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Karate (Kung Fu) Kid
So, I started this review when the movie was in the theatre…and…then…I…got…distracted…by…my…book. Sorry about that. But hey! Book’s finished.
In any case, Karate Kid is now out on DVD so this becomes relevant again.
(Please note, I am aware the DVD has an alternate ending. I didn’t see it. I’m not going to. Try to live with the disappointment.)
Watching the promos for the remake of Karate Kid, the very first thought in my head was: “Hey, that’s China. He’s not learning karate.” Discovering that the movie is called the Kung Fu Kid every where but North America only slightly ameliorates the irritation I still feel. Of course, I shriek “That guy is NOT CHINESE!” at old reruns of Kung Fu the television show. I am nothing if not consistent.
The gwailo explanation for the title is that the term “Karate Kid” is used in mockery of Jaden Smith’s character Dre, because he tried to use his minimal karate training when fighting the bullies that plague him through out the film. I really can’t remember if that’s ever explained in the film itself; I tried to pay as little attention as possible to anything that didn’t involve Jackie Chan. This is a worthwhile exercise, and also means you can skip at least forty minutes into the movie for the first “fight” scene and then watch from there. Unless you really want to see Jaden Smith try to emote for forty minutes.
On a side note, I saw this movie once. I didn’t exactly take notes. I’d give it a 70-30 chance I’ll screw up some of the material details of names and times. Some I will just make up if I find the new nickname amusing. I’d have to work to care more than that.
It’s hard to organise my thoughts about this movie. There’s a lot to say about it.
For starters: I had assumed this was going to hit the reset button on the Karate Kid series, in a similar vein to the brilliant, inspired reboots of the Bond and Star Trek universes.
This isn’t a reboot. It’s not even an homage. It’s the SAME FREAKING FILM. I swear to the gods, knock five (perceived) years (ten actual actor years) off the ages and move the setting to Beijing and it’s the same film. Remaking the SAME FREAKING FILM in this case seems only slightly less pointless than that execrable remake of Psycho Gus Van Sant conned someone into paying for. But, I digress.
Everything from the original is here: the perplexingly random bullying (which is clearly racist in origin, come on guys, just like the first film with the blond Aryans beating up the small, dark, big nosed ethnic guy, please, can we just admit the reason these kids hate Dre is because he’s black and made a Chinese girl laugh?), the goofy Asian healing, the seemingly strange technique that proves pivotal to the plot, the tragic past, even the one kid in the gang with a conscience.
It’s even structured the same, and takes the same interminable length of time for anything to actually happen. When the action finally does start you begin to see why this movie was declared too violent for children in Australia.
The first fight scene, in the playground near Dre’s new home, is brutal. Dre is slammed and thrown several times into the concrete, kicked and punched by the scowling bully Chen. The moves themselves look more MMA than Kung Fu, but they are fluid and well shot. The director understands that slow and wide are the best ways to show fight scenes. Where he lacks is in imaging consequences. The day after his ass kicking, Dre can conceal the minimal, barely visible bruise on his face under a hat with his mother none the wiser.
That’s it. A slight shiner. Not a broken jaw, lost teeth, broken ribs. Nothing to show the actual physical cost of being smashed into concrete multiple times by someone with ill intent. I was recently kicked in the face, twice, in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament with considerably less force than anything brought to bear on Smith’s character and had a puffy eye, huge bruises and pain for over a week.
At this point I started to get uncomfortable with the tone of the movie. I’m not one for insisting that any creative person has to tailor their output to what is socially acceptable nor kowtow to the wishes of focus or pressure groups. But damn, it would have been good – even noble and laudable – to see at least a smidgeon of a hint of a soupcon of the inkling of the notion that THE REAL WORLD IS NOT A ROAD RUNNER CARTOON. You can’t drop the coyote off the cliff and have him pop up like an accordion to run off and plot again. Likewise, you can’t hold a no holds barred, full contact kung fu tournament among children NOT WEARING ANY PROTECTIVE GEAR without half the competitors spitting out their baby teeth on the blood stained mats. For that reason I have no trouble declaring that the violence in this movie is both extreme and gratuitous.
But that’s the finale, we still have about an hour of movie to lurch through before we get there.
