Judge Maurice Cobbs thinks "Wax on, wax off" doesn't sound nearly as dirty as "Jacket on, Jacket off."
A challenge he never imagined. A teacher he never expected.
Karate, Schlamate. Karate is so…'80s. Who cares about stupid old karate anymore? In case you didn't get the memo, Mr. Miyagi is dead. So, I don't know what your expectations about a film called The Karate Kid might be, but you need to get over all that karate stuff. Even the film's young star defiantly yells, "It's not karate! It's kung-fu!"
Now, I would have done things a little differently. Same story and all, just instead of Jackie Chan, I would have had the young star fill out one of those old ads you used to see in the back of your comic books and learn the World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets from the FORBIDDEN and SECRET training manual of the BLACK DRAGON FIGHTING SOCIETY. It would have been awesome to see our young hero face his tormentors in the big finale using the forbidden secrets of "DIM MAK"—"The Death Touch." As everyone knows (or at least, everyone who bothered to read those ads), an expert at DIM MAK could easily kill many Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, and Gung Fu experts at one time with only finger-tip pressure using his murderous POISON HAND (considered by many to be evil and cruel). Where is Count Dante—THE DEADLIEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED—when you really need him? Actually, I have it on good authority that The Crown Prince of Death is not dead, as has long been rumored, but instead has been in hiding so that he will not be assassinated by the deadly cabal of secret martial arts masters whose secrets he revealed.
But enough of Count Dante—what you really want to know is, "Could this new version of The Karate Kid possibly be any worse than The Next Karate Kid?" Well, read on, my friend…read on…
Facts of the Case
12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness) finds himself adrift in an alien culture, when his mother's latest career move takes them to Beijing, China. Culture shock doesn't keep him from striking up a friendship with his classmate Mei Ying (newcomer Wenwen Han), but it isn't long before he's also run afoul of a schoolyard bully named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his clique. As the friction between them builds, Dre finds help in the form of his apartment's maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan, The Legend of Drunken Master), a master martial artist still reeling from a devastating past. The bond between the two grows, as Mr. Han trains Dre in the art of Kung Fu, but will it be enough to help Dre defeat Cheng and the 'no mercy' philosophy of his cruel teacher, Master Li (Rongguang Yu)?
Remakes like this usually coast along on the fumes of nostalgia, without bringing anything new or interesting to the mix. The Karate Kid clings loosely to the storyline of the original, but those expecting a rehash should be warned: This isn't the familiar and mostly gentle fare from the '80s. This is more like the Wonderful World of Disney version of Bloodsport. Considering the friendly 'PG' rating, the action tends to be a bit intense. These kids aren't out to sweep the leg; they're under orders to break it.
What struck me the most about The Karate Kid is how much it is a Will Smith movie. To be sure, young Jaden displays his father's effortless, cocky charm, and I suppose that's a good thing, since the filmmakers play it up to the point of Mini-Me style creepiness. They've written Will Smith lines for Jaden to deliver in a Will Smith manner, and given the eerily-fit tween shirtless scenes to show off his tiny li'l Will Smith physique. You almost expect him to tell Jackie Chan the diffence between them is that Jaden makes the Ten Point Exploding Heart Technique look good. Overall, it comes off as if Jaden is doing his best impression of his Dad, in an awfully expensive and lavish game of dress-up.
So, carrying as much baggage as it does—the inevitable comparisons with the (admittedly superior) original, the weirdness of seeing Jaden come off as a miniature Will Smith, the idea of having a movie called The Karate Kid that has nothing to do with karate—it's amazing that anything about this thing works at all. Director Harald Zwart manages to make a good-looking film, even if it's not a good one, but the one thing he can't quite seem to do is bring the film to life. Jackie Chan listlessly grunts through his scenes, perhaps dreaming of better films made in better days, bringing neither the warmth nor humor that Pat Morita brought to the original. He does at least attempt to connect with the audience, playing off his character's tragic history. The only martial arts action that creates any real excitement is Mr. Han rescuing Dre from a severe beating at the hands of Cheng and his gang, but an implied rivalry with Master Li never develops into anything interesting—a wasted opportunity.
