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?


RIP, Gene Colan

Iron Man #1
Howard the Duck
Eugene "Gene" Colan (September 1, 1926 – June 23, 2011)

I couldn't not mention his passing. More tributes to Gene can be found here.


Resuming Blogging Shortly

I've been out of town since my last post, and away from the internet in those few days. So I'll be spending the weekend catching up with what I've missed. See you all on Monday folks.


The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman

The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff.
By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff

Published in 1999, The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman is one of the more fun crossovers coming out of Marvel and DC in the last 12 years. On further thought, it might be the only inter-company crossover from the period that could be considered remotely entertaining. These kind of projects are naturally targeted at the fanboy contingent, in particular the section of fandom which feels compelled to debate endlessly about the comparative power-levels of favorite characters. The Hulk and Superman are obvious fodder for such bull sessions, and they have met twice before (As far as I recall). The last time was the pandering Marvel vs. DC in which readers could vote for the winners of various matchups. It's no surprise that these kind of stories are usually exercises in self-indulgence, since they require a certain degree of preexisting emotional investment in the characters and their respective continuities to work. IH vs. S certainly works best if the reader already has a preference for at least one of the characters. But its effectiveness comes from avoiding the deep-end of nostalgia and continuity porn, and presenting an uncomplicated adventure tale featuring two highly recognizable properties.

Not that the story can entirely avoid its own metatextual issues. The comic begins and ends with the current version of the characters, with all their accompanying emotional baggage. These sections are unavoidably clunky. But the substantial portion of the narrative takes place in a flashback when the characters are at the beginning of their superhero careers. Given the basically incompatible timelines of DC and Marvel, a certain degree of finagling has to happen just to make them fit. For example, because of DC's practice of rewriting Superman's origins, this version of Superman seems to be the standard post-Crisis version viewed through a Silver Age filter. This is to bring the character's visual identity in line with artist Steve Rude's interpretation of the Hulk, which is clearly based on Jack Kirby. This may sound like an incidental, but it's an essential part of the book's appeal. Setting the story in the past not only allows writer Roger Stern to sidestep much of subsequent continuity, but to also present the characters in a more "innocent" time. This might sound needlessly nostalgic, but the approach allows them to be closer to the iconic versions that even the general audience can recall through cultural osmosis: Clark Kent and Lois Lane are still rival reporters. Dr. Bruce Banner is still working for the military, and dating Betty Ross, who's still unaware of his Hulk identity. So is General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, who's still hunting the Hulk with the resources of the army base at his disposal. Rick Jones is still the loyal teenage sidekick. Lex Luthor differs in that he appears in his post-Crisis identity as a corrupt business magnate. But it could be argued that media exposure to this role had already begun to supplant the more traditional role of rogue scientist.

The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff.

Rude's art is necessary to this effort, as his retro stylings capture the most "classic" look of the characters without drawing too much attention to itself. The aforementioned Kirby-inspired Hulk is a surly, always hunchbacked figure possessing a massive brow. Dr. Banner wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses and loose-fitting shirts over his scrawny frame. Clark looks like a reporter wearing a cheap striped suit with accompanying fedora. Betty looks sweet and innocent in a white dress and pink neck scarf, while Lois looks more assertive in her blue blazer. Even Superman's squinty-eyed face and lean, athletic physique recalls his Golden-Age design. Only Luthor's Colonel Sanders-style business suit feels like a misstep. The book is full of nice period touches from the hot rod cars, drive-ins, ham radios, small town buildings, to the Kirby-like design of Banner's scientific devices, like the massive Gamma Gun.

The plot itself follows the standard "superheroes fight, then team-up to beat the villain" formula. So predictably, the fight scenes are central to the story. But surprisingly, they're very brisk. They're less calculated to deliver a knock-down-drag-out slugfest that most hardcore fans have come to expect. Instead of a bloodletting, a certain amount of manic glee comes through. The Hulk hurls Superman into Earth orbit in one scene, and later on Supes returns the favor by bouncing him of several large cacti, pinball style. There's less an attempt to make the fight feel epic, than to make it an enjoyable ride for the reader. And Milgrom never neglects the interaction between the two supporting casts by crafting a plot that logically gets the characters to mingle with each other. Part of the fun is in watching how the cast does, or doesn't, get along. There's nothing in his scripting that's particularly original. But in the end, this is an unassuming and breezy meet-and-greet between two icons that have come to be taken far too seriously over the years.

The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff.


There will be a quiz

Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling
Go to: Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling

Ward Sutton on "2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America"

Ward Sutton on "2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America"
Go to: Drawn to Read by Ward Sutton

More NonSense: Give me back my Batgirl!

Batgirl #1, cover art by Adam Hughes
Batgirl #1, cover art by Adam Hughes

DC Entertainment continues to be the subject of much online chatter, due to the announcements regarding the company's impending revamp being revealed through the official blog The Source. I tend to be lean towards the very skeptical view of things, as I doubt the effectiveness of DC's top-down approach over a more gradual, creator-driven, process. But more importantly, I don't think DC (and Marvel) is doing much that strikes me as a move to reach the much wider mainstream audience, as opposed to just another refurbishing of their convoluted shared-universe. The move into same-day digital releases has been a long time coming, and the line-wide revamp feels like a tactic to capitalize on this. But if the content proves to be just as impenetrable or unappealing to the uninitiated (i.e. those who don't give a damn about Geoff Johns fan wank, the Silver Age, or Earth-2) as it always has, then I don't think this will have the desired net positive effect. We shall see in the coming months. But for now, they're at least doing a good job of drumming up anticipation for their initiatives.

