**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han
screenplay by Christopher Murphey
directed by Harald Zwart
by Walter Chaw So here's the thing: there's something really powerful about the archetype of a child losing his father and finding a mentor and, on the flipside, of a father losing a son and finding an apprentice. Easy to scoff, it's also the worn-through, threadbare foundation for stuff like the Dardennes' arthouse favourite The Son, Beat Takeshi's Kikujuro, and Pixar's Up--so why not another go-round with a remake of The Karate Kid? The only places it truly fails are in its deviations from formula: a little too much faithless razzle-dazzle here, a bit too much equivocal bullshit there, and a whole lot of nepotism as overmatched Jaden Smith (spawn of producers Will and Jada Pinkett) grimaces his way through a cipher of a character. It's high-concept fat that clogs the arteries of a lean, John G. Avildsen-sculpted framework, this inner-city-to-Forbidden-city crap that sees li'l Dre (Smith) jetting off to Beijing when mommy (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job at an auto plant. Should there be an undercurrent of irony here about moving from Detroit to Beijing to work on cars? Doesn't matter, as in the place of subtext, The Karate Kid quickly introduces a deeply uncomfortable love story between 12-year-old Dre and little Mei (Han Wenwen) that culminates in a stolen kiss and a sexy dance set to Lady Gaga that has blank Dre slacking his jaw in the very approximation of Forrest Gump finally fucking Jen-nay. Is there a racial element when bully Cheng (Wang Zhenwei) warns Dre to "stay away from all of us"? Doesn't matter, as in the place of all that stuff about internment camps that so beautifully complicated the 1984 flick is the drama of Mr. Han née Miyagi (Jackie Chan) losing control of his car on a dark and stormy night (because just as every chink knows kung fu, none of them can drive--Han totals a car in the film while it's parked in his living room), thus opening the door for a ragamuffin to come calling like some funked-up changeling.
It doesn't matter, because this Karate Kid is as afraid of an edge as daddy Smith's rap, choosing instead to go through the standard motions of our pint-sized hero getting the shit kicked out of him in the second instance this year, after Kick-Ass, of surprising kidsploitation. Ribs cracked, legs broken; it's one thing to watch twenty-something Ralph Macchio have his shit handed to him, another altogether to watch pre-pubescent Smith roll around in agony, every bit the baby on the verge of...shaving? The lack of sexual tension is palpable, along with any sense of suspense at the outcome of the ultimate tournament showdown in which Dre, freshly tutored in kung fu by occasionally-literally drunken master Han, takes on Cheng's entire evil dojo to the orgasmic strains of another James Horner score. Take note that, since The Karate Kid 2010 takes place in China, Horner's exhausted his entire woodwind and gong section--that is, whenever ace sell-out John Mayer isn't sneaking onto the soundtrack to pawn what's left of his credibility. Note, too, that "karate" is a Japanese term meaning "Jackie Chan has sold his soul."
Chan's remarkable in this film because he's as vulnerable and transparent as late Montgomery Clift. Like Han, Jackie used to have it all--and know kung fu--but has lost almost everything (and knows kung fu). No wonder that sense of absolute exhaustion and sadness rings with so much pathos. I can say with authority, having been raised on maybe 200 Jackie Chan bootlegs, that this is the first time he's actually delivered a powerful, poignant performance. Maybe after coming to America to be Chris Tucker's bitch, then Owen Wilson's, now Jaden Smith's, it was high time for him to pre-empt becoming butler to Denzel Washington's spermatozoa in next summer's sleeper hit by unwittingly revealing that Hollywood maybe wasn't everything he'd hoped it would be. It certainly wasn't worth his race. When Chan cries over the anniversary of something that's unrecoverable in time, he could easily be mourning the simple joy of The Karate Kid's only decent action sequence, in which Chan uses a gang of thugs as props against themselves--an echo of old glories with moves borrowed from Drunken Master 2, Ten Fingers of Death, and The Big Brawl: films from a different career altogether, spent at the top of the world. What Chan's Han lacks is an adversary worthy of him, with John Kreese (played in the first film by the great Martin Kove) replaced by mindlessly bellicose Master Li (a scowling Yu Rongguang), who doesn't present a Yang father figure to Han's Yin so much as a force of pure, empty malevolence effortlessly abandoned once Han lights a better way.
