Bad Movies: The Karate Kid (2010)

The Karate Kid (2010)

Attending movie theatre screenings has become an increasingly rare occasion for me, so I usually get to see most films after they hit the small screen. Not that I feel that I'm missing much. Take the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid. Is there anything so pointless or cynical than to relaunch this moribund franchise, only to ignore the original's subject matter? The 2010 version is, scene for scene, a faithful rendition of the 1984 original, except that it takes place in Beijing. And apropos to the new setting, "karate" is dissed for not being "kung fu." The young hero is bullied by a gang who knows kung fu, and fights back after learning from a reclusive kung fu master.

There's a thuddingly obvious economic shift being mirrored here. The 80s were all about the rise of Japan Inc. So "karate", which is technically Okinawan and not Japanese, is the vehicle to impart some hard-earned practical wisdom. Nowadays, it's China that's the land of opportunity. So "wushu" and "quan fa", or "kung fu" as it's more popularly known in Hong Kong cinema, now occupies center stage. Given this alteration, using the 1984 title for this remake is completely incidental except as a way for making a profit of the film's dubious legacy.

The original Karate Kid was a hokey story about a displaced, angry teenager who falls for a pretty girl, and gets bullied by jocks who are also karate black belts (how often does that happen?). He then learns self confidence and manly wisdom at the feet of an aging Okinawan karateka/WW II veteran. With his newly acquired skills, he confronts his tormentors during a karate tournament. Even in the 80s, the formula of the white guy mastering an oriental discipline was already a cliche. The plot's wish-fulfillment also mimics those Charles Atlas ads where the wimp gets sand kicked in his face, and comes back to smash the bully, only this time he uses karate instead of bodybuilding. Karate Kid was no Seven Samurai. But it had a few things going for it. The first was the personal chemistry between the leads Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, which felt genuinely heartfelt despite some corny dialogue and Macchio's early whining. The other thing, which is usually under-appreciated, is the down-to-earth portrait of karate itself. Neither Macchio or Morita were high level karateka, so a lot of the fight choreography that Macchio performed was fairly basic. And even then, he executed it rather awkwardly. But this made his struggle to learn the fighting art on such short notice more believable. There aren't any mystical shortcuts taken. Only a lot of elbow grease being applied. By the time of the tournament, he's only mastered a few moves: a reverse punch, a roundhouse kick, a leg trip, a backhand, and a fancy double kick he keeps in reserve for the final moment. Is it far-fetched that he could have won a black belt-level tournament with such training? Absolutely. But unlike his 2010 successor, Macchio didn't resort to improbable moves like kicking his opponent in the face while simultaneously doing a back flip and performing some hypnotic mumbo jumbo.

Despite the contemporary urban setting, the 2010 remake is situated very much in its own fantasy world. It can't be helped since the lead is played by a preteen Jaden Smith. The age of the supporting characters has to be adjusted downward. This changes everything. I'm sure that kids can relate to the parts that deal with moving to a new neighborhood and getting bullied at school. But a lot of the original plot's hormone-induced, coming-of-age elements no longer work with the younger cast. This also places a greater burden on the adults to be even more responsible for their highly impressionable charges: e.g. the kung fu instructor of the bullies comes across as completely out of control when he exhorts his students to show "no mercy" like his 1984 counterpart. How does this guy still have a job? As for the tournament, there's a big difference between watching teenagers on the verge of manhood fight in earnest, and watching nine year olds perform flips and kicks in over-the-top fashion. The latter requires a greater suspension of disbelief, otherwise it looks as ludicrous as pokemon fighting.

The differences between the two films are evident in comparing the key fight scene between the Morita character and the students of the Cobra Kai dojo. The lanky teenagers tower over the diminutive Morita. They significantly outnumber him. They're younger and faster. He beats them nontheless because he catches them by surprise and wastes no time knocking them unconscious. In the new movie, Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan takes over the role. Needless to say, Chan is far more physically adept than Morita. And the scene itself goes on a lot longer in order to showcase Chan's signature fight tactics were he beats his opponents by getting them to repeatedly hit each each other. It looks pretty fancy. But he's still fighting a bunch of pint-sized opponents he could have casually bitch-slapped for disrespecting his adult authority.

So yeah, the fantasy martial arts stuff is cranked-up a notch to appeal to a demographic drawn in by Jaden Smith. It's stylized violence were people get hit, but no one really gets hurt until it becomes convenient to the plot. The moves are fancier and less realistic. The "wire fu" is evident. The mystical crap shows up in the form of a field trip to the Wudang Monastery, where the Smith character learns a variation of the jedi mind trick in lieu of a double kick. Even the movie's update of the "wax on, wax off" training scene looks prettier, if less practical. This is a slicker product with much better production values. Half the movie looks like a kung fu adventure featuring tykes. The other half looks like a promotional for Chinese tourism. But while the remake is technically speaking, superior to the original, the two are so different in tone due of the ages of their leads, that comparing them starts to resemble an "apples vs oranges" affair.

But it's still a movie that rests on the acting chops of its young performers, especially Smith, to sell the premise. Unfortunately, I'm just not feeling it. Despite a few flashes of charisma, Smith still has the limited depth and range of most kid actors. He looks completely out of his element during the romantic scenes. As for Jackie Chan himself, while he's surprisingly effective playing the strict mentor for once, I never got the sense that he and Smith formed the strong emotional connection dictated by the story. So the film's left with parroting the same canned wisdom of the original. What the hell was the morale about again?