Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Karate Kid: Quite a kick

The Karate Kid (2010) • View trailer for The Karate Kid
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for quite realistic bullying and martial arts violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.17.10
Buy DVD: The Karate Kid • Buy Blu-Ray: The Karate Kid (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

The original Karate Kid was a can't-miss hit that became the empowerment film for kids who first saw it back in 1984, and then embraced it with the devotion that young Ralph Macchio applied to his training with Pat Morita's wise and patient Mr. Miyagi.

Two steadily diminishing sequels were inevitable, although the subsequent TV cartoon series was a mistake, as was a 1994 gender-switching attempt to revive the franchise, with then-young Hilary Swank taking over the title role. (That film's failure wasn't her fault, I hasten to add.)
When young Dre (Jaden Smith, left) finally persuades the taciturn Mr. Han
(Jackie Chan) to instruct him in the ways of martial arts, the boy expects a
series of showy, dynamic lessons. He's dismayed to discover that -- like a
musician who endures months of scales before tackling symphonies -- he first
must survive a series of bizarre and grueling exercises.

Then things went quiet until now, when Sony Pictures and director Harald Zwart decided that a new generation was ready for its own young martial-arts underdog.

The result, once again simply titled The Karate Kid, is every bit as well crafted, engaging and exhilarating as its quarter-century-old ancestor. Credit goes to Christopher Murphey's solid script, based on the original 1984 story by Robert Mark Kamen, but this new film gets most of its charm from a strong and personable cast, most particularly Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, quite successfully stepping in for Macchio and Morita.

All the elements that contributed to the first film's success remain in play, and the formula is sure-fire. Most of us have felt picked-upon at some point in our lives  with the possible exception of the career thugs doing the taunting  and Smith makes it easy to identify with his tormented Dre Parker.

The young actor is physically slight to begin with, and he's an adorably beguiling presence, which he proved when sharing the screen a few years ago with his father, Will Smith, in The Pursuit of Happyness.

The setting of this re-booted saga has been shifted to China, a clever touch that increases the sense of alienation and loneliness experienced by Dre, when his widowed mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson, excellent as always), is forced to move them from the States because of her career. Culture shock isn't the half of it; Dre was a popular kid in his Detroit neighborhood, and in China he's a curiosity because of the color of his skin and the styling of his hair, and an outcast because the language and customs are impenetrable.

Such a newcomer is bound to run afoul of the local bullies.

But at least Dre earns his abuse in the service of a noble cause: standing up for Mei Ying (Wenwen Han), unquestionably the cutest girl in all of China, as she's braced by a gaggle of toughs led by the scowling Cheng (Zhenwei Wang, hissably unpleasant and graced with an appropriately arrogant sneer).

Only Hollywood can explain why such an adorable young lady would take a second glance at an upstart American who can't be bothered to learn her language, but to his credit Jaden Smith has the charm and smooth moves to sell this fairy-tale contrivance.

Alas, having made himself a target of Cheng and his cronies - and having been beaten badly enough, and realistically enough, to draw shocked breaths from us viewers - Dre responds with easily understood dread. But it's impossible to avoid the bullies all the time, and besides; Dre wants to hang out with Mei Ying, and she's at the same school.

Back at home, Sherry can't figure out why her son has become so withdrawn, and she hits mother bear mode  which Henson does magnificently  when Dre excuses a black eye by claiming he "bumped into a post." This exchange is witnessed by the monosyllabic apartment complex handyman, Mr. Han (Chan), whose gaze speaks volumes.

Zwart and Murphey take their time getting to the heart of the matter; indeed, they take a little too much time. At two hours and change, this film is at least 20 minutes too long, and would benefit from tighter editing.

Eventually, the reticent Mr. Han is forced to come to Dre's aid, and circumstances soon prompt the handyman to become the boy's martial-arts teacher. Mr. Han's "solution" to Dre's problem is to enroll the boy in an official martial arts tournament, where he'll potentially face Cheng in the public spotlight.

Cheng, as it happens, is a prize student in a vicious martial arts school run by the brooding and malevolent Master Li (Rongguang Yu), who in a sane world would be locked up for child abuse.

Master Li and Mr. Han exchange A Look during their first meeting. We smile with anticipation. This is Jackie Chan who's being dissed; however mild and unassuming Mr. Han may seem, payoff will be a joy.

It should be mentioned, by the way, that the filmmakers had to modify the significance of their familiar franchise title. China is the land of kung fu, and Mr. Han's unorthodox methods school the boy in the wushu martial arts.

Dre is derisively dubbed "the karate kid" during that first humiliating encounter with Cheng, who laughs when the smaller boy tries a few mild karate moves picked up back in the States.

After that initial encounter, however, karate never is mentioned again ... which oddly transmogrifies this film's title much the way William Powell's Nick Charles eventually "became" the "thin man" of the 1930s and '40s detective series, despite the fact that The Thin Man of the first 1934 film was a bit character played by Edward Ellis.

The adult mentor's unconventional training style is, of course, a sure-fire story element in these films. Where Ralph Macchio tended Pat Morita's garden and waxed his car, the initially skeptical and mildly insolent Dre is ordered to hang his jacket on a peg in Mr. Han's patio ... and then remove it, put it on, take it off, drop in on the ground, pick it up and hang it on the peg. Again, and again, and again.

Hundreds of times. Thousands of times. For days on end, whether in sunshine or rain.

Things get a little more interesting  for Dre  when subsequent lessons involve daytrips to the Great Wall of China and the "well of kung fu" at the top of the Wudang Mountains, reachable by climbing an endless series of steep steps. Eyebrows may raise at this point; it's rather amazing that Mr. Han and Dre can ride a train to the base of the Wudang Mountains, climb all those steps, spend some quality spiritual time at the well, return down all those steps and then train back home ... all in a single day.

Actually, this film's attention to the passage of time is a bit sloppy all around. We've no real indication of how long Dre will be able to train before his upcoming tournament match, but it seems like months ... or endless weekends and afternoons, after the school classes that he no longer seems to take.

It also appears, after some token early scenes, that Dre no longer attends classes at his new school; as a result, the supporting character of his school principal simply vanishes, as does the nice blond kid who briefly plays a helpful fellow American who befriends Dre early on. Would it have been that difficult to include this apartment neighbor in a few later scenes? Isn't Dre entitled to one buddy who speaks his own language?

In fairness, such details are of little consequence. The film's emotional core comes from the growing bond between Dre and Mr. Han: a heartwarming meeting of brash youth and seasoned maturity. Mr. Han has his own past, which Chan finally reveals quite persuasively; the boy's response to this candor is equally touching.

The mother/son dynamic between Henson and Smith is equally engaging, as are Dre's scenes with his potential girlfriend. Mei Ying has her own terrors; she's a serious violin student who faces an upcoming audition that will, according to the dictates of her school and culture, determine her entire career path.

James Horner delivers a rich soundtrack that blends his stirring underscore themes with some sassy American pop tunes, inserted to augment Dre's personality or behavior at key moments. When we finally reach the tournament, Horner's music appropriately builds the tension for the fist-pumping, edge-of-the-seat climax we've anticipated for two hours.

This new "Karate Kid" deserves all the success of the original, and I predict solid summer business during a season woefully bereft of live-action, family-friend entertainment.

No comments:

Post a Comment