The Karate Kid

As I recall, I didn’t see the original Karate Kid (1984) in the theaters when it came out. I think I probably decided to watch it only after watching Jean-Claude Van Damm in Bloodsport (1988) on a VHS tape in the early 90’s. So I missed out on popular movie franchise when it was really popular.

But if you live long enough, what goes around comes around. And here we are in June of 2010, a mere 26 years later, and The Karate Kid has just opened. Having been to Beijing, China, the film interested me on that level.

I was also a fan of Jackie Chan, and I wanted to see if super-star Will Smith’s kid Jaden, had inherited his Dad’s acting chops.

I am pleased to report that The Karate Kid pleased me on all of the above levels of criteria – China, Chan, and the precocious Jaden Smith.

This film is somewhere between a remake and a brand new film. Though the title is the same, there’s no karate in this film. Instead, it is all about kung fu. It’s not about a white kid who relocates from NJ to California. This is a black kid and his Mom has taken a job in China. And finally the other major difference is that the Pat Morita role – that of a Japanese who teaches the kid karate, has been updated to a Chinese guy who teaches the kid kung fu.

Of course none of this is too far removed from Yoda teaching Luke Skywalker those Star Wars lessons. Only we don’t have a Darth Vader. Instead we have a school bully who is after Jaden Smith whose character is called Dre.

Dre has his hands full. He’s the new kid in town and he’s no longer in Detroit. He can’t speak Chinese. He’s on brand-new turf, and there’s no way for him to get lost in the crowd.

So naturally he’s the one picked on at his new Beijing school. He does make a friend, and she’s not only a cute girl, but she’s a cute Chinese girl. The school bully (below) isn’t happy about this and he easily tosses Dre to the ground in the process of giving him a good roughing up..

When Dre and Cheng, the school bully cross paths again, Dre douses Cheng and his gang. There’s a chase but Dre can’t out run them forever. Just as Cheng throws a punch at Dre,  enter Jackie Chan as Mr. Han, a local maintenance man but also a secret kung fu master. He saves Dre from another beat down and soon the lessons begin.

According to Mr. Han, kung fu is not only a martial art, but its tenets will make you a better person, help you get in tune with your surroundings, enable you to be in harmony with nature, as well as allow you to connect with the energy around you.

As Mr. Han says, “Everything is kung fu.”

So our journey with young Dre is not only one of intense training and discipline, but also one of strengthening our inner selves at the same time. With kung fu, maturity and inner calm are possible for any and all of us, even 12 year old boys from Detroit.

What makes the film so good is young Jaden. When he brings us the frightened Dre, who must now live in a new and strange world unlike anything he’s known before, we see and feel his fears, his loneliness, and his struggles becomes ours. His work is masterful.

Jackie Chan has turned himself inside out as well. He’s no longer the center of the film. He’s just Jaden’s guide, but his teachings are universal as are the problems that Dre undergoes. I mean 12 year olds in any country must all survive the rites of passage.

The film was directed by Harald Zwart, who I don’t know much about other than he helmed the Steve Martin vehicle, The Pink Panther 2. Zwart worked quite well with Jaden and Jackie. Since this is a feel good film, the script has no surprises, but the China visuals are superb.

I’ve been on the Great Wall of China, a few hours from Beijing, so when Han and Dre do some training there, I knew it was eye-candy for the viewers but still, I loved revisiting that place again.

This is a very fine film. Jaden Smith is on  screen about 95%  of the time. He’s likable, entertaining, and goes about his business. The boy-girl aspect is sort of a side story, after all, they’re just 12 year olds.  The kung fu tournament isn’t at all suspenseful, but then again, it wasn’t expected to be so.

About the worst thing that I can say about it is that the title for the film in the USA is The Karate Kid, which seems like a ‘visible to everyone’ unnecessary marketing ploy. The film will do well, and word of mouth will get out and put the fannies in the seats. And this would be the case even if they called it The Kung Fu Kid.

Maybe Chan should have said to his producers, “Your focus needs more focus…”,  just as he said to young Dre.

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