Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan deliver charming 'Karate Kid' remake
I stepped in it earlier this week.
On the anniversary of the release of "Goonies," the fans of the film spent much of the day celebrating online. And instead of just observing it and being glad that people have that sort of passion about film... ANY FILM... I did that thing that I always hate when other people do it to me: I rained on their parade.
I posted something on Twitter about how nostalgia turns "bad movies into classics." And that's all it took to rile up a whooooole lotta people for the rest of the night. And I think I knew what I was doing. I knew that phrasing was going to poke people, and I said it that way anyway. The truth is that "The Goonies" can easily be described as beloved. There is an age range of film nerd who grew up in that sort of Amblin' Stage II era, the same ones who bond over the way they used to think hoverboards were real "because Robert Zemeckis told me they were," who love "The Goonies" dearly. It is significant to them.
I look at the film, and I see a noisy mess that sort of falls apart from scene to scene with a young cast that was energetic but uneven. It's a fantastic score doing most of the heavy lifting for a film that I don't much like. And that's my critical opinion of it. It doesn't mean anything to me as an artifact. It had no significance for me when it came out. I was 15, and I certainly remember the hype for it. I remember giving up on it before I even made it out of that first screening. I just didn't buy into what it was selling.
Obviously, there is a huge passionate audience that did love that film, that still loves it. They look at it, and they see every detail as something they love, something that endears the movie to them. They can tell me about the way the theme resonated with them as a kid, the way they grew up in the shadow of (divorce/Reganomics/the Cold War) and the way it shaped them and the way they relate to The Goonies. And when I talk to someone who loves that film, it is sincere love. I don't doubt that.
The same is true of the original "The Karate Kid," the John G. Avildsen film that turned Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita into unlikely pop culture icons for a moment. I look at the movie today and I have no emotional reaction to it. I can respect the way it works without actually enjoying it. It's a shrewdly-built coming-of-age movie with a genuine chemistry between the leads. I saw the way audiences reacted to it, and I think that film benefits from a tremendous punchline, an ending that is shot and cut just right. People walked out thinking about one thing, and loving that one thing. In the last two weeks, I've revisited both "The Karate Kid" and "The Karate Kid Part II" on Blu-ray with Toshi, my oldest son. He's been taking tae kwon do for a year or so now, and he bought into the story of Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi right away, and the southern California locale really grounded it in reality for him. I had a slightly less impressed reaction this time around. It's broad, and it's told in the most basic of strokes, and whereas I think Macchio is sort of awesome in "The Outsiders," he always just irritated me as Daniel La Russo. I never bought that he transformed himself into a real fighter. It seemed obligatory, not earned. That kept me at a distance from the film. I didn't buy the "rich girl/poor boy" love story, either. I thought it was handled with ham hands. I can see exactly why that film rang everyone's bell, and I think Avildsen built in a real urgency to the first film. But the fighting is so weak, the karate so laughable, that it just doesn't play for me.
And even as I say that, I know that there are people whose love of that original film is so deep that they're not going to be able to see this new film, this new version of "The Karate Kid," with anything less than suspicion as a starting point. And that's certainly not the only strike against this film before you even sit down to watch it. It's hard to not feel a twinge of irritation at the idea of the world's biggest movie star buying a beloved '80s classic that is already the ten millionth variation on a particular story and running one more riff just so he can turn his 12 year old son into a movie star. And how you think Jaden Smith does in the lead as Dre Parker, the new Karate Kid, is pretty much going to determine how you react to the film overall. If you don't buy that he earns the role by the time those closing credits roll (and several of the people I talked to tonight were in that camp), then you're not going to connect to this film.
I bought it.
And I was in a foul mood walking in. I was late leaving my house. I got stuck in a traffic snarl while running late. I got to the theater ten minutes after it was supposed to start, but thankfully it was still the opening logo when I sprinted into the theater at the last moment. In general, I sat down feeling about as sour as possible.
