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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)



The Karate Kid is the most pleasant surprise of summer 2010. As a loyalist since my youth to the original franchise starring Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (also including The Next Karate Kid starring Hillary Swank to an extent), I wasn't enthused with the idea of remaking the original Karate Kid as a starring vehicle for Will Smith's son and transplanting the action to China. I'm happy to say The Karate Kid (2010) is far superior to every Karate Kid sequel and stands proudly alongside the original 1984 film. Like the heroes of these movies, Dre Parker and Daniel LaRusso before him, The Karate Kid (2010), director Harald Zwart, and stars Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan achieve both an improbable victory and earn great respect.

The story is familiar. Perhaps it may be a little too familiar. Borrowing wholesale from the original story by Robert Mark Kamen, the script by writer Christopher Murphey moves in solemn lockstep with all of the key events of The Karate Kid (1984): A mother and his 12 year old son Dre Parker (Daniel was 17 in the original) move from Detroit (New Jersey in the original) to China (LA in the original) for a job opportunity. Upon arrival, the boy encounters a girl he likes and immediately runs afoul of the local gang of bullies who are also martial arts students. The leader, Cheng, takes delight in thrashing him, leaving him outmatched and badly beaten. Unknown to Dre, the reclusive handyman in his apartment building, Mr. Han, is secretly a martial arts master (who learned kung fu from his father). After pranking Cheng using water, as in the original when Daniel hosed Johnny in a restroom, Dre is chased by Cheng and his lackeys and is again violently assaulted (one even urges Cheng that Dre's had enough, just like in the original). Dre is saved by Mr. Han.

Initially refusing to train him at first, Mr. Han and Dre visit the school where the boys are taught kung fu, only to find that the adage "there are no bad students, only bad teacher" is very true in 2010 China as it was in 1984 LA. Han strikes a deal with the sinister teacher Master Li to leave Dre alone so he can train to fight his enemies in a tournament. Han and Dre then form a bond and teach each other the true meaning of friendship. (Mr. Miyagi of course called Daniel "Daniel-san". Mr. Han gives Dre the nickname "Xiao Dre" - "Little Dre". Master Li has a more insulting name for Dre: "This little thing.") With Mr. Han's help, Dre learns the kung fu and life lessons he needs to defeat his enemies in the tournament, overcome his fears and a leg injury even worse than what Daniel suffered in the original ("Sweep the leg!" becomes "Break his leg!"), to earn self-respect and the respect of his enemies.

Nothing in The Karate Kid links it to the original franchise beyond the identical circumstances and events that happen to the characters. No one in this movie has ever heard of Mr. Miyagi or Daniel LaRusso. The theme of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica applies to the re-imagining of The Karate Kid: "All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again."  The Karate Kid even provides a bit of inside commentary on its existence: Dre becomes fascinated watching a kung fu master train with a cobra. The cobra mirrors the master's every movement as if a reflection in a pool of water.  This idea provides the key in linking the two Karate Kid movies together as reflections of each other.

The performances by the leads are simply terrific. The friendship between Dre and Mr. Han is the heart of the movie and it's every bit as resonant as Daniel's bond with Mr. Miyagi. When Dre tells Mr. Han, as Daniel did Miyagi, "You're the best friend I ever had", it's honest and true. The real surprise is Mr. Han not responding, "You pretty okay too." I'm also glad Dre never upstages Mr. Han and catches a fly with chopsticks the way Daniel did when Miyagi couldn't his whole life. (That was always a crock.)  Mr. Han has the wisdom that the best way to catch a fly with chopsticks is after you kill it with a flyswatter.

It's a high compliment to say Jaden Smith is just like his dad. Early on after arriving in China, when Dre tries to make friends with the local kids, he quickly breaks out of his surly shell and displays the winning charm and charisma that made his father one of the most popular box office superstars in the world. You can't help cheering Jaden on to overcome all of the obstacles placed in his way. Smith is impressive in the physical demands of the role and more than holds his own with the required dramatics. I daresay Dre is more likable and heroic than Daniel ever was (because even the diehard fans of the original Karate Kids know Daniel was kind of a douche.)

Jaden also develops a sweet relationship with a pretty girl named Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han), which never becomes as cloying and cliched as Daniel's affair with his Japanese girlfriend Kumiko in The Karate Kid, Part II. (No Peter Cetera "The Glory of Love", thankfully.) Not too many American 12 year olds can say they had their first date in the Forbidden City or their first kiss played for a big laugh in front of his mom and kung fu master at a festival. Like Elizabeth Shue in the original, Mei Ying comes from a well-to-do family who disapproves of Dre's influence on their daughter; this is not out of class and race but more out of concern for their daughter being distracted from her goals of being a concert violinist. Dre making the Cyrano De Bergerac-like effort, with Mr. Han's help, to learn to speak Chinese and earn the respect of Mei Ying's parents is as heroic a triumph as him winning the tournament.

