Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 13, 2010 3:03 pm 
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"Karate Kid" moves to Beijing

Twenty-six years ago The Karate Kid was a very popular movie about an underdog American kid bruised by bullies who is coached to a martial arts victory over his enemies by a humble Asian man. It starred Pat Morita, Ralph Macchio, and Elizabeth Shue. This new version is just as manipulative and corny and just as irresistible. This new Karate Kid is no cinematic masterpiece (neither was the original) but it's still emotionally touching and pushes all the right buttons. The new "kid" is the appealing Jaden Smith, son of the superstar Will Smith and his powerhouse wife Jada Pinkett Smith (who produced). His initially reluctant coach/mentor/friend is martial arts superstar Jackie Chan, and his mom is the excellent Taraji P. Henson.

The plot stays very close to the original. There's one significant change: instead of moving from Newark to the San Fernando Valley like Daniel (Macchio) and his mom, Dre (Smith) and his mom go all the way to Beijing. His first beating takes place when he's still severely jet-lagged. The coach/mentor/friend, Mr. Han, is of course Chinese instead of Japanese-American, and the martial art is switched from Karate to Kung Fu. Yes, "Karate" is a a misnomer this time, but not really, when you see how closely the two movies correspond. This is really a Chinese-American co-production. Could it be the filmmakers are hoping to broach the Asian market? Will the Chinese audience enjoy a movie where a pint-sized African-American defeats a series of Chinese bad boys? Maybe.

Inevitably, the new setting becomes a major element. It seems like the school Dre goes to is one where the teaching is in English. Nonetheless when the father of his cute violinist girlfriend Meiying (Wenwen Han) cuts him off from her due to a transgression, he makes a speech of apology in what sounds like very creditable Chinese. Other cultural elements are touristic, but vivid: Dre visits the Forbidden City with his school and Mr. Han, his guru, takes him to a mountain temple and the Great Wall. We're also treated to a field full of folk in red suits doing Kung Fu-style (or something) moves, as well as an authentic-looking Kung Fu school where the fascistic teacher coaches his charges to show no mercy and kick their opponents when they're down. This is not a new element; hardly any of the plot points are. It's just a bit more vivid when staged in China.

What's not so vivid, perhaps, is the sense of the boy's teacher as an enigmatic, recessive guru who imparts mysterious lessons in mysterious ways. Some have accused the new film's makers of slipping in the decisive "crane kick" of the original at the last minute. Actually it grows out of a fun, and visually spectacular, sequence in which a woman hypnotizes a cobra through imparting inner peace to it. Mr. Han uses a few more gadgets for his lessons than Mr. Miyagi did, but his initial hazing is simplified from lots of cleaning and waxing down to nothing but hanging up and taking down a jacket. The new movie probably cost heaps more, and it shows in spectacular locations and nifty aerial shots. It isn't quite as great with the "guru" stuff as the original. But in both movies you can see the lessons coming a mile away.

Here you won't get the kind of detailed cultural information you'll encounter in a movie like Iron and Silk, a feature about, and starring, Mark Salzman, a real-life student of Kung Fu and Chinese (and later gifted novelist) who lived in China and honed his knowledge of both martial arts and Chinese to a fine point.

While Pat Morita was every bit the enigmatic Japanese sensei, dry-humored, calm, recessive, forcing his pupil to dope out his lessons for himself, Jackie Chan is better at seeming dogged and sad and beaten down, as the character in both movies is meant to be: in both, the coach has suffered, having lost his wife and child under tragic circumstances. In a sort of weird twist, it's the teacher not the pupil who does the car waxing this time, and we sort of find out why.

What about Jaden Smith? To begin with, he is very small, short and skinny, and due to his natural personality, in a sense this time he is the recessive one. This is both a plus and a minus. Jaden seems very real and authentic. He also seems more a natural athlete than Ralph Macchio did. On the other hand, he sometimes fails to get his emotional points across very well. And though the movie shows him in film collages going through a demanding series of training routines and strengthening exercises (his leg extension into the air is impressive), it's hard to see his beating bigger guys in a tournament as remotely possible, especially when Kung Fu, as shown, seems to rely more on physical strength than Karate. Ultimately, though, none of this matters because Zwart and company have made a new film for a new generation, and for little kids who aren't yet sick of underdog sports victory movies and their utterly predictable finales, it's all good.

The Karate Kid opened wide in the US June 11, 2010 and it is a box office winner, dwarfing the take of the other big opener of the same weekend (also an Eighties remake), The A-Team (Joe Carnahan) and causing an overall rise of box office business of ten percent over last year, according to a Box Office Mojo report, after a "soft" summer previously.

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