26 July 2010

Smith Happens- THE KARATE KID Review

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

The 1984 original does not exist in this dojo! This is the remake of The Karate Kid, and it transfers the story from America to China. 12-year-old Dre Parker isn't best pleased with moving to another country for his mother's job, and he's promptly whaled upon by the kung-fu expert bullies at his new school. With the help of a friendly maintenance man, Mr. Han, he learns how to fight back and earn self-respect and honour in the process. Naturally, this entails a big old tournament in which he has to whup some bully arse.

The original isn't as amazing as it's reputed to be- it's a fairly middle-of-the-road 80s teen movie that's taken on a greater nostalgia value than it deserves because the idea of standing up to bullies is one that chimes with many audiences. This remake has the same good intentions, and in fairness, I think it actually surpasses the original, but that's not to say it's a great film. For one thing, the faults are many, largely in how the story now centres around 12 year olds instead of kids who are in high school.

If you hate children, you might love to watch them beating the shit out of each other with a kung-fu mastery you'd expect of someone twice their age. In all honesty though, that's what watching Battle Royale is for, not a PG-rated Jaden Smith vanity vehicle like this. The wide-eyed rage and exaggerated prowess of the teens in the original worked because it reflects competitive and occasionally steroid fuelled American culture, but in the context of China, it creates an unusual and inhuman quality to the scowling children. These are EVIL children, in the mindset we're asked to accept.

As our hero, the younger Smith isn't nearly as annoying here as he was in The Day The Earth Stood Still, but since The Pursuit of Happyness, I've noticed he's starred in a few roles as a kid who lives with his mother after his father died, which says all kinds of worrying Oedipal things about Will Smith that I don't want to think about. The elder Smith seems to have become a stage parent for Jaden, his last appearance on screen being in Seven Pounds back in 2008, but his son still lacks much of the charm and charisma that made him a star.

While there's a nice supporting turn by Taraji P. Henson as Mrs. Parker, the real star here is Jackie Chan. I've spoken before of how he's an excellent action comedy star, but what's entirely unexpected is the dramatic mileage he gets here with Mr. Han. Throughout the film, we see him fixing up a car in his living room, a seemingly incidental detail that pays off beautifully just before the third act. He has a great crowd-pleasing choreographed fights, but he also has a fully rounded character for once, unlike much of his other English language work.

I'd rather have seen much more of Chan than Jaden Smith, but painfully, director Harold Zwart takes us into many disposable detours that involve our protagonist and bulk the film out to two hours and 20 minutes. Way longer than it needed to be, and this was proven in the very screening I attended. Four people wandered in and sat in the front row around an hour into the film, obviously looking for the screening after this. They didn't even realise they'd missed any more than the opening, and sat through the rest of it like everyone else. This film really needed to be at least twenty minutes shorter.

Additionally, as many have pointed out, Dre is learning kung-fu, so why is this called The Karate Kid? They even have the balls to lampshade this by saying that there's no difference between karate and kung-fu, it's all just fighting- and no one bothers to correct those characters. When you change something like that, there needs to be a bit more distinction from what has gone before than just the geography. The ending, for instance, is the one major point that did need some innovation, but it's taken beat for beat from the original.

But the fact is, a vanity vehicle like this, for an actor who's not exactly the Next Big Thing that studios obviously want him to be, could be a whole lot worse. The soundtrack is fairly obvious and bland, bringing in cues from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, and the filmmakers can't restrain themselves from various cringe-making training montages, but it's still a pretty entertaining film. While I wanted it to go faster, it never really bored me, and Jackie Chan's performance is downright brilliant. I'd go as far as to say that Chan is actually a dark horse for a Best Supporting Actor nod at the next Oscars ceremony, but we'll see how the rest of the year pans out.

The Karate Kid is a perfectly serviceable remake of a film that many remember fondly. Its well-meaning narrative is tempered by its refit as a launching pad for its star, but that's not enough to bury some of the better choices in updating the story. Despite being overlong and a little too obvious at times, it's a film that will entertain fans of the original and keep younger viewers engaged at the same time.

The Karate Kid opens in cinemas nationwide on July 28th
If and when you see The Karate Kid, why not share your comments on the film and/or my review below? And when you see the upgraded "wax on, wax off" routine, tell me you aren't reminded of a certain song in The Mighty Boosh Live...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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