Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Karate Kid

I Teach You Kung Fu

One can suppose the tremendous love Jaden Smith gets from his parents Will and Jada Pinkett, who probably decided that it makes good sense for their son to learn some form of self-defense, so why not learn from one of the best available, and make a film out of it? I'm wildly speculating here on how this remake of the 1984 film of the same name came about, one which made the fictional Crane Technique famous, and launching Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita to instant fame, especially so for the latter.

Serving as producers, the Smith's version of The Karate Kid had Karate as a misnomer, since it's Kung Fu that got featured, although they did place the emphasis on Kid, with their son Jaden being the star of the show, very much younger than how Ralph Macchio turned out to be in his role as Daniel Larusso in the original. And the truth is that Jaden's ability here in the lead role coming off films like The Pursuit of Happyness and The Day the Earth Stood Still, is one of the highlights in ensuring you get sucked into his world of the new out of towner American boy from Detroit now finding himself in a new environment in Beijing, and rubbing off the playground bullies on the wrong foot.

Which provides the path to Karate Kid formula, where boy gets a good wallop from his peers, eventually saved by the maintenance man who knows a thing or two about martial arts, becoming a disciple and learning new skills, then entering a contest so that a fair fight can be featured at the finale. And what makes martial arts training more fun, is the East meets West clash of cultures that provide some avenue for light hearted moments, yet balanced with some serious drama when dealing with themes like a disgraced past, or explaining the hocus pocus mysticism behind the martial arts, which took on a somewhat greater proportion here.

Some moments of the formula did get an update to suit the different time and premise, especially with the Miyagi aspects paying homage to what Pat Morita had done, with things like the chopsticks and the fly, with a different outcome of course. Even the Crane Technique got a little makeover as well, though this version ran on for a little bit longer, and its finale fight really put you on the edge of your seat with excellent action choreography, though it must be said it's really fictional and at times unbelievable, since the fights were really bone crunching and hard hitting, but nary a scratch or severe injury gets inflicted barring what's necessary as formula. Since the combatants here are sparring sans protective gear, parents may want to warn their kids, who turn up in droves for the film, that there's a degree of artistic license taken here in the bouts, and no you can't kick a guy across the floor without breaking some ribs for instance.

What I found more interesting here, is the role that Jackie Chan plays as Mr Han. While no Mr Miyagi spouting words of profound wisdom, you can tell that as Mr Han, Jackie Chan tries hard to not goof around much, and becomes pretty serious in his role. It's somewhat a full circle for JC, after all, he burst into the scene playing exactly the role of "the Kid", being trained in a rote like manner similar to waxing on and off, or jacket on and off. In films like Snake in the Eagle's Shadow or Drunken Master, he's on the opposite side of the equation with Yuen Siu Tien playing his master, and with this film, takes on the master's role and training Jaden's Dre Parker in similar fashion. If I can ask JC a question, it'll definitely be to find out how he felt like having to mature into a stage where he's no longer the vengeful student, but the wise, sage like master.

Clocking almost 2.5 hours, the film got bogged down by the innocent romance between Dre and Meiying (Han Wenwen) that took up significant screen time to try and provide a little more dimension to Dre, as well as to explore themes like never giving up, and friendship. The other kid in the film, Wang Zhenwei who plays Dre's nemesis Cheng, has enough of that mean streak look to stay as that one-dimensional boogeyman that Dre has to overcome, influenced by the evil Master Li (Yu Rongguang) whose mantra is to be merciless, and never to bat an eyelid when called upon to violate the spirit of fair play.

Like the original film, the magic of the appeal lies very much in the pairing and chemistry shared between teacher and student. Here, Jackie Chan turns on his acting chops more so than to run around showcasing his acrobatic ability, leaving the slick moves to a buffed and trained Jaden Smith, who demonstrated that he's more than just a cute boy with braided hair, and possessed tremendous charisma that you can't help but to root for the little fella, who's blessed with nifty dance footwork, movie star looks from his parents and now, enough skills to inflict serious injury. A subtle tone on the surrogate father and son relationship gets hinted at, with director Harald Zwart not wanting to explore this a little deeper, going instead for a number of tourist-like shots of Beijing in a not-too-subtle effort to showcase the city.

The Karate Kid spawned a few sequels, one even featuring Hilary Swank before she kicked more butt in Million Dollar Baby. I'm betting on this film being the forerunner to this week's box office results, but a sequel may seem out of the question, since we know just how fast kids at Jaden Smith's age will develop and mature.

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