I clearly found the pacing of the film to be wearisome, but then I have little patience for children in general and over acting child thespians (Jaden Smith) in particular. His budding “romance” with a Chinese schoolmate is tedious but necessary for plot, of course, and the protests I’ve seen that the characters are too young to think about just things is ridiculous: plenty of twelve year olds have shared a chaste kiss with another child. Hell, few hundred years ago, the female half would already be married and percolating the first brat of her own in a year or two at best. When Dre finally runs into the Chinese Cobra Kai school (China Kai Big Boss, hereafter referred to as CKBB, barking “No weakness! No fear! No mercy!” at his black clad students in case anyone missed that these were the bad guys), it feels like you’ve already seen at least one movie and were trapped in the theatre for a second one you didn’t plan on.
The second movie seems like it might be slightly more interesting than the first. Better acting, anyway.
I would like to pause here to point out a fact about the original Karate Kid movie that most people will have forgotten by now: Pat Morita was nominated for an academy award as Supporting Actor for his performance.
Jackie Chan will not be.
But damn, he gives a fine, nuanced performance. He shows range! He shows depth of emotion! He under-reacts in the finest and best form for a big screen actor! My innate, painful sense of responsibility makes me admit now that I have never been the biggest Jackie Chan fan. I don’t much enjoy even his early films, as I generally dislike “funny” martial arts choreography. His current crop of Hollywood *cough* comedies, with their mugging performances and uncomfortable insistence that I should be laughing at the Chinese guy because he talks English funny leave me cold. But for this role? I honestly don’t know anyone else who could have been cast: as he ages, inscrutable Asian master is very much written in Chan’s future.
The Jackie Chan of this film I could grow to love. He certainly provides the best fight scene, resplendent with some excellent choreography that is both less joke-y than normal and pure Jackie Chan crazy.
I reference of course his rescue of Dre in an alley from another vicious beating from the band of adolescent psychopaths. About half of Chen’s “gang” has been replaced by several young Chinese males who haven’t seen twelve in a good decade or so. They provide the major opponents for Chan’s unleashed kung fu. I won’t spoil the fight with details, but as Chan has aged he has been smart enough to alter his signature choreography to lessen the strain on his body. There are only so many times you can break your leg and keep bouncing back to do your own stunts. Here, after leaping to Dre’s rescue, Chan mostly uses the young fighters and their environment to pummel them with. It’s signature Chan, with grace notes of zany interspersed. I was brought to mind of the only damn thing I liked about Revenge of the Sith: the sword master’s extraordinary calm choreography for Hayden Christensen, used to convey mastery and supreme skill. Anyone who’s sparred someone who outclasses them knows calm is the true measure of a great fighter. It has nothing to do with speed – that which is fast but smooth will appear slow to the eye. Chan looked real, un-staged, but also unhurried. He was simply BETTER than the stuntmen…whoops….children.
After healing Dre’s injuries with stupid impossible mysterious Asian charlatanism…sorry, after healing Dre’s again almost imperceptible damage with fire cupping, he takes Dre to the China Kai school to speak to CKBB about his students being blood thirsty lunatics. They encounter CKBB beating on his own pupils for being insufficiently merciless. Right about this point, the fact that Chan can actually act comes into limpid focus. When CKBB declares that either Chan or Dre must fight their way out of the school, there is real fear in Chan’s eyes. He instantly throws Dre under the kung fu bus, committing the kid to fighting in a tournament (with an English language poster yet!) in a month. His declaration in response to Dre’s hurried question on the way out about whether what he’d just seen was kung fu is one of the most memorable lines: “That was not Kung Fu! That was a bad man teaching very bad things!”
Wax on, wax off and paint the fence have been replaced with “put on your jacket, take of your jacket, put down your jacket, pick up your jacket”. I was frankly a little pissed off by this days long (movie time) sequence because what Dre actually does to practice those actions doesn’t look remotely like what Chan finally “proves” he was teaching the boy, but I suppose that’s a quibble. I always find these tests of patience things sad, too, because I’d never survive them. My patience for inscrutable master claptrap is minimal at best. I’d get thrown out for insisting he actually taught me a freaking technique inside ten minutes.
Now, no Karate Kid movie would be complete without the mysterious technique that takes years to master (and which is instantly picked up the hero). For this remake, we are treated to a train ride to the Wudang mountains (you cannot take this train in real life; nearly all the scenery is computer replaced) and a walk up the side of a mountain via stairs through a monastery to drink from the kung fu fountain. Seriously.
