by Mel Valentin
Another seemingly endless summer of remakes, reimaginings, and sequels continues with "The Karate Kid," a remake of the 1984 martial arts drama (and commercial hit) directed by John G. Avildsen ("Rocky") and starring a then 23-year old Ralph Macchio as a bullied, harried teenager who, with the help of an eccentric janitor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), learns to defend himself and win the girl (Elisabeth Shue). With actor Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith as producers (not to mention parents), the new "Karate Kid "was specifically created to as a star vehicle for Will and Jada’s 12-year-old son, Jaden ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," "The Pursuit of Happyness"). Despite that (or is it because), "The Karate Kid" is a surprisingly entertaining, surprisingly engrossing of the fondly remembered the original film and its sequels.The less said about the first attempt at a remake, "The Next Karate Kid" starring a pre-Academy Award-winning Hilary Swank, the better.Twelve-year old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves with his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), a car company executive transferred to Beijing, China. On his first day in China, Dre wanders into a nearby park. After failing at a pick-up game of basketball and a ping-pong match against an older man (he loses, badly), Dre spots a girl his age, Meiying (Wenwen Han), studying music. She’s a violinist. Dre impresses her with his dance moves. Another boy, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), intercedes, criticizing Meiying and insulting Dre. He errs by challenging Cheng, who promptly beats him using martial arts (because everyone in China knows kung fu).
"See Jackie Chan. And no, it's not because he's in a film called..."
At school, Dre tries to avoid Cheng and Cheng’s posses while tentatively romancing Meiying. After another confrontation, this one started by Dre, ends with another beating, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), an eccentric maintenance man, stops Cheng and the others with superior martial arts moves. Han’s attempt to create peace between the boys falls afoul of Cheng’s instructor, Master Li (Rongguang Yu). Li refuses, but offers to intercede with his students if Dre will participate in an upcoming kung fu tournament. In case there was any doubt about Cheng’s villainy or Li’s, they’re wearing black inside the kung fu academy.
In a nod (one of several) to the original, Han uses unconventional training techniques. Han compels Dre to take his jacket off, put it on peg, take it off the peg, drop it on the ground, pick it up, and repeat ad infinitum. Cue training montages, including a trip to Han’s birthplace and where he learned kung fu, training on and on top the Great Wall of China (with the obligatory whirling helicopter shot), a romantic interlude between Dre and Meiying, sidetracked by her parents’ xenophobia, and ultimately, the kung fu tournament (a full two hours later after The Karate Kid began), and the inevitable outcome.
While The Karate Kid doesn’t offer any story-related surprises, following almost all of the major action beats of the original, it delivers on the all-important emotional catharsis promised (and premised) on the underdog story. Once Dre, a stranger in a strange country, a country with xenophobic, anti-Western tendencies, gets bullied and beaten by Cheng, our sympathy, empathy, and identification are with him. Dre’s African-American background is never mentioned explicitly, but his hair, as well as his mother’s, is a minor topic of interest. Everything else is subtext (or no-text, to be honest).
With a young, maybe too young, star in practically every scene, everything depends on his talent as an actor and performer. Smith, not particularly strong in his previous performances, steps up substantially, delivering a naturalistic performance. He shows emotive range too, but just as importantly, he handles The Karate Kid’s physical demands well, from the beatdowns to the training sessions and the tournament bouts, making up for his diminutive size with grace and athleticism (having Jackie Chan on hand couldn’t have hurt). Jackie Chan, alas, gets exactly one scene to show he can still work the Chan martial arts magic. Even then, it’s a brief, unadventurous, unimaginative scene. Chan does get to emote (i.e., cry), though. He’s convincing if nothing else.As for the title, it's all about branding, name recognition, and, the theater hopes, nostalgia to convince moviegoers familiar with the 1984 film to give the remake a chance. To get around the problematic title, "The Karate Kid," two scenes come as close as we’re going to get in explaining the title: (1) After being publicly humiliated and physically beaten, Dre watches a karate instructor on television while Mr. Han looks on curiously; (2) Dre’s mother confuses karate with kung fu on one occasion. "The Karate Kid" is “rated PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language.”
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originally posted: 06/11/10 03:37:57