The Karate Kid (2010)
For my return to the realm of competent filmmaking, I of course had my choice between The A-Team and The Karate Kid. I chose this one first because I'd heard that it was surprisingly good; surprising for an obvious vanity project for Will Smith's kid and an arguably unnecessary remake of a 1984 movie that is still a cornerstone of my generation. (I remember that during its Malaysian cinema release, it went by the title The Moment of Truth. I'd love to know why.) Yes, I grew up on the original, and though I haven't seen it in ages my memories of it are quite fond. I remember it as a movie that's just, in a word, effective at what it set out to do.
Guess what? So's this one.
Twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is moving from his home of Detroit to Beijing, China with his widowed single mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson). Although he doesn't know anyone and he doesn't speak the language, he manages to charm Meiying (Wenwen Han), a cute girl his own age - but this brings him the unwanted attention of Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), the school bully and local junior kungfu champion. When Cheng's bullying turns particularly violent, an unlikely saviour steps in - Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the maintenance man of Dre's apartment building, who happens to be a secret kungfu master. To get the bullies off Dre's back, Mr. Han agrees to train him for a kungfu tournament in which he will challenge Cheng - whose own Master Li (Yu Rongguang) believes in a merciless and dishonourable brand of martial arts.
Just in case you haven't read it anywhere else: yes, the martial art on display here is Chinese kungfu, not Japanese karate. It appears they're only calling it The Karate Kid out of a desire to maintain the brand name, which, well, I guess that's understandable. They've certainly maintained everything else about the original. This is a scrupulously faithful remake; every step and beat of the original's storyline is there. There's a Cobra Kai. There's a magic "burning hands" healing technique. There's a "wax on, wax off." There's a "Daniel-san." There's a crane kick. There's a "sweep the leg, Johnny." And there's the pleasure of seeing familiar faces like Jackie Chan and Yu Rongguang in the equally familiar, iconic Mr. Miyagi and John Kreese roles.
Wait. When did The Karate Kid become an icon? It's not like it was a fresh and innovative story way back in 1984. But here we are, 26 years later with a remake that works almost... almost as well. Which is a testament to the original, even if it wasn't very, y'know, original. Still, was there a previous film that successfully combined teen drama, underdog sports movie, and ass-kicking martial arts action? I'm thinking there isn't. I'm thinking that The Karate Kid doesn't get enough credit for melding so many elements - class-differences romance, a fish-out-of-water scenario, Eastern exoticism, an intergenerational (and intercultural) friendship, in addition to the above three - that on their own would be cliched, but together work really, really well.
And it took a remake to prove it - because this remake has all those elements, and once again, they work really, really well. Even when it's demonstrably not as good as the original. Jaden Smith is great for a 12-year-old kid, and he looks set to rival his dad for sheer screen presence in a few more years, but here he's still a little raw. Zhenwei Wang scowls quite effectively in the Johnny role, but William Zabka had more charisma. The chief weakness is the Mr. Han character. No slight on Jackie Chan, who gives what may be his most dramatic performance yet in a Hollywood film, and if it gets him better roles over there, more power to him. (But we've already seen him at his best.) Thing is, Mr. Miyagi was fun; Pat Morita's Oscar-nominated performance had a quirkiness and warmth that was a big part of what made him such a, yes, iconic character. Mr. Han is a gloomy Gus, haunted and broken by a past tragedy. His subplot is effective at bringing the pathos, but it ain't no fun.
The other major departure this movie takes from its source is the setting. Beijing - filmed-on-location, street-level Beijing - isn't someplace you see often in Hollywood films, and it's pretty neat to see it here. It's also pretty neat to see the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall of China, and even a monastery in the Wudang Mountains that has people simply doing cool kungfu stuff out in the open any time you visit. This is where the "in association with (state-owned) China Film Group" credit that appears at the beginning comes in, and the fact that the PRC gave its thumbs-up to this movie probably mitigates the whole "black American kid beats Chinese at their own martial art" thing. The fight choreography is also a lot more polished than the original (which wasn't half bad at it itself), albeit it may be a little too violent for 12-year-olds. But the shaky-cam. Gaaahh, the shaky-cam. Watch the original again to see how you don't freaking need to film every fight scene in shaky-cam.
I can be quite forgiving of formulaic films if the formula is well-executed. This particular one was executed terrifically well in 1984, and it's done pretty well too here. And some formulas work better than others - or perhaps, it works on me better than others. Purists can moan all they want, but I liked this remake, and I hope they go on to do the sequels. Remember those? They sucked, didn't they? How about remaking them, and making them at least as good as this one? Maybe then, The Karate Kid (2010) wouldn't turn out to be unnecessary after all.
NEXT REVIEW: The A-Team
Expectations: I still liked The Losers