Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: The Karate Kid

A few years ago, I was on a flight back from Europe watching movies on a tiny little screen on the back of an airplane seat.  I had gone through the movies I already wanted to see, and then I watched Grown-Ups.  However, I had passed over the remake of The Karate Kid without realizing it was there, and believe me, I would much rather have seen that than anything with Rob Schneider and David Spade in it.

I turned it on, figuring I'd give it a chance, and at about the time young Jaden Smith was starting to learn how to hang up his jacket, we were alerted that we were coming in for a landing.  The movie was turned off, and I shook my fist at fate for blocking me just before we got to the heart of the film (the training, of course, we all know how it ends), and swore I'd finish watching it.  And soon.

Cut to a few months ago, when I was scrolling through the free movies on demand with Time Warner Cable, and The Karate Kid showed up again.  "Hey," I said to myself because nobody else was in the room, "I should get around to finally watching that."  So I sat back, selected it, and got about forty-five minutes in before something came up and I had to pause it.  When I got back, the cable box had switched back over to the main menu screen, so I simply sat back again and selected "resume."

The film started over.  I tried to fast forward.  No dice.  For some reason, Time Warner didn't want me to miss a minute of Jaden Smith getting into arguments and fighting with his mother, the still ridiculously gorgeous Taraji P Henson.

"Well, forget that," I said to myself since I was still alone.

However, during the time I was preparing to move, I stumbled upon a copy on DVD that I bought back after the flight (not immediately, about four months after, I think) and then forgot about.  "Well," I said to myself (the only other creature around, my cat, did not care about what I had to say), "maybe it's time I finish this."

Now, I will admit,  jumped on the early hate bandwagon when I first heard they were doing a remake of the original.  It was a movie I watched again and again growing up, and I even have a funny family anecdote featuring my sister kicking my cousin in the face while pretending to be karate "kids."  When I heard that Will Smith's son was going to be in it, I was still not very impressed.   This could easily go down in history as the worst attempt to cash in on this franchise.  Ever.

Okay, the second worst.

Then I heard that Jackie Chan would be taking the Mr. Miyagi part.  I was immediately torn.  That's some serious martial arts credit there.  I figured it might have a chance.

So, what did I think?  Amazingly, I think it not only held up against the original,  think that in a lot of ways it surpassed the original.  I know, that could be considered sacrilege, but hear me out.  The story is pretty much a "how to" of Hollywood underdog stories.

An underdog finds himself in a new setting or with new circumstances in his life.  He struggles to fit in, but runs afoul of the bully/bullies.  However, he manages to get training in a method that would impress everyone around him and, with his natural athletic talent and ability to master in a short period of time what it takes others their entire life to learn, he manages to win the event using a trick mentioned in passing and come out of it a stronger person.

Now, did I just describe the plot of The Karate Kid or Rookie Of The Year?

So let's skip the story for now and look at the characters.  Jaden Smith is young in this movie, but despite the fact that After Earth was panned like a continuous shot of the entire Great Wall Of China (film making joke!), I still think there's hope for the kid's career.  He manages the "fish out of water" story extremely well, especially when you consider that the original movie was simply moving from Jersey to California.  Jaden's mother picks him up and drops him halfway around the world.  Significant difference, and with his age, when he says he wants to go home, it's a lot more believable.

Also, Jackie Chan is great in the role of the teacher.  You sincerely believe he's a kung-fu master because, well, he really is a kung-fu master.  I do need to say, though, that in almost every other movie I've seen him in, it's always been "Jackie Chan playing a character in another wacky story."  Jackie Chan disappears into the role of Mr. Han, and it was only once when we see him beat up the bullies do we get a hint of his more famous persona, but it quickly gets swallowed up again when we see him slump his shoulders and touch his chest lightly because of his age.  I know Mr. Miyagi is the "ultimate" martial arts teacher, but I really think Mr. Han is a better character.  He grows as much as Dre (Jaden's character) does, and when he talks about kung-fu, it sounds a lot more genuine.

However, I did find myself wondering about the secondary cast.  As I said before, Taraji P Henson is never a bad thing to have on your screen, but her character is severely underused.  She does help bring Mr. Han back out into the world, but I honestly couldn't tell you what her job was that took her halfway around the world, what kind of relationship she has with Dre's father (she won the right to take him halfway around the world?  Did the father die, or was just terrible enough he gets no visitation?), or even if she's struggling to make friends and meet people.  Dre also makes a friend who vanishes halfway through the movie, and the girlfriend...well, okay, I like the girlfriend.

In a lot of movies, the trope is that the parents of a girl who's suited to big things in life will disapprove of the young man she gets involved with.  However, whether it's Dirty Dancing or The Karate Kid, we know it's an outdated class system held on to by parents who, while wanting the best for their kids, just don't understand their emotions and that the heart wants what it wants.  Now, the same plot thread in China, where I can readily believe children can and will be forbidden from being around other children if their parents demand it, makes a much bigger impact and helps reinforce the cultural differences that Dre must adapt, work around, or confront.

Speaking of China, this movie makes me want to go there.  The scenery is amazing, and I don't know how much was set and how much was shot on location, but there's a certain place at the top of a long flight of stairs that's going on my bucket list.  I also think that doing the story in China also helps with the overall story, since while it's all well and good to teach the fundamentals of a practice or belief, it has a lot more credibility if you see where it's actually from and where people have mastered it, instead of a strip mall dojo.  When Dre learns to calm himself and "channel his chi," you're more willing to accept it because if any location would help a person do that, it's where people developed the techniques for thousands of years.

The movie isn't perfect.  There's obviously problems that Dre is having at school, and the woman who runs things never seems to talk to Dre's mother about it, even when it becomes obvious he's being picked on and bullied.  Characters appear and disappear from the story at the drop of a hat, and while the movie does its best to hit all of the beats of the original, there's a few 80's gimmicks that just don't hold up.  The dojo master threatening Mr. Han with violence from his students, for instance, never made much sense to me because there's clearly police in this world.  Also, when one kid is clearly told by his coach to try to cripple a kid so he can get disqualified and the other one can't move on, why isn't the whole team disqualified?  You'd think more coaches would throw one kid under a bus in order to move the rest of theirs forward.

But still, the movie manages through them extremely well, and even improves on a lot of the things in the first that worked okay but weren't great.  Mr. Han's story, the struggle of an immature child to grow up, the respect of a culture (regardless of the fact that an American can do kung-fu better than them), I think that, as a whole, it's an extremely solid film that was about to take a well-constructed original and fix the few things that went wrong.

1 comment:

Charles D. Mancuso said...

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