June 10, 2010

The Karate Kid

Take it from me, father-figures just don't understand...

Grade: B –

Director: Harald Zwart

Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, and Han Wen Wen

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

The Karate Kid is guilty of most of its expected transgressions: It’s corny, formulaic, simplistic, and way too long (really, 2 hours, 20 minutes…how does that happen?). In other words, it is a lot like the 1984 demi-classic original starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita.

What makes the film entirely watchable, even entertaining at times, are the things you would not anticipate, beginning with the law of diminished expectations. The original Karate Kid is an average film, but one that is held in fond regard. At first blush, the specter of producing parents Will and Jada Pinkett Smith remaking it as a starring vehicle for their son Jaden Smith feels fallow.

Smith plays Dre, a fatherless 13-year-old living in Detroit whose his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), decides to follow her job to China when the auto plant she works at closes and moves production to Beijing. It is an interesting nod to zeitgeist to observe that when the original Karate Kid was made, Detroit was still Motor City and China was a totalitarian regime shut off from the rest of the world – indeed, 26 years ago, this film could not have been filmed there. Today, Detroit is viewed as an economic wasteland worth fleeing while China is a capitalist haven. True, the China you see in The Karate Kid whitewashes over the human rights abuses that still permeate this closed society. Still, is the New York you see in Sex and the City any less unreal?

Once in China, Dre takes a shine to a young schoolmate, Meiying (Han Wen Wen), which incurs the wrath of Cheng (Zhen Wei Wang), the neighborhood bully and local kung fu champion. During one of several beatings Dre suffers from the fists of fury of Cheng and his gang, the young boy is saved by a handyman named Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). Han also turns out to be a Miyagi-esque sensei, albeit one who uses a flyswatter rather than chopsticks.

To save face, Dre enters the upcoming kung fu competition and Han agrees to train him. As Dre learns the finer art of kung fu using a windbreaker, his dalliance with Meiying flourishes and we learn about deep, sorrowful secrets in Han’s past. But, in the end, you know it’s all going to end up at the climactic tournament.

That said, there are several reasons to sit through the film’s rump-numbing running time. Smith easily and convincingly carries off the role’s physicality, even if he seems to have taken one too many acting lessons from his dad. And, Chan dampens his usual silliness to produce one of his most understated English-language roles.

Moreover, the film is curious about both the Chinese landscape and its culture, including the origins of kung fu and regrettably fleeting references to the battle between parochial tradition and intruding Western culture for the hearts and minds of today’s Chinese youth. Filming did not take place on some Hollywood back lot, but rather on location throughout China, from crowded tenements to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the summit of Wudang Mountain. The panorama is often breathtaking, even if the story is by-the-numbers. The Karate Kid follows the same old fight plan, but it still might be worth seeing, just for kicks.

Neil Morris

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