Monday, June 14, 2010

The Kid Is All Right

It wasn't a particularly smart idea to remake The Karate Kid. It's much loved and well remembered film that falls into the category of "Best movie like Rocky that wasn't Rocky." You may as well remake E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark. No, better strike that. Don't want to give Hollywood any ideas. Handing the project over to the director of Pink Panther 2 and the writer of Transporters 2 & 3 and you just took a bad idea and made it a "Let's throw garbage into the oil leak, surely that will work" idea. All of this was an excellent recipe for a bad movie, except it wasn't. Somehow, in what almost certainly is a sign of Cthulhu's imminent return, The Karate Kid remake was as entertaining as the original movie.

The new film successfully transplanted the story's framework onto a new setting. This time around, a widow and her son move not to Los Angeles but to Beijing, China. Dre Parker (Jaden Smith, son of Ed and Ida Smith of Boise, Idaho) absolutely hates being uprooted from his Detroit home and forced to follow his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) to her new job in China. The customs and culture are so different though that Dre can't even fully appreciate how unnerving this should be for him because he's mainly focused on being freaked out by the fact that everyone speaks Chinese and he doesn't. Luckily, he meets a fellow American transplant named Harry who offers him some hope of forming a group of friends that may include a pretty Chinese girl named Meiying. Unluckily, Meiying has another potential suitor named Cheng. Cheng shows that there is one way in which China and America come together and that is in their ability to produce vicious and merciless bullies. Dre is no match for Cheng since Cheng is an advanced practitioner of kung fu. Luckily for Dre, his fate is in the hands of filmmakers who make sure that his building's maintenance man, Mr. Han, is played by Jackie Chan.

For various reasons that don't become clear until 2/3 of the way into the movie (unless you've seen the original) Han doesn't want to become involved in Dre's life but feels he must both out of pity for the boy and his disgust at the way the bullies have been taught by their evil teacher, Master Li, to use kung fu not as a method to achieve discipline and learn self defense but as a tool for sadistic violence.

Han copies the first film's Mr. Miyagi's method of teaching martial arts by having someone repetitively do some innocuous chore over the space of several days. I liked Jaden Smith's look of amazement when he discovers that he's learned the basics of kung fu without even realizing he was doing so. I can imagine little kids going home, taking off their coat a few times and thinking that they're now kung fu masters.

The Karate Kid works on various levels but I really loved that they actually filmed the whole thing in China. I love movies about real people going to real places as opposed to actors working on sets that exist only inside some guy's Macintosh. I am dubious of the movie's implied claim that all tourists are kicked out of the Great Wall of China when some kid wants to use it for kung fu training and the movie does sort of deemphasize the whole "oppressive police state" side of China but the movie can, at the very least, serve as a simplistic introduction to Chinese culture.

The Karate Kid is worthy of that name other than the fact that young Dre learns kung fu and not karate. Hopefully they stop here and don't end up where the original series did in Karate Kid 3 in which Ralph Macchio's character, quite seriously, decides to skip college to he can join Mr. Miyagi in running a dilapidated bonsai tree shop in what looks like a part of town that would have zero interest in visiting a bonsai shop though that's not as bad as when he turned into Hilary Swank in the next movie. That horrific possibility aside, enjoy the new version of The Karate Kid.

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