On the way, Dre is mesmerized by a woman balanced on a rock outcropping over a cliff who appears to be dancing with a hooded cobra (the inestimable Michelle Yeoh in an un-credited cameo doing the kung fu version of the crane stance). Chan calls what she was doing “reflection”: an ancient technique made possible through focus to control your opponent’s reactions. I think the idea is that when you are a calm mental pool, you can influence...oh, **** it, even I can’t take this part seriously enough to care. Let’s just say when do properly no can defence.
It’s actually amazing just how much of this whole sequence, and indeed the whole movie, was computer assisted or generated. I noticed the name of one of my oldest and dearest friends in the visual effects credits so I rang him up to ask what they had done; I was mystified because nothing on screen struck me as being computer generated. Over 400 shots were touched by various visual effects companies and my friend’s did the lions share. Everything from the aforementioned scenery outside the train window to turning a working factory into a derelict one to removing camera shake and a helicopter shadow that is in EVERY SINGLE SHOT of the Great Wall footage. I heard a lot about that helicopter. The work done was far more impressive than flashier effects because of its seamless invisibility.
To give them some credit, obligatory training montages are far more impressive when shot in China. Damn place—the areas not covered by smog and rampant industrial sprawl—is breathtakingly beautiful.
Anyhow, Dre and Chan train, on a lake, in Chan’s house, all over the place. And in a rainstorm, Dre arrives at the house to discover a drunk Chan sitting in the car parked actually inside the living room—never explained until now—grieving for his lost family.
Again, Chan becomes the reason to see this movie, revealing his vulnerability and pain to Dre in slow waves. It cements the growing parent/child bond between Chan and the fatherless Dre, in a non creepy way, I swear. The training montage accelerates from here. There’s some uninteresting, unbelievable business with Dre and his little girlfriend and her father that is resolved with the usual single dramatic speech that fixes everyone’s problems. Then we’re at the tournament.
The motley crew of child fighters assembled here is actually quite entertaining. I was especially taken by faux-hawk kid, who kept pushing up his Dragonball Z pouf when he did something cool. Seriously, it was cute.
No fight is sustained much. There are brief little flashes of bad guys doing brutal things to their opponents. Full contact. With zero protective gear.
No blood. No teeth spit onto the mats. I know why, I understand why, but by this point in the film, the constant lack of consequence is grating, irresponsible. Scary. Dre fights, Dre nearly loses, Dre wins by cleverness and spirit.
You’ve all seen the original. You know what happens. One of the evil cronies is ordered to cripple to upstart ni—foreigner and does so; but without the strangely affecting cry of “I’m sorry Daniel! I’m sorry!” so memorable from the original sequence.
So for the first time, there is consequence to an action. There is pain and suffering. But oh, wait, we’ll fix it with one application of magical bullshit healing powers! All better!
Dre limps back to the ring and faces off against the bad guy. He uses the “reflection” technique from earlier to get inside the bad guy’s head, make him doubt himself. I kinda liked that. It gave at least a glimpse of the importance of the mind in combat, that clever trumps power at least part of the time.
Now, I know the crane stance from the first movie is corny. It’s martially stupid and easily defensible. But at least it was POSSIBLE. It was something even I could have done, eventually. So when Dre wins the final fight with a flashy, cinematic, IMPOSSIBLE move, it’s something of a spiritual kick in the face if not a real one.
(Aside: I believe the alternate ending, based on trailers, involves CKBB attacking Jackie Chan at this point. I concede this might actually be fun, but this is a review of the theatrical release. I really don’t want to rent this thing; someone just gave me season one of “The Wire”.)
The finale simply cements the cartoon reality of the movie. This is Road Runner vs. Wile E Coyote; Bugs vs. Fudd; Tom vs. Jerry. It takes what could be serious points about bullying and discrimination and inner strength and turns them into pop culture pop psych: hollow, shallow, devoid of real emotion.
Jackie Chan redeems this movie—a movie that did not need remaking—by injecting energy, humour and pathos into his simplistic role. He is more than worth seeing. And children will be entertained. But if you watch this movie with a child, I beg and plead for you to take the time to explain, in graphic detail, what the real results of getting punched and kicked and slammed into cement would be.
So rent it.
But skip the first forty minutes. You won’t miss what you’re missing.