard that Jackie Chan was going to play Pat Morita's role. I have very mixed opinions about Jackie Chan, because I've really liked him in some films, but mostly some recent Chinese ones, like "The Forbidden Kingdom" where he usually has a little more serious role. I have not seen and am not a fan of his buddy comedies. Based on the information I had, I wasn't interested in seeing the new version of the film.

And then, a couple of months ago while I was at the movies, I saw the trailer for the new film of "The Karate Kid". And damn if it didn't look good. I'm not a fan of Will Smith, and I've seen very few of his films, so I'd not seen his son Jaden Smith in a movie before either, but Jaden actually looked pretty good as the new kid. And Jackie Chan wasn't in a buddy movie, and I liked what I saw of his scenes. And I was surprised that I wanted to see this film after all.

Overall, I will say that I enjoyed the film. Even without having seen the original, for these kinds of films, you pretty much know where it's going to end up. The story is really about how you get there.

Dre lives in Detroit with his widowed mom Sherry, but they move to China when her company transfers her. Sherry tries to get Dre to learn Chinese, but he's completely unreceptive. He is not happy about the move to a totally foreign country where he doesn't even speak the language. On his first day, he takes a shine to a local Chinese girl, which runs him afoul of Cheng, the leader of a local gang of bullies. Bad turns to worse as he suffers a few beatings at their hand, but he is saved from an even worse beating by the building handyman, Mr. Han. Dre convinces Mr. Han to accompany him to Cheng's kung fu school to try to get the bullies to leave him alone, but Mr. Han is incensed at the motto of "no weakness, no pain, no mercy" taught by the instructor. Mr. Han gets the instructor to get the kids to agree to leave Dre alone because they will meet at an open kung fu competition instead. Mr. Han has the difficult task of teaching Dre kung fu to be able to compete, but ultimately, Dre does get the lesson that kung fu is not just about fighting, but it's about a way of life and about how you treat others.

Now, I will admit that it's been years since I've seen the original film. I remember the basic gist of it and some details here and there, but that's about it. The husband confirmed that most of the story of this version parallels the story of the original, with minor changes here and there.

In this story, it did take me a bit to warm up to Dre. In many ways, he was a whiny, punk-ass kid. Yes, it's extremely difficult to move to a completely different place, one where a totally different language is spoken, a language you don't know, and the culture is totally different as well. And getting picked on by a gang of bullies is no icing on the cake. But, he then makes this stupid move to get this barrelful of gross water thrown on them, and he's identified as the person doing it. OK, I can maybe see him wanting to do it to get back at them, but then have the good sense not to get caught! He's already afraid of them, hiding so as not to be seen by them on the same street, and he does something that he knows is going to entirely piss them off? He does a valiant job of trying to run away from them, which he fails at, but even if he'd succeeded, it wouldn't have mattered. They knew he'd done it. If they didn't catch him then, they'd have come after him the next day in school or after school. He'd be screwed one way or the other. After that, it took a while for me to muster up sympathy for him, other than that they made the bad guys so one-dimensionally mean, so in comparison, yeah, he's the better choice to root for. (The husband assures me that Daniel did a similar punk-ass move in the original movie as well.)

In the original film, Mr. Miyagi had Daniel do tasks around the house (like painting his fence and washing his car) to teach him the motions that he would be using in karate. In the new version of the film, Mr. Han has Dre drop his jacket, pick it up, put on his jacket, take off his jacket, and hang it up, with the motions repeated ad nauseum, and these are the motions that he ends up using in kung fu. When Dre doesn't understand why he's been made to do this for so long instead of being "trained" and expresses frustration at that, and Mr. Han finally shows him what all the repetition is for, the moment of wonder and amazement from Dre that his body is responding on its own by using these movements is as inspirational as when Daniel had the same realization in the original.

Ultimately, you get to the competition, and as expected, the finals are between Dre and his nemesis Cheng, with Dre prevailing in the end. Dre uses a move he'd seen earlier by a woman at the place where Mr. Han learned kung fu, but to me, it really just looked like Dre used a Jedi mind trick on Cheng. One difference from the original is that after Dre wins the competition, Cheng asks to be the one who gives him the trophy and does so graciously. He also leads the rest of his teammates in a show of respect to Mr. Han, a move that shocks and infuriates their instructor.

There is one change made from the original story that to me greatly detracted from the new film. In the original, I can't remember how old Daniel was supposed to be, but he was in high school. In this film, Dre is 12, a few years away from high school at the least. Jaden himself is just shy of 12 now so was 11 when the film was shot, but he looks a lot younger, like he could be 9 or 10, so Dre's younger age also dictates the young ages of his peers. The side story of the blossoming romance between Dre and the local girl is a bit uncomfortable to watch, given their young ages. Additionally, the beatings that occur, whether the several times where Dre is the recipient or many times during the competition, are difficult enough to watch in and of themselves, but to know that they're being administered by and received by kids of that age makes the beatings even more brutal. Watching teenagers beat up on each other is bad. Watching kids do it is borderline horrifying, especially when it comes to Cheng's teammates, who administer punishing blows to their opponents, and their instructor, who has no qualms about instructing one of his students to purposely try to break young Dre's legs. I am presuming that the younger age was dictated by the fact that two of the producers on the project were Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, father and mother to Jaden Smith, so with Jaden playing the title role, high school age wasn't really possible. As I said, I did still like the film, but the younger age of the characters made some of the plot points much more problematic for me.

I did appreciate some of the subtle nods to the original film. At one point during Dre's practices, he strikes the pose of a crane, Daniel's winning move in the original. There's also another scene, when Dre first meets Mr. Han, where a fly is buzzing around Mr. Han while he's having lunch, and he's tracking the fly with his chopsticks. But then, from out of nowhere comes the flyswatter for the kill. And then he uses his chopsticks to pick the dead fly off the flyswatter and throw it away, wipes the chopsticks off on his pants, and resumes his lunch. Kinda gross, but funny anyway.

Most of the fight sequences involve a lot of quick editing, which I'm presuming is because the actors aren't actually well versed in kung fu. Mr. Han's fight scene with the kids is done with more medium shots so you can see what's actually happening in longer scenes, but then, Jackie Chan would have had no problem with his part and coordinating the others' parts. I still like films when I can see all of the martial arts action, but I know, that's not really the intention of this film.

One of the complaints I have heard brought up is that while the film is called "The Karate Kid", Dre actually learns kung fu in the movie. I get that the filmmakers wanted to tap into the recognition value of the original movie title - "The Kung Fu Kid" really doesn't have the same ring to it. The title usage doesn't really bother me, but there are two instances in the film where it's kind of addressed. In one sequence, Dre is watching and practicing with an instructional video on karate, and later in the film, his mother makes some comment about "karate, kung fu, whatever". I don't think most people make a distinction among the martial arts, and I think that's what the filmmakers were counting on, with a nod via Dre's mom's line. I was just really happy that while they kept the familiar title, they also stayed mostly faithful to the original, if not to the letter, at least in spirit. I've been pretty unhappy with the recent slate of movies that purport to be film versions of old television shows but have characters that are nothing like those that we were familiar with, and yes, I'm squarely pointing the finger at "S.W.A.T." and "Miami Vice" as the worst examples I've seen.

Jaden does a good job, but I really thought Jackie Chan was terrific. He had some moments of humour, but I do like him in more serious roles. He pulls them off very well, and there's a riveting scene when it's revealed that his wife and son were killed in a car accident, with him at the wheel, when he lost control because he and his wife were having an argument.

I think the film is enjoyable enough, for those who have seen the original and those who haven't.

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