What's evergreen about the original The Karate Kid is that feeling of righteousness and rejuvenation--of can-do, lost in the first decade of the new millennium but suddenly in resurgence, just as it was in the early years of the 1980s as the Gipper brought us back from the brink represented by the New American Cinema. Often overlooked in the discussion of this rush to categorize the movies post-9/11 as nihilistic and shambolic is that this trend of "rebooting" franchises with creation stories and prequels indicates a hopefulness in our ability to recast the stories of our own lives. It's Blade Runner's promise of a new life, a chance to start again from the ashes of this mess we've made. The 2010 The Karate Kid is a bad movie, no question, but it's an optimistic one in that, even as it's wallowing in the racial shorthand and easy goosebumps of cheap entertainments, it espouses the ability to rejuvenate oneself at fonts real (at the top of the Great Wall, for instance) and metaphorical. It's about respect and perseverance and suggests that, even when a movie calls itself The Karate Kid while setting itself in China, it's possible to be the bigger person and offer up a genuinely naked, outraged performance that speaks to the real subtext of the film. The Karate Kid is Jackie Chan's Danny the Dog, a movie that, completely accidentally, deals with the cost of cultural empiricism, the portrayal of Asians in American cinema, and the ways in which certain stories work regardless of the lack of intelligence and grace afforded in the telling. Originally published: June 11, 2010.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers The format-exclusive extras on Sony's Blu-ray release of The Karate Kid mostly stoke one's dislike of Jaden Smith--or maybe that's just me. But in trying to channel his father's laconic, "you know what I'm sayin'?" interview persona in talking heads on this disc, he comes across as an entitled little douche. A good portion of the nine-part "Production Diaries" (30 mins. in play-all mode, HD) is alas dedicated to mythologizing Jaden, always Jaden, who receives a lot of off-camera coaching from his famous folks--and Will Smith with a shaved head incidentally looks exactly like Todd Bridges--and, according to the segment "Jaden Smith: A Day in the Life," never had to suffer the indignity of an on-set tutor. (The young badass playing Cheng appears to relish his opportunities to beat on Jaden, who's palpably unsettled as he dusts himself off from one particular stage shove.) Jackie Chan is really charming here, though--a bit of B-roll catches him assisting the camera crew, and he laments the Rush Hour movies for basically forcing him to rehabilitate his American movie career with Pat Morita's sloppy seconds. On a related note, also specific to the BD is an alternate ending (4 mins., HD) that pits Chan's Mr. Han against the evil instructor in a post-tournament showdown. All things considered, it's a decent, old-school Jackie fight (lots of props employed), but instead of Han tweaking the guy's nose, Mr. Miyagi-style, it ends with Dre talking him down from the proverbial ledge, because this movie flatters tweens at every opportunity. Ultimately, I'm glad they cut it.
The remaining supplementary material can likewise be found on the combination DVD/Digital Copy included with the Blu-ray: "On Location: The Karate Kid Interactive Map of China" finds director Harald Zwart narrating brief, HiDef production tours of Wudang Mountains, Beijing, and the Great Wall; "Chinese Lessons" jumps to clips from the film that could be said to constitute language tutorials for English-speaking viewers; "Just for Kicks: The Making of The Karate Kid" (20 mins., HD) is more or less a remix of the production diaries, albeit with a greater emphasis on comparing this Karate Kid to the original; and the video for Justin Bieber's "Never Say Never" (feat. Jaden Smith) does not come with an icepick for the eyes and ears because that would be redundant. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of The Karate Kid proper is all but irreproachable--the red uniforms of the opposing team regrettably blot into patches of pink, though naturally they're even more unstable in NTSC. Still, the level of detail is jaw-droppingly tactile throughout (I kinda wanted to pet Dre's dreads, too), and the image keeps it real with an unsuppressed grain structure. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is clean, bold, and full. I wish the voices didn't always sound so pure--there's not a lot of attention paid to spatial dynamics, which seems like a missed opportunity as the film visits high-altitude shrines and the inside of a sports complex--but at least they're clear. A new Sony self-promotional spot plus trailers for Grown Ups and Stomp the Yard: Homecoming cue up on startup; additional previews for Open Season 3, Hancock, and the 1984 The Karate Kid are accessible via the main menu along with some BD Live ephemera that gobbled up my bandwidth without anything to show for it. Originally published: September 27, 2010.