SC reviews: The Karate Kid

By Shu ChiangMovies - 07 June 2010 4:00 PM | Updated 4:35 PM

SC reviews: The Karate Kid

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2.5 stars out of 5

“It's not karate,” Jaden Smith, son of Will, tells his screen mom Taraji P Henson in an early scene from this remake of the 1984 coming-of-age film.

It's kungfu, or as it's more formally known in China – and Singapore – wushu. On one hand, kudos on the mea culpa.

On the other, this knowing, wink-wink, acknowledgement of this cultural difference, between a Japanese martial art and a Chinese one, doesn't absolve Harald Zwart's remake from its 'crimes'.

Granted, the film retains certain key plot developments from the original, which starred Ralph Macchio, made Pat 'Mr Miyagi' Morita a household name, and spawned a series of mediocre sequels, despite being just a so-so movie in its own right.

(So it's more a 'crime' being re-perpetuated, rather than a fresh offence.)

The central idea, which persists in the 2010 film, is that learning a martial art to fight off bullies, despite the typical life lessons and fast-track spiritualism that the protagonist harnesses, is morally just.

Better yet, face down your enemy in a public blood-sport competition, throw that kick or punch in anger, and savour the cleansing thrill of victory and revenge rolled into one. And don't forget to get the girl on the way out.

The crux of these films, which are also cliché-ridden, is based on faulty reasoning, and surely runs counter to the honourable notions of self-defence and deterrence.

That aside, the original Karate Kid was enjoyable despite its flaws. Macchio was a likeable, unassuming, pretty much unknown star, playing an underdog; Morita, then known for his comic turns on TV's Happy Days and Sanford and Son, was pitch-perfect as Miyagi.

The problem of the Hollywood remake is the need to cast more well-known stars and splash a bigger budget, and introduce certain business-sense elements.

Jackie Chan, arguably the biggest Asian kungfu icon to impact American pop culture since Bruce Lee, takes over the 'Miyagi' role as a reclusive building maintenance man named Han, who befriends his pubescent tenant, Dre Parker (Smith).

Of course, Mr Han knows kungfu. And of course, he teaches Dre to be a better person, as he dodges bullies in school and falls for a pretty local girl.

Smith, who has already acted with his father in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and in 2008's sci-fi thriller The Day The Earth Stood Still, is a raw talent, and is reminiscent of Will, especially in comedic moments.

Casting him, with his dad and mom – actress Jada Pinkett Smith – as producers, signals that this film would be targeted at younger audiences, and appeal to Asian audiences who enjoy hip-hop black culture.

It all makes great sense as a film project that could relaunch the franchise. On its own merits, this remake pales in comparison to its more humble predecessor.

Chan is no Miyagi. Morita was nominated for an Oscar for his sensitive, often witty turn; Chan does not evoke the same pathos, even with his own flair for comedy.

The relationship between Han and Dre, whom the former affectionately calls Xiao Dre (Little Dre) in a cringe-worthy cross-cultural mash-up, leaves us hanging more than once, and does not offer enough of a foundation to build this film on.

Through all the short-cuts and holes in plot, Smith, a raw talent with obvious physical gifts, is appealing, but probably tasked with too much. Certain scenes rely too heavily on him and the actress playing his love interest (Han Wenwen) – cute as they are together – to carry them.

So the return of the 'Kid' may appeal to the little ones, but it doesn't add much besides more hokey Eastern spiritualism and some hip-hop spunk and sass. It's most definitely not Karate as we knew it in the 1980s.


About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.

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