And, so, yeah, I bought it.
First, before anything else, "The Karate Kid" features the best English-language performance Jackie Chan's ever given. And, yes, I know what a distinguished list that is, but you're going to have to trust me... yes, better than "The Tuxedo," and yes, even better than "Around The World In 80 Days." But I'm not trying to give him a half-hearted compliment... I think he's really good here as Mr. Han, the maintenance man who ends up teaching kung-fu to Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), a transplant from Detroit to China where his mother's been moved for work. I think it's eye-rollingly obvious for Jaden at one point to actually say, "Oh, so you're like Yoda, and I'm, like, a Jedi," but that is the purpose of Chan's character in the film. He doesn't really play it the same way "Pat" Morita played Miyagi. He is not the wise and unflappable smiling little man who everyone underestimates. Instead, he's sort of a mess, hiding in this job as the maintenance man, provoked to action because something about Dre reminds him of something... or someone. Chan's got a pain that he carries through the movie that is certainly a cliche, but one that Chan makes very painful once it is finally revealed. Knowing how Chan was trained as a child in the Peking Opera, which is some of the most demanding and punishing training anyone can go through, there's something special in the way this film shifts the dynamic between teacher and student to a more Eastern idea of those roles being interchangeable. It may sound cornball to say that Han ends up healing himself as he teaches Dre what he knows about kung-fu, but Chan's performance really sells that. I think there's a rough honesty to what he does, and he ends up doing a lot of the heavy lifting in his onscreen relationship with Smith, which makes his work even more impressive for the nuance it exhibits.
Much of the script for "The Karate Kid" by Christopher Murphey is almost startlingly direct. It is not a subtle film. Nor was the original, but one advantage this film has is the landscape. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt, but I'm far more interested in seeing China on film than Encino. I think Jaden Smith does exactly what the film asks of him, and I like his presence on film. I liked him a lot in "The Pursuit Of Happyness," and I think he does the hard work in this film of convincing me that he's physically up to the challenge despite his size. Making him younger (and making the rest of the young cast younger to match him) is a risky move, especially since the way Harald Zwart and his stunt team shoot the action is far more concussive than anything in the Avildsen original. When Dre gets beaten up by Chen (Zhenwei Wang), it looks really painful. And now it's not a 16-year-old boy taking a sort of low impact '80s TV beating... it's a little kid getting his ass whipped. He takes some shots to the sternum that look like they just destroy him. It also changes the dynamic when Mr. Han jumps in and takes on six 12 and 13 year old kids, and the way they choreograph that fight is very clever and yet not at all a cop-out. It's a real fight. As is the stuff we see at the tournament at the end, which is far more elaborate (of course) than the one in the original. The bad guys come on strong at first, and Master Li (Rongguang Yu) seems like he's got what he needs to be a good villain, but only ends up playing a sort of weak shadow of Martin Kove by the end of the film.
Here's the thing... as much as I admire a lot about it, this movie is nearly 2 1/2 hours long, which is just ridiculous for a story this simple. Much of that is spent on a love story that is sort of sweet but so slight and chaste that it feels perfunctory and, considering the age, just a little bit inappropriate. A film like this would go down easier if it was brisk. There's a lot of tourism footage of the countryside and landmarks like The Forbidden City that were mandated by the Chinese co-production of the film. The movie presents a squeaky clean version of China by design, but I don't think the audience for this film is looking for a piercing drama about that country's faults as an emerging superpower. I wish I had money in a studio that teaches kung-fu to kids, because I think this sells a really lush and appealing empowerment fantasy to kids, and just like in the '80s, I'm guessing we'll see a spike in enrollment by summer's end.
"The Karate Kid" reinvents nothing, and I'm still not convinced Jaden Smith is a "movie star" by any measure, but he's got a natural, appealing presence here, especially in his work with Jackie Chan. It's one of the movies that makes it hard to argue with the idea that remakes can, indeed, wring fresh life out of almost anything.
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