Jackie Chan delivers what has to be his finest performance in an American film. As Mr. Han, Chan creates a new kind of mentor as inspiring as the great Pat Morita was as Mr. Miyagi. The relationship between Mr. Han and Dre is more delicate because of Jaden Smith's youth, and Chan deftly fulfills the roles of mentor, taskmaster, father figure, and friend. The curious limp Mr. Han walks with has a powerful dramatic payoff as, just like in the original, Dre learns of a tragedy in Mr. Han's past that caused the death of his family. The car Mr. Han builds in his living room and then destroys in his anguish is a uniquely moving visual for his broken soul, which then leads to an amazing sequence of Dre and Mr. Han training, their shadows dancing in unison. As a boy, I thrilled to Jackie Chan's kung fu mastery, and more recently, enjoyed him play fluff action-comedy opposite Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films, but I've never seen Jackie Chan this phenomenal before.

Dre and his mother, played by Taraji P. Henson, have a more realistic and loving relationship than Daniel had with his more cartoonish mother in the original. Henson just tries her best under very trying circumstances and has a firmer grasp of what her son is suffering through and overcoming than Mrs. LaRusso ever seemed to. There's also some amusing reparte between her and Mr. Han; he may be a master of kung fu, but Dre's mom scares him just a little when she gets mad, especially when Dre refuses to pick up his jacket.

The running gag of Dre's refusal to pick up his jacket and hang it brilliantly becomes the lynchpin of Mr. Han's training method for Dre. Mr. Miyagi famously made Daniel perform chores around his house (paint the fence, sand the floor, wax on/wax off) to teach him basic karate blocks. Mr. Han eschews using Dre as child labor. Instead, he cleverly takes a different route with Dre, making him put on, take off, drop, pick up and hang up (with attitude) his jacket thousands of times, not just to ingrain the basic movements of kung fu blocks in Dre's muscle memory, but to teach the boy discipline. I also enjoyed Han's simple demand of making Dre ask to enter his home, teaching him simple manners and respect. When Mr. Han finally gives in to Dre's tantrum and unleashes the kung fu Dre unwittingly learned, the result is even more breathtaking than when Miyagi did the same with Daniel.

While it's true that the title of The Karate Kid is a complete misnomer - there is no karate in the movie - the kung fu displayed in the film goes infinitely beyond the karate presented in the original. The movie makes a point of showing that Jaden Smith is more naturally athletic than Ralph Macchio ever was and young Jaden is able to perform physical feats (including the splits that Jean-Claude Van Damme made world-famous in Bloodsport) that Macchio could never match even in his physical prime. The immortal Crane Kick Daniel uses in the original is re-invented as an amazing Cobra somersault kick that Dre basically teaches to himself. Not just Jaden, but all of the children performing kung fu are incredibly impressive. Of course, as is Jackie Chan, who is a genuine kung fu marvel that the late Pat Morita could never physically equal.  Frankly, it's a little intimidating to see kids a third my age who possess the ability to completely kick my ass (sorry, I won't say "ass" again, Mr. Han).

The level of violence in The Karate Kid is a bit shocking. It was one thing to watch the Cobra Kai beat Daniel up in 1984, but it's certainly uncomfortable to watch 12 year old boys so ruthlessly fight each other.  Mr. Han's magical healing techniques aside, Dre walks away with mere black eyes from beatings that logically could have killed him, or at least should have left him hospitalized from various internal injuries. When Mr. Han intervenes to save Dre, the idea of Jackie Chan fighting a bunch of 12 year olds seemed suspect at first, but it's executed brilliantly as Mr. Han never directly strikes any of the boys; instead he uses kung fu blocks and feints so that the boys beat themselves up. The philosophy behind Dre's kung fu training is inspiring, as Mr. Han explains how kung fu lives in everything we do and how Dre can learn to channel his Chi. (Dre amusingly equates it all to the Force in Star Wars, not grasping that chicken came after the egg) .

What's missing from the new Karate Kid are Johnny and the Cobra Kai. I was hoping that somehow the name "Cobra Kai" would turn up, perhaps a Chinese chapter founded by The Karate Kid, Part III's evil Terry Silver. Master Li's school is called the Flying Dragons; that's just not as much fun. Master Li also isn't as comically villainous or as interesting as Kreese.  (There is a compelling silent rivalry between Mr. Han and Master Li; perhaps they will fight in the parking lot as Miyagi and Kreese did in the sequel.) In the end, Cheng does learn to respect Dre and turn his back on the evil teachings of Master Li in an even more pronounced way than Johnny leaving Kreese's school. Zhenwei Wang, the boy who plays Dre's arch rival Cheng, does an honorable job, but he's no Johnny. Young Zhenwei is, however, a step high above Chozen in Part II.

The greatest weapon The Karate Kid brings to the table is China itself. Unlike how The Karate Kid, Part II substituted Hawaii for Okinawa, the new movie was shot on location entirely in China. The Karate Kid proudly shows off the inspiring, breathtaking majesty of the Great Wall and mountains of China, as well as the electricity of life in modern-day Beijing, including a visit the Olympic Stadium and the Forbidden City. Cadre of corrupted kung fu fighting children aside, China, its people, and its ancient, fascinating culture are displayed in a dazzlingly positive light. (But for all its sights and wonders, one thing China lacks is a Golf and Stuff.)

Maybe if there's a sequel, it will be Mr. Han who travels to Dre's hometown of Detroit, finding himself embroiled in a blood feud between Dre and his best friend. Or maybe not. Sequel or no (I say "yes"), The Karate Kid (2010) can take its place of honor alongside the original Karate Kid as the best around.