Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Zaki's Review: The Karate Kid (2010)

I have a very simple rule when it comes to sequels, prequels, and remakes: "First, do no harm."

What has to be asked in attempting to extend the shelf life of a successful film property once, twice, or thrice is whether it meets or exceeds the qualitative bar set by its progenitor. Of course, the mercenary nature of the movie industry makes this a pretty tough prospect, and the Hollywood highway is littered with franchises that started out strong and simply ventured out one sequel too far.

With remakes, the challenge is in making something that's unique enough to stand on its own, but still preserves whatever it was that made it worth remaking to begin with.  When it works, you get Jonathan Demme's 2004 take on The Manchurian Candidate.  When it fails, you wind up with Gus Van Sant's ill-advised Psycho from '98 or, God help us, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.  It’s probably for this reason that The Karate Kid remake prompted such teeth-gnashing across the interwebs last year when it was announced as a vehicle for Will Smith to cast his son Jaden.

The original from 1984, directed by John G. Avildsen from a script by Robert Mark Kamen, remains a cherished artifact to many, and the notion of digging up a perceived classic just so a superstar's kid can play dress-up bordered on sacrilege to many.  However, this is a business first and foremost, and since we are talking about a title that launched three sequels and a raft of merchandising in its wake (and still has tremendous name recognition) the question wasn’t so much “Why redo The Karate Kid?” but rather “Can they do it well?”

And the answer is a resounding yes.  Not only is The Karate Kid a textbook example of how to mount a remake, it’s also one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer.

The plot is likely familiar to anyone who’s reading this, and adheres rigidly to its forebear (Kamen rightfully retains a "story by" credit). Smith’s Dre Parker steps into the shoes of Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso (though Smith, at eleven-years-old, is a far cry from Macchio's sixteen-going-on-thirty), with Daniel's cross-country trek from Jersey to SoCal supplanted by Dre's journey across the globe from Detroit to Beijing.

When Dre makes goo-goo eyes at a classmate named Mei Ying (Han Wenwen), things go rapidly downhill in the fashion we expect from any movie bearing the title The Karate Kid.  After being repeatedly (and painfully) menaced by a group of pint-sized Kung Fu cretins led by Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), Dre finds an unlikely ally in the form of handyman Mr. Han (well, not that unlikely…he is played by Jackie Chan, after all).  The rest of the film plays out pretty much like you expect, so there’s no real reason for me to get into it. 

Smith is a surprisingly winning lead, and Chan especially does a journeyman’s job.  While Pat Morita's iconic Mr. Miyagi juxtaposed the actor's comedic image as Arnold from Happy Days (and for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor nod), Chan approaches his version of the character from the opposite direction.  By subsuming his popular image as an indomitable action hero within the unassuming Han, he lends his portrayal a surprising poignancy, with a tragic backstory that adds weight to the eventual bond with Dre.

Given Smith's relatively puny stature, one of my initial concerns going in was about the age range of the film's participants, and the (again, relative) violence of the subject matter.  And yet by the time Han finally intercedes on Dre’s behalf against Cheng and his gang after another round of bullying, all those concerns melted away as I happily cheered a grown man beating the living daylights out of a pack of twelve-year-olds.

I guess you can chalk that up to the ability of filmmakers to stack the narrative deck in their own favor. David Morrell, author of the novel First Blood and creator of Rambo, labeled this phenomenon “righteous vengeance.” That is, setting the odds against the protagonist to such a high degree that whatever said protagonist does in response becomes a cathartic release for the audience.  It's something that’s been used to great effect in everything from Gladiator to Star Wars to, yep, The Karate Kid.

In fact, the original Karate Kid was practically a master class in righteous vengeance, with every smackdown Macchio receives from the helmet-haired William Zabka making that final victorious crane kick in the kisser one of the sweetest moments of all ‘80s cinema.   Given that it was Rocky director Avildsen behind the camera, it’s easy to see how that “underdog makes good” spirit was hardwired into its DNA, but it was the addition of heaping gobs of adolescent angst into the mix that made all the difference.

When you’re a teenager (or pre-teen), every day is The Most Important Day of Your Life, every girl is The Girl, and a high school karate tournament somehow becomes The Most Important Event You Will Ever Experience (Ever).  To a grown-up that might seem silly, but that disproportionate view of reality is what defines adolescence.  By speaking to that self-importance without talking down to its audience, the first Karate Kid found the key to its immortality, and it’s something that Avildsen’s successor Harold Zwart (who redeems himself handily after last year’s unfortunate Pink Panther 2) has effectively channeled into this new incarnation. 

I don’t know if this new take on The Karate Kid will be a patch on the first one in the minds of those who continue to love it (and I'm one of them), but I'm not sure it even needs to be. That was the Karate Kid for that generation, this is the Karate Kid for this one.  Like a really good cover of a song you love, it wouldn't even be here if not for the original version, but it's more than strong enough to stand on its own. A

(And as far as the oft-asked question of why a "Karate Kid" is being taught Kung Fu, yes it's addressed in the movie.  Not well, necessarily, but there it is.)


Omar A. said...

I want to see it, though it'll probably be on dvd. I had a feeling it would be good. China is such a fascinating setting and you know Will Smith is training his son to be a big star. I showed the original KK to my wife a few years back and she was bored. I think it's dated and it was time for a new version for the next generation.

Brian said...

Great review, Zaki. You've just promoted this movie in my mind from "Maybe I'll catch it on TNT someday" to "I'll put it on my Netflix."

Zaki said...

I definitely think you'd like it, Brian. Very curious to hear your thoughts whenever you get around to it.

Brian said...

Well, I ended up seeing it...and I liked it! They totally could have dumbed it down and made the "Step it Up" version but instead they respectfully retold a story that still holds up today. Good direction and an excellent decision to have a score by a real composer (not some dude who just repeats three notes with heavy percussion, as is the trend these days.) All of these things gave the movie a real weight.

I'm glad it's a hit. Kids today could use this movie.