Jaden Smith goes through the motions but never achieves anything approaching an emotional connection; even in his puppy-love scenes with the charming Wenwen Han. Amazingly, he seems to learn kung-fu in, like, a couple of weeks. Though the film's canny move of transporting the action to China should heighten Dre's sense of alienation, he mostly just runs the gamut from cute to sulky to Will Smith cocky, with nothing sincere tethering his performance to reality. Even the harrowing scenes of being bullied by Cheng amount to little more than the equivalent of seeing a mean kid kick a puppy. Ultimately, the film's lack of emotional core dooms it to mediocrity. I'm not trying to make this out to be the next Fatal Deviation, but it seems highly unlikely that 20 years from now "take the jacket off" will serve as a sort of cultural shorthand for mysterious martial arts mentoring.
Among the film's positive aspects, however, is that it doesn't shy away from an uncomfortable truth about bullies. They don't need love. They don't need understanding. They need kung-fu punching. They need to be bounced off garbage cans and slammed on the ground with force. If Jackie Chan is the guy doing the punching and bouncing and slamming, so much the better. Although, I guess so the little old ladies amongst you don't have to reach for their smelling salts, they kinda made it so Jackie was redirecting their punches and kicks against them, but let's be honest here: It's a fine distinction. The important thing is that the end result is the same—little bloodied, broken bully bodies littering the back alleys of Beijing. Personally, I like the idea that it's okay in China for an adult to beat the living snot out of demonic bully children in the streets. We could use a little of that in the US of A. In fact, we had a little of that in the US of A, when Mr. Miyagi was alive, and he ripped into William Zabka and his gang of overprivileged jock assholes like a buzzsaw through tissue paper. Of course, those were teenagers, on the cusp of whatever passes for manhood in Southern California. In the new movie, we're dealing with children. But hey, children sometimes need tough love, too.
Since The Karate Kid really isn't anything special, it should come as no real surprise that the DVD release isn't anything special, either—your standard DVD video transfer and a by-the-book 5.1 sound mix, though it does include one of those newfangled Audio Description Tracks for the visually impaired. There is a smattering of special features (I understand that the Blu-ray edition boasts more), such as a trailer gallery and the expected "making of" featurette. It's rather telling, I suppose, that the interviewees in the featurette spend about a third of it praising the original film.
One odd little feature included was "Chinese Lessons"—basically a showcase of clips featuring Jaden Smith being cute while trying to speak Chinese. Oooo-KAAAY.
I had been happily ignorant of Justin Bieber, until I discovered him lurking with malicious intent in the special features offerings included on this disc. Here he teams with Jaden to deliver some kind of soulful hip-hoppy rap music video called "Never Say Never," about courage and finding your dream and how awesome it is to have a daddy and mommy who are famous movie stars that can afford to buy you multimillion-dollar star vehicle franchises and Jackie Chan. While I'm aware that I'm about thirty years off the mark of being the target audience, this cacophonous mish-mash is definitely not the best around. More than anything, I hate this song for making me nostalgic for "Moment of Truth" by Survivor.
This isn't a good movie, but that doesn't mean it's not an enjoyable one (a brief cameo by the still-stunningly graceful and beautiful Michelle Yeoh stands out in particular). In point of fact, my wife did enjoy it, despite the general soullessness of the production. It's a better way to spend two hours than getting poked in the eye. And it is not as bad as The Next Karate Kid. But let's face it—the entire purpose of this exercise was to give Jaden Smith a star franchise of his very own. Mission accomplished: Work has already begun on a sequel. Still, maybe it's time to stop remaking '80s movies before we wind up getting saddled with a multimillion-dollar remake of American Ninja.
Guilty. Get him a body bag.
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