Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)

Director: Harald Zwart
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Zhenwei Wang, Yu Rongguang, Wen Wen Han
Running Time: 140 min.
Rating: PG

★★ (out of ★★★★)

I get it. Movie studios need to make money. For the most part, I'm unusually open when it comes to remakes and have even applauded attempts to reboot or revitalize previously stale franchises like Halloween. I even thought the idea of a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho sounded interesting, at least until viewing it. Some films I'd consider among my favorites wouldn't necessarily be terrible candidates for remakes and if announced I'd probably be curious how they'd turn out. But we all have THAT LIST in our heads of remakes that would infuriate us if they ever came to pass. Maybe it's a movie you remember so fondly that any updated version would be the equivalent of stomping on a childhood memory. Or, it could be a certifiable classic you think is so technically perfect that just the idea of anyone daring to improve on it is blasphemous, regardless of their intentions. My list is very short, but 1984's The Karate Kid was on it, more for the former reason than the latter and also a dozen others. The main problem for me is that it's a cheap shot on an already woefully under-appreciated movie that, while well-liked, is still unfairly thought of as a cheesy guilty pleasure. Worse still, there really isn't anyone who could have spoken out against this happening. Pat Morita passed away. If Ralph Macchio slams the idea he'll just be labeled a has-been actor who can't let go. Because the original isn't considered "classic" in the strictest sense no one's likely to be up in arms if it's remade, which is a shame since they actually should be in this case. But I'm not supposed to review the IDEA of remaking it (a good thing because that would undoubtedly receive zero stars), but the actual film, which ends up being offensive for entirely different reasons, most centering around the insertion of child actors into violent adult-like situations.

I have to wonder how those parent watch groups so upset at the cartoonish, satirical depiction of violence in Kick-Ass would justify what the filmmakers present here seriously or what they'd say about Jackie Chan beating up children. I understand that remakes are supposed to take liberties with the story and re-imagine it for current audiences (and wholeheartedly support that approach), but if you're going to do that, why re-enact the original story virtually beat for beat, but with child actors? I'll tell you why: Money. Unlike the original film, this isn't intended for all audiences, but very specifically pre-teens since they drive the box office these days, which would be still be fine if that motivation didn't effect the final product so adversely. Whether the movie works for that age group I have no idea (box office figures suggest it does), but it didn't for me. It may seem unfair to compare it so closely to the original, but when when the filmmakers insist on calling the movie The Karate Kid and regurgitating all the plot points with 12-year-olds, they're pretty much asking for it.

You already know the story and it stays mostly the same with some changes made by writer Christopher Murphey that are defensible but add absolutely nothing, and others that reveal the remake's transparently shallow intentions. Daniel LaRusso becomes 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and a move to California from New Jersey is now an arrival in Beijing from Detroit when his mom Sherry's (Taraji P. Henson) automotive job transfers her overseas. The film's Mr. Miyagi is Mr. Han (Chan), the apartment's aging maintenance man moonlighting as a wise martial arts expert who  eventually agrees to train the bullied Dre in kung-fu (not a typo). "Wax on, wax off" is now "jacket on, jacket off." The movie is at its best when dealing with the effect the dislocation has on Dre and director Harald Zwart does a reasonably good job giving us a feel for the country as well conveying the fear of a child being stuck in a country where he has no friends and doesn't speak the language. So far, so good. While these are all pointless changes I can live with them and was willing to see where the filmmakers were going to take this and what provisions were going to be taken with the story to accommodate the new setting and age of the main character. As it turns out, none are taken, and the film rehashes everything from the original but with 12-year-olds, which creates some big problems if you remember what those plot points were, or even if you don't. Matrix-like kung-fu moves in the schoolyard, gang style chases through streets, fighting in tournaments that could pass as MMA or UFC competitions, and nearly being beaten to a bloody pulp by adults are all highlights of this family entertainment. I didn't personally find it offensive so much as just weird and tonally out of context.

