Let’s get it out of the way up front: screw this movie.
Also up-front, I’ll admit I haven’t seen it, not completely. I know what I do of it by watching the relevant clips (and a few others) online, as well as reading reviews, talking to people and reading summaries on websites. I’ve never subscribed to the absolutist stance that you can’t make reasonable judgements/guesses about a movie’s quality unless you’ve seen 100% of it yourself (“how can you say Hitler was evil, you never met him!”), but everything I’ve seen about this remake tells me they got it wrong. They missed the point.
The original Karate Kid was and is wonderfully awkward– as played by Macchio, Daniel LaRusso is gangly and uncool in a very believable way– and is in fact endearing in large part because of that awkwardness. The honest clunkiness to it makes the crowd-pleasing/wish-fulfillment part of it not ring false. The remake, however, is a vanity project custom-made for the anointed pre-teen spawn of Hollywood superstars (actually, one superstar and one normal-sized star). In addition to cashing in on a name recognition it doesn’t earn, it’s way too self-consciously slick and over-produced.
Tons of imagery from the film is meant to paint Jaden Smith as a junior badass, a pint-sized crouching tiger; except for maybe the image of practicing crane kicks at sunset, how many times do you look at Ralph Macchio in the original and think “Wow, he’s SO cool!”? He’s an EveryKid, not a SuperKid. Switching from humble 1980s karate to a very showy, acrobatic and complex type of kung fu is somewhat understandable (it’s all the rage these days), but that mixes terribly with making the players even younger: watching this wannabe-Bruce Lee stuff play out with pre-adolesecents only further highlights how silly & phony it all is… and that goes extra for the drama behind it. Of course teen drama is not exactly super-serious either, but teens are significantly closer to adulthood than children are. Such a difference puberty makes. This movie is like the episode of Arrested Development where grade-schoolers act out a bleak prison drama.
And of course this problem is only a symptom of the wrongheadedness that drove the movie’s creation. Why is the character 12 instead of 17-18? Because that’s how old Jaden was when Daddy decided to make him a star.
But even as the remake misses the real point, it recreates the superficial stuff– doing its own version of the original, plot beat by plot beat, with the occasional substitution (fire-cupping instead of mysterious massage, a bucket of water on the bully instead of a hose, etc). The movie would have been better served if they’d struck out on their own a bit, and gone with the more accurate title (and by most accounts, their proposed one) of “The Kung Fu Kid.” Such a seemingly minor change would have done a lot to imply that while this is clearly inspired by the Karate Kid (most people would understand the reference, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone who didn’t), it was its own animal and not a strict remake, so expectations can be adjusted accordingly.
The Karate Kid (2010): Dre vs Cheng
- Andre “Dre” Parker, a 12-year-old American recently relocated to Beijing along with his single mother. One interesting twist the remake attempts is to make its protagonist even more of an outcast: whereas Daniel is an outsider because of his poverty and regional upbringing (and arguably his Italian-American heritage), Dre is a whole different race and nationality from his new peers. Played by Jaden Smith.
- Trained by: Mr. Han, the superintendent at Dre’s building who’s secretly a kung fu master. Whereas Miyagi’s reclusiveness was as an apparent result of his humble & peaceful nature, Han’s seems borne out of grief for losing his wife & child. It’s another telling symptom of modern Hollywood that the new version of Miyagi was inadvertently responsible for his family’s death (car accident while he was driving and arguing) whereas the old one’s died in an internment camp while he was off at war. Nowadays heroes must be haunted by something they did rather than something that happened to them; they must have an Original Sin. Played by the great Jackie Chan, in what’s actually a clever bit of stunt casting, though of course putting a Chinese actor in the role undoes the element of the original where the student & mentor are both outsiders.
- Cheng, this movie’s pre-pubescent Johnny. Same deal as before: he’s the star pupil of the Bad Master and keeps beating up Dre over a girl (who was three years older than Smith in real life, and looks even more so). Played by Zhenwei Wang, who’s no William Zabka. But who is?
- Trained by: Master Li, the Chinese Kreese but without any of the oily menace. Same “no mercy” philosophy and dishonorable tactics, though presumably he doesn’t share Kreese’s racism against Asians. Played by kung fu movie veteran Yu Rongguang.
The Setup: You know the drill. Kid moves, meets girl, jealous bully, kind old man, montage, tournament, hurt knee.
The Fight: The key difference between this and the original are glaring right away: the fighting here is extremely slick and highly complicated. Whereas the first film choreographed karate that some well-trained teenagers could conceivably engage in, the extremely complex staging here is like something out of a legitimate kung fu movie– it’s not something you’d believe adults could pull off in real life, let alone pre-teens. Dre power-slides on his knees under high attacks not once but twice, the combatants pull off crazy flips & tricks, one combatant goes flying several feet through the air when a blow knocks him out of the elevated ring (why is it elevated? Is safety not a concern?). Possibly most ridiculous is the time Dre scores a point by leaping onto Cheng’s shoulders and flipping him over. Come the f**k on.
Other than that, the main structural change-up here is the two kids alternate scoring each point against each other, rather than each winning two consecutive rounds. But they even reproduce the moment where the bad kid gets a timeout with the bad master and is instructed to be extra nasty– right down to the part where the teacher grabs the kid’s face. Oy. It’s made worse by the fact that Cheng telegraphs it so hard, glancing at Dre’s wounded leg every couple seconds before he finally strikes it. Maybe Han should have spent less time teaching absurd flips and more time about reading one’s opponent? Nah.
When it comes down to the final round, this movie’s answer to the Crane Kick is… odd. Apparently it’s some sort of Cobra/”reflection” technique that involves mimicking your opponent’s movements before they attack, so they’ll change their stance. Which doesn’t make sense when you think about it, but the finishing moves in the Karate Kid series have a long history of not making sense, so it’s hard to be extra mad about it. Really, the “secret attacks” used in fictional stories are almost always dumb, because if there really were some sort of special unbeatable move that could be used in that context, an actual martial artist, rather than a fiction writer, would have thought of it already (this is kind of why Quidditch has idiotic rules).
Anyway, when an unnerved Cheng rushes in, Dre does this crazy slow-mo flip that’s so perfectly executed and timed he kicks Cheng on the BACK of the head. It’s ridiculous, like Jet Li-level stuff. But the crowd goes wild. Movie’s over.
(Incidentally, the movie’s imitation of the original did also lead to them filming, and then deleting, a follow-up where Mr. Han defeats Master Li. It’s as misguided as the rest of the film, because it’s not as simple as Miyagi’s effortless deconstruction of Kreese; it’s just a straight-up Jackie Chan fight, full of lots of furious movement and prop usage. And Han actually almost does kill Li, but Dre has to talk him out of it. Ugh.]
So, there you have it. Daniel LaRusso re-purposed from awkward teen underdog to superstar action hero, played out in miniature. Rarely does a film’s choreography suffer so much from being too good.
Coming Attractions: Wouldn’t you know it, I’ve exhausted my supply of bubblegum.