Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Karate Kid"

The Karate Kid - Directed by Harald Zwart, written by Christopher Murphey, based on a story by Robert Mark Kamen, starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and Taraji P. Henson - Rated PG

This isn't awful, but I'd rather watch Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and Martin Kove.

I’ll admit, I planned on holding out until DVD to watch The Karate Kid, but my niece wanted to watch it and I can’t tell my niece “no” if she wants to watch a movie. So I watched it…and it’s not all that bad. Make no mistakes, though, if you watch The Karate Kid, you should watch the one from the 80s. However, there are certainly worse movies to watch in theatres right now.

If you’re unfamiliar with the 80s classic (yes, I called it a classic), the story hasn’t changed all that much. A bullied teen, Dre (Jaden Smith) takes up martial arts to combat his oppressors and, along the way, win the hand of a young lady. The main difference here is that there is no karate and it all takes place in China. I don’t think I’m nitpicking when I say that this film should have gone with the title, “The Kung Fu Kid.” Maybe you lose the nostalgia audience, but really, is it asking much to be factual?

The Karate Kid surprised me a bit. I was expecting a light hearted film filled with throwbacks to the original. What I got was a lengthy (I’ll get to that in a minute), sometimes too serious film about bullying and the beauty of China.

I’ll deal with the beauty of China first. I couldn’t help but notice that this film was made in conjunction with the China Film Group. When I saw that credit, I wondered what it meant…but while watching the film I knew exactly what that meant: I was watching a promotional video for Chinese tourism. Seriously, this movie marvels in its Chinese locales. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the new Olympic stadium, you name it, it’s in there. There are countless shots of buildings under development and pristine parks and living conditions for all. Why don’t more people move to, or at least visit, China? Maybe you will after seeing this film.

Maybe I’m being unfair because every time a Hollywood movie is made in a foreign country you get the shots of all the major spots. You also get the crappy spots, too, though. Take The Karate Kid, Part 2 for example. It took place in Japan, but it didn’t focus on the glory of Tokyo. A lot of it showed the bleak life of the poorer community. Everyone seems okay and happy in this film’s version of China and it felt fake to me.

The China aspect is looking a bit too far into it, but it stuck out to me. Something on the surface of the film that stood out to me, though, is Jackie Chan. I must admit that he was a great choice for the Pat Morita character (called Mr. Han in this film). I enjoyed every scene he was in; it’s just too bad that the film took so long to bring him in. Chan isn’t all about the stunts in this one, though he does get a very enjoyable fight scene early on. I must admit, there’s something entertaining about watching Jackie Chan fight a group of kids. Anyway, he played the somewhat grizzled teacher very well and because of him, I lean on the positive side (just barely) for this film.

I can’t say the same for Jaden Smith. I know he’s young and just starting out, but he needs to wait a few years before he takes up acting full time. I can see some of the charisma of his father (Will Smith, who is credited as a producer on the film) here and there, but overall he gave a weak performance. I just don’t buy him as an angst-ridden teen. He tells his mom (the enjoyable Taraji P. Henson) that he hates China and is miserable, but I just don’t believe him. He seems robotic, much like he was in the The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. I see a future for him, though.

Let me get to the film’s major fault: length. This film is 140 minutes long. That is absolutely ridiculous for a film like this. It would be one thing if there was an epic story to tell, but let’s face it, even the original Karate Kid storyline was simplistic at best. It would be insanely easy to fix the problem, too. For instance, we get multiple examples of Dre being bullied. All it takes is a couple of scenes to set that up. You could also scrap a few touristy segments (though I bet the China Film Group would have taken issue with that). The tournament segment at the end could’ve been trimmed. The training scenes, which were less entertaining than they should have been, could have been cut down as well. I’m no editor, but I think I could get this movie down to 100 minutes and you wouldn’t miss out on much.

The tournament could have been shorter, but the director, Harald Zwart, did use some interesting techniques for the fight scenes. He incorporated some old-school kung fu movie zooms that I found amusing and overall the fights were enjoyable.

What The Karate Kid really disappointed me with, though, was the tone. As I said earlier, it was deadly serious at times, but I was actually hoping for a lot of cheesy callbacks to the original. I wanted an 80s style training montage. I wanted to hear Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” playing at some point, even it was only on a stereo somewhere. I wanted a ridiculously evil sensei along the lines of John Kreese. I wanted a preppy blonde kid to be Dre’s main rival, instead a preppy blonde kid is the first friend he makes in China. This film just isn’t a callback to the original, though, so I guess that’s okay. You can’t fault a remake for trying to be its own film.

All of this makes me realize that I would be better off just watching the original again. I won’t tell people to avoid this film, but I will tell everyone to watch the real Karate Kid again, just for old times’ sake. For now, this “kung fu” kid will entertain, but it’s just not the same, for better or worse.

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