"Break his leg" takes on a more disturbing, sinister meaning when the instructions are given to small kids and it's almost unbelievable this never occurred to the filmmakers. Master Li (Yu Rongguang) is the evil kung fu instructor who basically runs a killing camp and could be considered a child abuser in any country.  In the original the Cobra Kai was at least recognizable as a martial arts facility of some sort despite its questionable practices and sensei Kreese and Johnny were living, breathing personalities we definitely didn't like, but cared what happened to. The villains here are blank, robotic monsters and Li's star pupil and lead bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), comes off as a trained assassin from a Mortal Kombat video game, which is their creative right, but you have to wonder how they could think it was a good idea with actors this young. The childhood romance involving Dre and the violinist from school he's crushing on ends up being more sweet than creepy, which is somewhat of a miracle considering how ill-advised an idea it was to begin with, but a testament to the performances of Jaden Smith and newcomer Wen Wen Han as Mei Ying. Even their typical false crisis toward the end and its resolution was handled more intelligently than expected. I'll at least give it that.

Smith is a likable in a lead role he should have never been asked to play to begin with, but what's worth noting in his casting is that he's past the point where he can play cutesy child-like parts like he so effectively did opposite his dad in The Pursuit of Happyness, yet not old enough to tackle this one. He's at that weird in between pre-teen stage that makes him exactly the wrong age for the story, but exactly the right age for any movie executive looking for dollar signs. He's a talented performer and I don't begrudge Will Smith at all for trying to create opportunities for his son, but begrudge him instead for thinking this could work. Chan sleepwalks through his cover of Mr. Miyagi and great pains are taken to make sure he not only doesn't look like a kung-fu expert, but that he appears sloppy enough to pass as homeless. Plus he limps, hangs his head and mumbles. They go to such unnecessary lengths in trying to make his secret skill a revelation that by the time he's training Dre we actually don't believe he could. The filmmakers have actually zapped Chan's credibility as a martial artist, one of the few promising aspects this project had going in. His big dramatic scene is overplayed and seems to come out of left field because we weren't given any reason to care about the character leading up to it. Taraji P. Henson leaves a negative impression with minimal screen time as Dre's mom, insufferably ranting and raving like a lunatic in a stereotypical role.

As much as it pains me to admit it, from a technical standpoint this is a competent piece of filmmaking that never drags for its lengthy 140 minutes, although part of that could be due to how flabbergasted I was at what they were attempting to pull off. It probably deserves slightly more credit than I'm giving it but I'll refuse if only on principle. What they're doing here creates a slippery slope and I've got to wonder what the reaction would be if they decided to remake Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane or The Godfather with 12-year-olds to make a quick buck. Of course, I'm not suggesting the 1984 movie is in that league but the point remains the same since it would be just as awkward seeing those films' casting and story tinkered with in such a way. Even though this is supossed to be The Karate KID there's a big difference between pre-teen kids who look like they're in elementary school and high school teens entering young adulthood played by actors in their early to mid twenties. The original film featured a protagonist who starts the film as a boy and ends it as a man and it was that journey that gave the story its emotional resonance. Here, we have a protagonist who starts the film as a precocious little kid and ends it as a precocious little kid...who now knows Kung-Fu.

Given how ambivalent and skeptical moviegoers usually are toward remakes it's ironic that one of the worst recent offenders would be so warmly embraced. After its commercial success I'm officially worried what's next, as no movie is off limits and no idea too ridiculous for "re-imagining." Now anything is fair game. This version of The Karate Kid is a cash-in on the original and nothing more, which would be tolerable if the evidence of that wasn't right there up on the screen. Re-make or not, the goal of a film is to best serve the story and when that suffers at the expense of getting Justin Bieber onto the soundtrack, then something's probably wrong.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Gonna have to disagree with you on this one Jeremy, cause I enjoyed it. Yeah, I know its a remake and its the same movie, but it was well shot and told.

The Smith kid acts okay, I'll admit he is a little full of himself, which of course has to do with him being raised as a child of mega star Will Smith. He is so self assured, its kind of annoying.

But his character does learn a thing or two about caring about others other than himself, he learns respect and true friendship with Mr. Miyagi. On the original, the kid was also angry and unhappy with his life, so I guess it goes with the story.

Even though I agree with you about this remake being completely unnecesary, I did appreciate the lengths to which the production went by actually filming in China.

jeremythecritic said...

A lot of people (even hardcore fans of the original) seemed to really enjoy it and I'm glad they did but changing the age of the kid really killed it for me. When that economically driven decision was made it seemed everything else suffered.

I wrote that Smith was likable but now that you mention it he actually wasn't that likable, or at least his character wasn't. I do completely agree with you on the production value. They didn't phone that in and shooting in China was a good idea.