Anyway, here's the 52 #1 titles coming in September,

And here's a roundup of web reactions for this week:

Analysis from Sean T. Collins, Alex Boney, SeeBelow, Kevin Melrose, Sean T. Collins, Tucker Stone,
 JK Parkin,
Joe Belski supplies a view from the perspective of retailers.

Andy Khouri reports on the news that Barbara Gordon will return to her original role as Batgirl. This has divided the fan community into those who love the retcon, and those who prefer Barbara in her role as Oracle.

J. Caleb Mozzocco just hates all the Batman-related news from DC.

Gail Simone wants to put superheroes in culottes. How manly!

The younger Superman that Grant Morrison always wanted to write about.

J. Caleb Mozzocco explains why Jim Lee (and others) still don't get the Wonder Woman costume.

Chris Sims narrates the history of DC's universe-wide reboots. My takeaway from the article is that DC's repeated inability to simplify their own continuity only underlies the basic futility of the exercise itself - each attempt only leading to greater narrative confusion and more unnecessary bloodshed. The "infinite earths existing within infinite parallel universes" from the sixties was actually more straightforward than the more recent "52 earths nestled inside an inverted pyramid within a giant blender" nonsense.

12 titles DC forgot to reboot.

Flashpoint thrashed by Fear Itself.


Spontaneous #1

Spontaneous #1 By Joe Harris, Brett Weldele, Douglas E. Sherwood, Keith Wood.
By Joe Harris, Brett Weldele, Douglas E. Sherwood, Keith Wood

Spontaneous is an uncomfortable comic to look at. This is mainly because the art of Brett Weldele reminds me of a collection of poorly exposed and processed photographs. That might be the intent behind it. Not that the characters are drawn in a naturalistic style, but they're painted in a grainy, dichromatic scheme of warmer earth tones contrasted with cooler blues and grays. It gives the impression that everything is either lit by artificial light sources or their own weird inner glow. And the images in the panels look like they were captured by an unsteady hand-held camera. Weldele's sketchy line and minimal backgrounds make his environments appear truly oppressive. It casts the story into the midst of very murky territory, similar to that of The X-Files.

Into this setting wander the comic's equivalents for agents Mulder and Scully trying to solve the riddle of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Melvin Reyes is a young man haunted and driven by a childhood tragedy. He has spent his life tracking spontaneous combustion cases, and appears to have developed some pretty well-defined theories as to how to spot potential victims. But so far he's kept a low profile instead of sharing his ideas with the public. He's smart and observant, but he's a bit of a creep, and might be harboring his own pyromaniac tendencies. Taking him out of his routine is a chance meeting with self-styled "investigative reporter at large" Emily Durschmiller. She decides to make Melvin her story, over his loud objections. Writer Joe Harris imbues this ambitious, if misguided, character a number of eccentricities. For example, she commandeers a local diner and it's wait staff as her own personal office. And she wields a Graflex camera like she lives much closer to 1911 than to 2011. She wants to be Lois Lane or Hunter Thompson, but she's trying too hard, and clearly in over her head. At least she doesn't wear a fedora with a press pass stuck to it.

It's an amusing setup that could be adapted to other paranormal mysteries once the initial SHC premise plays out. But for now, Melvin isn't a strong enough partner to counterbalance Emily's ebullience. Both characters are still works in progress, although they're not without their charms. And the cliffhanger ending makes it difficult to not want to see what happens in the next issue.


Wonder Woman by Cliff Chiang

Wonder Woman by Cliff Chiang

DC's first announcement on the creative teams for their September relaunch left me deeply underwhelmed (very much like these guys). After all, it just looked like they were reshuffling most of their existing talent pool rather than truly shaking things up. But then I saw the cover for Wonder Woman #1 drawn by Cliff Chiang, and for some strange reason I thought "AWESOME!" despite my ambivalence towards the new costume. What's that all about?

Then again, he's already quite good at making DC's heroines rock out.

"Come and sample the wares"

I won't speculate on the impact of DC's latest announcement on the comic book industry and the direct market. Better writers have done so already. But I will confine myself to a few observations. First is this statement:
"We really want to inject new life in our characters and line," says Dan DiDio, co-publisher of DC with Lee. "This was a chance to start, not at the beginning, but at a point where our characters are younger and the stories are being told for today's audience."
And the there's this one bold assertion:
"If we can convince the people here we're doing something brand-new and fresh, we have a good chance to really get the people outside on board," DiDio says...

"You're trying to have your cake and eat it, too," [Jim] Lee says. "You're trying to keep the iconic elements there, but at the same time freshen up the look so that people are intrigued by what they're seeing and hopefully come and sample the wares."

The recent emphasis on diverse characters such as lesbian superheroine Batwoman, Hispanic hero Blue Beetle and African-American adventurer Cyborg (who will be a core member of [Geoff] Johns and Lee's new Justice League) also will continue.
Lets review. Here's the original JLA roster from Brave and the Bold #28 published in 1960:

Brave and the Bold #28

And here's the recently released illustration of the newly revamped characters drawn by Jim Lee:

JLA #1

See that? The JLA is more "modern", "fresh" and "diverse" now that perennial second stringer Cyborg has joined a team that is reverting back to the same, mostly white and male, members (some of them dating back to the late 30s). Many of them are now sporting new neck collars and baby faces, so they can be both "iconic" and "brand new". And lets not forget that the new writer is currently DC's resident Silver Age fetishist Geoff Johns. No need to read the comic itself for confirmation folks. Makeover accomplished!