The short review for the new remake of “The Karate Kid” could simply be: If you liked the original, you’ll probably like this. That’s because it is essentially the same movie: A new kid arrives in town, meets a girl, gets bullied by thuggish kids under the spell of a deranged martial arts teacher, meets a quirky handyman who turns out to also be a martial arts wizard who teaches the kid about self-defense — and life.
But remaking something that is so beloved by the generation that embraced the original can be tricky. The 1984 “Karate Kid” became part of the zeitgeist, thanks to phrases like “wax on, wax off,” the Aryan Youth look-alikes known as the Cobra Kai, images like the crane kick and the beautiful chemistry between Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso and Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi.
So what does the 2010 iteration bring to the table? First, instead of an Italian American teenager from New Jersey, being raised by a single mom, who moves to the San Fernando Valley, it’s a prepubescent African American kid from Detroit, being raised by a single mom, who moves to China. Instead of Reseda, it’s Beijing. And, instead of Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, it’s Jackie Chan as Mr. Han. And, despite the title, it’s kung fu this time, not karate.
Frankly, that part doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother everyone else. Anyone who has studied the history of the dispersion of Asian martial arts knows that karate — “empty hand” — was formerly known by kanji that, loosely translated, meant “Chinese hand.” Karate could be classified as a style of Southern Chinese kung fu, so it’s really no big deal. The mainland Japanese got karate from Okinawans, who spent hundreds of years melding Southern Chinese martial arts with indigenous techniques, getting rid of the flowery-looking stuff and distilling the combat down to the essence of a “one punch kill” ethos that was needed against mainland Japanese samurai occupiers. There was no time to be fancy.
Comparing “Karate Kids” cannot be avoided. The production values of the new one look far superior to the low-budget original. Jaden Smith’s Dre Parker is as appealing as Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso and, frankly, more athletic and physically coordinated. Larusso’s awkwardness, however, was actually a plus, making him even more of an underdog.
In the new one, the kids really are kids, not teenagers; the boys’ voices are still high-pitched and the romantic feelings between Dre and Han Wen Wen’s violin-playing Meiying is chaste and innocent. (A new twist this time around is the Westerner is learning an Eastern art — kung fu — while the Asian girl is trying to master a Western art form, classical violin.)
Comparing moms, I have to give the edge to Randee Heller’s Lucille Larusso, who had a goofy charm that trumps the cool of Taraji Henson’s Sherry Parker. The music in the new one lacks the pan pipe cheese and orchestral flourish of the original — but that could be because I’ve seen the original so many times on home video.
Action-wise, though, the martial arts choreography in the new one is dynamic, acrobatic and kinetic. It looks terrific — almost too good. For example, in the original, when Larusso is getting his final beatdown by the Cobra Kai before getting rescued by Mr. Miyagi, the fight scene is comparatively brutal and quick, thanks to stunt double and karate master Fumio Demura. In the new one, when Chan takes on the young thugs looking to give Dre another lesson in the school of hard knocks, the fight scene is inventive, funny — and much longer.
The final comparison comes down to Mr. Miyagi vs. Mr. Han. It’s worth noting that Pat Morita was a comedian, while Jackie Chan is known for comedic kung fu. As such, Chan is a worthy successor to play the role of the enigmatic yet sincere teacher. But I must give the edge to Miyagi, thanks to his unique backstory. In the original, we learn that Miyagi’s wife died in childbirth (as did the baby) at Manzanar. Han’s wife and son died in a car crash — still tragic but kind of mundane. Also, when Miyagi confronts the scary leader of the Cobra Kai, it’s worth noting that he never wavers, holding the gaze of the crazy ex-Green Beret. That’s because, it turns out, Miyagi has seen worse — though not shown, he has undoubtedly killed other men, having won the Medal of Honor as a member of the 442nd during WWII.
This new “Karate Kid” hews to the original’s plot and it will be a crowd-pleaser. But it lacks a catchphrase equal to “wax on, wax off.” Not only that, the first one foreshadowed the climatic “crane kick” with Miyagi practicing it and Larusso pulling it out as a desperation move. [Note: Skip to the next graph to avoid a spoiler!] In the new one, Dre performs a fantastic flipping kick, while injured, a kick that he had never done before, and one that he probably couldn’t have done with two good legs! Like I said, it’s a crowd-pleaser — but it’s a cheat.
Nevertheless, the new “Karate Kid” doesn’t dishonor the spirit of the original. The chemistry between Smith and Chan is appealing and perfectly serviceable. For the older crowd, the new one is probably like driving a new Mustang — it’s like the original car but with better performance, but missing some of the original’s charm. For the new generation of karate and kung fu kids, it’ll be a fun discovery that could lead to exploring and appreciating that which preceded it.
Posts: 12 | From: Santa Monica, CA USA | Registered: Apr 2002 | Site Updates: 0
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Valley Dated Julie From 'Valley Girl' (allegedly!)
Member # 1322
Thanks for the review of the new movie. I'm hearing kids are loving it and the estimated opening weekend haul is around 56 million.
Posts: 7845 | From: Smiling and glancing in awe in the back of a limo | Registered: Mar 2003 | Site Updates: 22
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I'm just going to ignore this movie, as I have been doing with all the other craptastic movies being released this year. Thanks but no thanks, Hollywood. I already learned my lesson back in the 90s with Will Smith in Independence Day. What a waste of my money and time that was. Not gonna make the same mistake again on his kid's new movie. Fool me once...
Posts: 929 | From: Deb to Tone | Registered: Dec 2004 | Site Updates: 37
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