Whacks On, Whacks Off
Will Smith must be wholly determined not to become the type of parent characterized within his rap songs. The evidence of Smith’s particular parenting ways is fairly obvious from his purchase — as producer of The Karate Kid remake — of a movie star career for his 11-year-old son Jaden. Further, it was no insurmountable hurdle that Jaden wanted to be a movie star now, for a few quick strokes of the pen are all it took to change a protagonist’s age from a high-schooler to a preteen. Similar changes followed in rapid succession; now, the story takes place not in Reseda but in China, and the martial art in question is no longer karate but kung-fu. These changes not only make it more convenient to justify the casting of Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan but — at least to a non-discriminating audience — can be explained away as mere trifles and easily forgiven by a family-based audience that’s got nothing better to turn to in this cinematic void.
By the very nature of a remake, comparisons to the original are inevitable. Ultimately, this remake is utterly disposable and gratuitous at best. Admittedly, the 1984 original was not a masterpiece nor a classic, but it resonated with an entire generation — not for the formulaic and predictable plot but for its iconic characters — and the remake takes great care to back itself into the same exact plot but kicks character aside (thanks to screenwriter Christopher Murphey) in lieu of providing an abundance of eye candy. Original director John Avildsen (Rocky) placed great emphasis on the relationships between the characters and how their individual past experiences shaped their beliefs and actions. Those characters were motivated by a deceptively ornate quilt of multiculturalism that made actions believable and genuine. Remake director Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks) suffers from a distinct lack of focus and sacrifices the original’s emphasis upon the all-important bond between teacher and student for sweeping views of a lush Chinese landscape. Sure, there’s still the same basic story with obligatory buildup to the tournament crescendo, and the players mirror the motions, but the characters themselves are very different creatures, which results in the omission of key elements within the remake.
Since these new characters pantomime their requisite motions without reason, the rare explanations that do occur function like a slipshod duvet cover that doesn’t fit terribly well but appears adequate enough on the outside; this attitude carries to the remake as a whole. On the surface, The Karate Kid is a structurally faithful remake with the same underdog-takes-all sort of ending, which forms a fairly convincing mirage sufficient enough to stir nostalgic feelings of the original’s fans, but it certainly has nothing — other than a bigger budget and a 140 minute runtime — that the original didn’t have to offer. Unfortunately, the differences between original and remake run much deeper than geography and the switch from “wax on, wax off” to the more convenient “jacket on, jacket off.” Through pomp and circumstance, the end result is a crowd pleaser but a hollow one at that.
As already mentioned, the framework is familiar: Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves with his recently widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) from Detroit to Beijing, China. Dre soon encounters seethingly violent school bullies — even though preteens have no reason (definitely not the rush of hormones coursing though adolescent veins) to act in such a way — who have been taught kung fu by Master Li (Rogguang Yu). The bullies beat up Dre, who convinces his apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), to school him in the ways of kung-fu. Many training sessions are held at gorgeous locations such as the Great Wall, and there’s a field trip to the Forbidden City. Dre also takes interest in a cute violinist named Meiying (Han Wenwen), who dances around saucily to a Lady Gaga song. Her parents get very angry when she ignores her violin lessons. Cue violin-related drama and a squicky kissing scene. Oh, and there’s a tournament, and you already know how that ends. In short, you’ll probably enjoy this remake from a popcorn-crunching standpoint, but if that’s not enough for you, keep on reading.
Throughout The Karate Kid remake, performances are adequate considering that these are pancake-thin characters. I suspect that Jaden Smith plays himself more than he does a character; and although the kid nails the kung-fu moves, Dre comes off with much arrogance, which almost makes his beatings seem welcome. Jackie Chan does some actressin’ but, physically, his Han just doesn’t physically resemble Miyagi, who appeared deceptively soft, whereas Han is basically Jackie Chan with facial hair. No matter how well Chan shuffles about with averted gaze, the man’s still built like a brick shithouse. Even if you’ve somehow managed to never see Chan in his real-life martial arts capacity, his sheer physical presence is a dead giveaway, which ruins the element of surprise during his fight scene. (Of course, Pat Morita, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Miyagi, didn’t know any karate moves before filming the original Karate Kid. Jackie Chan may be known in his native country for his martial arts proficiency, but he’s no Pat Morita.)
Even more troubling — ironically — is the virtual absence of multiculturalism within the remake, despite abundant opportunities other than the obvious language barrier and Chinese preoccupation with Dre’s funky hair. Further, the remake’s “insignificant” fact changes have a profoundly adverse effect on the mentor character that runs to the core. As a mentor, the Okinawan-born Miyagi was quite playful and slyly sadistic in his methods; but he was an ultimately honorable WWII hero and suffered inwardly for the childbirth-related deaths of his wife and son. In the updated version, Han — excepting his comically inventive fight scene — shows himself to be a much gloomier character; he also mourns for his wife and child, who died in a very different manner. So, while Miyagi and Han both appear to be wise Asian martial arts masters who just happen to be automobile hobbyists, their characters’ essences are quite different, and when Han spouts Buddhist aphorisms, it sounds much less believable and quite scripted. This entire character has suffered from removing his background and replacing it with a personal tragedy but no larger context.
Another related problem exists in the remake’s abandonment of the Miyagi/Kleese dichotomy. Miyagi — a dedicated military hero who faced German forces in WWII — understood that “fighting always last answer to problem.” Kreese — an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran who was obviously not over the U.S. loss — trained his students that “an enemy deserves no mercy.” As if to emphasize the differences between the two teachers, Kreese was referred to by his students as “Sensei,” which is actually seen as a derogatory term by Japanese and Okinawans and implies a cult-like adherence by Kreese’s students. All of that made sense in the original because of the historical context, which the remake strips away by a switch in geographical location and nothing to fill in the gaping void. In the original, Kreese’s Nam-related issues were to blame for his teachings, but the remake’s Master Li has no true basis for “no mercy,” — well, other than just being a bad guy. The failure of the remake to flesh out important characters — both Han and Master Li — is more evidence of a lazy and entirely unnecessary remake.
Of course, many people won’t care about the characters enough to want realistic backstories for their motivations. If you’re interested in watching a skeletal reenactment of The Karate Kid as surrounded by ultimately distracting Chinese landmarks, then go right ahead and buy that ticket. However, you must certainly realize that my point is already somewhat proven by the new The Karate Kid theme song, which is no longer “You’re the Best” but a Justin Bieber number instead. (Nice bangs… too bad about the inner vacancy.)
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.