Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kung-Fu Fighting with the new KARATE KID


- No matter how good The Karate Kid turned out to be, it was always going to be an inherently problematic movie. In an underwhelming summer of remakes and bombs, the weekend that both The Karate Kid and The A-Team hit theaters was uniquely depressing. Both franchises were shoved down our throats, but really, was anyone clamoring for these movies? Did we really need a new Karate Kid as opposed to something NEW, something never-before-seen? Not only is The Karate Kid a remake and an almost beat-for-beat retelling of the original 80's film, but - guess what? - it's not even about karate. So why is a movie about kung-fu called The Karate Kid? In some international markets, it actually is called "The Kung-Fu" kid. But, god forbid us consumers don't instantly make the connection between this and the original film. So, as if to remind us over and over that this *is* just like the original, the basics of the story are essentially just repeated here, only with a different setting (China), a younger protagonist, and a different martial art. In the end, it's a pretty decent movie, essentially on par with the old Karate Kid except with way better cinematography and cooler, more exotic locales. But again ... you keep asking yourself "did we need this movie?". Are we as a society so ADD and lazy that we can't either a.) just watch the original movie, or b.) make a similarly-themed movie about kung-fu that isn't in any way beholden to the original Karate Kid? Again, I was reasonably entertained by this movie, but at the same time, I don't know that it ever in any way justified its own existence.

On that note, I read an article where Will Smith was interviewed, and he basically said that the idea to remake The Karate Kid came about when he and his son Jaden were tossing out ideas for what Jaden's next movie (and presumably big star-making vehicle) could be. So to that end, the movie becomes extra depressing when you realize that it doesn't exist because someone had a new, awesome idea of how to reintroduce The Karate Kid to a new generation (see the upcoming TRON: LEGACY as a probably example of how to do this right), or because this was a franchise that demanded a reboot (see: Batman Begins). No, this movie came about because Will Smith thought it'd be a good way to make his son a bigger star. Greaaaat ...

And that's honestly one of the reasons why this new Karate Kid never works as well is it might have under other circumstances. The original was all about an awkward, sort-of-geeky kid who learns karate and kicks some bully ass. In this one, I don't know that we ever buy Jaden Smith as any sort of underdog. I mean, he was practically genetically engineered to be a charismatic movie star. So, score one for Ralph Macchio. But, yeah, I get it - Jaden in this one is a stranger in a strange land - a kid from Detroit suddenly transplanted to China, and thus easy fodder for the local bullies to pick on. But, he's also just kind of persistently annoying, and the movie never really shows him trying to fit in much with his new surroundings. He's all hip hop attitude and brashness.

Also, the movie is oddly ambiguous when it comes to a lot of things. For example, we never really get is Jaden's school in China is some sort of English-speaking school or what. It's a semi-major plot point that gets totally glossed over. We also get a quick subplot about how the parents of the studious Chinese girl that Jayden has a thing for ... well, they don't approve of Jaden (why? because he's American? because he has lame-looking dradlocks?). But then, they suddenly do approve of him. Okay ...

It's funny, too, because the new Karate Kid is so similarly structured to the classic version that it falls into a lot of the same traps, plot-wise. Things that you can kind of shrug off in a beloved-yet-cheesy 80's movie aren't quite as forgivable in a new, made-in-2010 film. The jumpiness of the original is very much present here. In the beginning of the film, we meet another American kid in China who seems like he's going to be a major character, until he disappears for the rest of the movie, only briefly rappearing in a quick cameo at the end. We get the same training sequences, which I find frustrating because it takes forever for Jaden to actually start legit king-fu training, so by the time he does practice actual moves and stuff, all we get is a quick montage. So we are forced to believe that within a couple of days or weeks this kid is well-trained enough that he can mix it up with other kids who have presumably been training for many years. And, just like in the original, once the actual tournament starts, all of the other subplots basically disappear as we get a whole final act of just kung-fu matches. It'd be one thing if there was more build-up to the tournament, but, just like in the original, our would-be martial-arts master arrives at the place without even knowing the rules of the fights until five seconds before his first bout. The whole thing feels all the more abrupt and jumpy in this one because so much of the movie is, at first, about Jayden's sense of culture-shock with being in China and the alienation he feels with being such an outsider. Does he eventually come to appreciate his new home? We don't know. He (spoiler alert!) wins his big fight (using decidely non-kung-fu-like maeuvers, no less), and - freeze frame! - we're done. I'm not saying the movie should have been longer (it's already an overstuffed two-and-a-half hours), but ... the pacing and structure definitely has some issues.

Now, I know I've been hard on the movie so far, but the thing is ... it's not actually that bad. For one thing, there are some truly inspired and fantastically shot individual scenes. Some great kung-fu montages are among the highlights, as well as some truly breathtaking views of ancient and modern China. Sweeping mountain ranges, ancient temples, bustling cities, colorful festivals ... all of these things are presented in jaw-dropping widescreen splendor. Despite it's other issues, The Karate Kid always has something interesting to look at, no question. It definitely serves as a living, breathing advertisment for Chinese tourism.

In addition, the movie actually has a really well-done, sweeping musical score, that seriously adds to the action. So much of this movie is designed to be crowd-pleasing, and I have to admit -- some of the better montage sequences, with their captivating editing and rousing music - were pretty damn effective at getting your adrenaline pumping.

Also, there's the Jackie Chan factor. Everyone else in this movie needs to bow before the legendary Mr. Chan, because he almost singlehandedly makes this movie awesome. I will say this: I actually got chills during the key scene in which Chan saves Jaden Smith from a gang of bullies, with some vintage Jackie Chan moves. Yes, I said chills. Why? Because let me tell you, the audience I saw this movie with - a lot of kids and families - was eating up this movie from moment one. They were cheering and applauding all the little cutesy moments and scenes up until that point. But, oh man, when Jackie Chan finally did his thing, there was a sense of awe among the young kids. They'd never seen anything quite like him before. THIS, my friends, was kung-freakin'-fu. And the thought that this otherwise unremarkable movie was, in fact, serving as a gateway into the awesomeness that is Jackie Chan, for a whole new generation of fanboys-in-the-making ... well, that justm ade me smile. I mean, us Gen Y'ers in the audience knew that a gang of tween bullies had NO SHOT against the frakking DRUNKEN MASTER himself, but the kids in the audience? They soon realized it as well.

Chan is, seriously, really excellent in this movie. It's one of his better dramatic performances, to be honest. But overall, it's fun having a true legend - a guy with unmatched charisma and comic timing - onhand to elevate this film. Truly, Chan takes what could have been a real mess of a movie and makes it into something much better than the script might indicate.

I know, this has been a somewhat schizofrenic review. But it's just that kind of movie. There is definitely a likability-factor to this film: the brilliant cinematography, exotic locales, great score, and Jackie Chan being awesome give this one just enough juice to be consistently watchable. But, it also has a flat script, a predictable and jumpy plot, and ultimately, doesn't exactly feel like the kind of story that necessitated yet another reboot of an old 80's franchise. If nothing else, this new Karate Kid made me want a better movie with Jackie Chan kicking ass in modern day China - I want one or two final hurrahs for one of the all-time great action heroes. This could have been worse, but, enough remakes already - new ideas, please.

My Grade: B

No comments:

Post a Comment