Aug 6, 2010

Martial Arts Month: The Karate Kid [2010]

DIR: Harald Zwart
CAST: Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith,
Wenwen Han, Taraji P. Henson

Let’s get one thing absolutely straight; there is no karate in this movie (well, there is, on TV, in one scene). Jackie Chan doesn’t teach karate, Jaden Smith doesn’t do karate. As is stated over and over again in the dialogue, this movie is about Kung-fu. Aside from that minor detail, and the fact that the titular kid is now just 12, rather than 15 or 16 in the 1984 original, this is a reasonably faithful remake of the beloved (but, whisper it, actually not very good) movie that many of my generation grew up with.

That means that this version shares many of the weaknesses of the original; for instance, the villain is exaggeratedly, inexplicably, and seemingly irredeemably evil. Only if he had a moustache to twirl and punctuated each line with “Muahahaha” could he be more ridiculously evil. There’s also the matter of the ending; different here, but still cheesier than a warehouse full of gorgonzola. Where this remake scores over the original though is in the action stakes.

The biggest hole in the original Karate Kid series was the fact that you never believed that either Pat Morita or Ralph Macchio could do karate (well, that and the utter ridiculousness of that crane pose). Here that’s not a problem, rather than Pat Morita you’ve got Jackie Chan, Asian cinema’s clearly indestructible martial arts star, he’s been doing breathtaking kung-fu on screen for more than 35 years. The action is clearly heavily influenced by the presence of Chan and his stunt team, who worked training Jaden Smith for months before production. It’s punchy, and often times quite surprisingly brutal (the PG certificate that BBFC have allowed this through with is a nonsense, it’s clearly a 12A, and seriously upset a couple of young members of my audience). But it’s also quite thrilling to watch, and crucially, looks like real kung-fu.

The story is very basic, in place of Maachio’s Daniel-san we have Jaden Smith as Dre, who has been moved to China after his mother (Henson) is transferred there for work. On his first day he meets pretty Meiying (Han), but some of the other kids at school don’t approve of Meiying being seen with Dre, so they beat him up. This leads (eventually) to Dre taking up kung-fu training with handyman Mr Han (Chan) so that he can fight the bullies at a climactic kung-fu tournament.

The big problem with the film is twofold; first, it is indulgently overlong, and could easily stand to lose 30 of its 140 minutes. The opening third of the film is incredibly repetitive, and no matter how engagingly some of the chase and fight scenes between Dre and the bullies are staged, there are a great deal more of them than are really required to tell the story. Perhaps the more pressing issue is that of Jaden Smith. Look, I’m sure Jaden Smith is a nice kid, but let’s not pretend that he’d have any sort of film career were he not the son of (executive producers) Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. I think I got a bike for my tenth birthday, it seems that Jaden got a multi-million dollar movie franchise. I don’t like to beat up on a kid, but Smith has all the charisma of the peg he repeatedly hangs his jacket on and the expressiveness of someone slipping into a coma. He has two gears; blank and stroppy (we get much more of blank) and is one of the dullest leading performers in a film this year.

Fortunately there are compensating factors; Wenwen Han gives a nice performance as Smith’s love interest (though the scene where she dances to Lady Gaga’s Pokerface (not THAT song) sexualises her in a rather uncomfortable way), but its Jackie Chan who makes this movie worth the ticket price. Chan’s opera brother Sammo Hung (who, frankly, would have been my first choice for this part) has settled nicely into character roles, but Chan has struggled with his acting, especially in English. Happily he gives his best ever performance as Mr Han, giving his scenes with Smith a real warmth and brining real weight and credibility to the one scene in which he’s got some dramatic heavy lifting to do. That aside, Chan is also in astounding shape for 55, and his one action scene has all the brilliant dexterity fans expect (even if it is a little more heavily cut now). It’s a surprising performance, I didn’t know that Chan had that car scene in him (He may have had little help because, though it’s not credited, I think the pictures he looks at in that scene are of his real wife and son).

Really though it’s the action that you’ll want to see the film for, the training sequences take a while to warm up, but once Mr Han shows Dre what he’s been learning with jacket on, jacket off routine (replacing the original’s wax on, wax off) the film really picks up with a blistering exchange of technique, which appears to have been done in long takes and without doubles, and finally the film kicks into high gear and largely stays there. The tournament is much more fun here than in the original; the fighting so much more varied and dynamic. This new Karate Kid is by no means perfect, but it’s fun, and it’s got some really great action. All in all, it’s a remake that betters its source.

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