Saturday, January 1, 2011
I'm not a big fan of Hollywood remakes or movie adaptations of hit TV shows from bygone eras. The most obvious case of the former is The Day The Earth Stood Still, which while somewhat good at certain points, should have really been titled The Day Some Producer Googled "von Neumann Probes". A case of the latter is The Flintstones in terms of animation (the upcoming Smurfs film may fall into this category), and another live-action vs. live action example is The Dukes of Hazzard. I could go on and on about this, and in some cases Hollywood did get it right, e.g., Charlie's Angels and Mission: Impossible. Remakes often do little more than to explain to an already jaded public that Hollywood is completely out of original ideas.
Probably one of the more difficult genres to recreate for modern audiences are the 80s films. There was an aspect of fashion, music and culture that doesn't translate well to the 21st century. I figure once it's had a VH1 special done about it with D-list comedians, it's time to consider it vintage. As much as I would love to see "Savage" Steve Holland come back and do a modern-day version of Better Off Dead, the only actor who even remotely resembles John Cusack is Shia LaBeouf, and I already hate that mo-fo with the fire of a thousand suns.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to the remake of The Karate Kid. Sure it's staged around a Chinese martial arts master this time (in which case it should have been titled "The Kung Fu Kid", but there was no way the producers would have sacrificed the name value), and yes it was an obvious vehicle for Will Smith to showcase his son Jaden (who coincidentally was in the aforementioned Day The Earth Stood Still remake), but surprisingly it worked, and I'll tell you why.
First, let's consider the original. As a fat kid growing up in the 80s, any film where the outsider/nerd/new guy manages to kick a bully's ass was instant cinema gold to me. That film had one fat kid in it, and he was taken out with a roundhouse kick to the gut in the first few minutes of the tournament. So, living vicariously through an obviously good-looking 30-year-old Italian kid pretending to be a teenager was the unfortunate requirement; a much more voluptuous Elisabeth Shue helped considerably as well. Ralph Macchio's Daniel Laruso was the veritable fish out of water, moving from his Jersey neighborhood to the suburbs of LA. Moving in on the former girlfriend of Johnny Lawrence was mistake #1, since he was the star pupil of the local Cobra Kai dojo (creating the obvious trope that for every instructor who teaches peace and tranquility through martial arts, there's always some crazy-as-fuck sensei who just wants to beat the shit out of the world because he can). Enter Mr. Miyagi, the unassuming apartment fix-it guy, and well, you know the rest. Through a clever combination of chores as muscle-memory exercises and immersion in Eastern philosophy, the kid from the East Coast discovers the magic of the Far East and a friend in an old Japanese man who has his own crosses to bear. Even as a kid, I realized Daniel-San never really seemed to click with the whole Zen aspect of things, but he goes through the motions, learns the techniques and in the end proves himself. He finds a friend along the way, gets the girl and we get a film that generally does everything right. William Zabka typecasts himself forevermore as the blond asshole bully and Ralph Macchio commits career suicide that finally buried the corpse after My Cousin Vinny.
So how does the remake compare and in many cases improve on the original? For one, it was eminently more believable as a fish-out-of-water story. While some may say that going from the East to West coast is in a cultural way almost moving to a different country, here it actually happens. Mom gets a job in Beijing and young Dre is immersed in a culture and language where he is a complete outsider. He falls for a cute girl, in this case a violinist who happens to have close family ties to Cheng, this film's Johnny Lawrence. Cheng and his group of Cobra Kai toadies quickly use Dre as a punching bag, and we get to the inevitable show starter where Dre pulls one over on them, and they commence to beating the tar out of him. Enter this film's Miyagi (Mr. Han) in a homage to the first film, taking on all the kids in a well-choreographed scene which pays additional respect to Jackie Chan's style of using his combatant and the environment to his advantage, getting the kids to actually hit each other, then using one kid's windbreaker to hog-tie a bunch of his buddies.
Again, remake mirrors original with the visit to Cheng's school, where the challenge is dropped and the training for the tournament begins. However in this case Dre seems a bit more focused in terms of his willingness to learn the ropes. While the film's location allowed a deeper immersion in the fundamentals of kung fu and the concept of chi by visiting the literal birthplace of Chinese martial arts (the visit to Okinawa didn't happen until the sequel with the first series, and even then Daniel's character never really "connected" with it), Jaden is infinitely more believable as a kid who realizes he's been given a unique opportunity to change his life and way of looking at things. The training is much more believable, as Smith's fitness eventually reflects hours upon hours of training and discipline.
Here too is a deeper, more painful storyline, as Mr Han is revealed to have lost his wife and son (in this case, a boy not much younger than Dre) in a car accident during a family argument. Chan excels at this point, showing true pain and sorrow, and we see Dre helping his mentor move past the tragedy in a way that the Daniel/Miyagi story never seemed to get right.
Fast forward to the tournament, and it pretty much plays out like the original - Chen's master doing everything he can not to be embarrassed by the upstart Dre/Han combo, Dre quickly moving up through the ranks, culminating in a signature move that wins him the tournament. Chen is nothing more than a one-trick pony throughout the entire film, never losing his violent streak or his scowl until the very end, culminating in a moment that was much more satisfactory to the honorable teacher dynamic than in the original.
Overall, being a film I was initially skeptical about, I found this one to improve upon the original, which while still a good film, had some overall flaws. Jackie Chan shows more range than we were used to seeing, perhaps since he wasn't playing second fiddle to the ever-annoying Chris Tucker. Jaden Smith really shines as Dre, making him a kid I'd prefer showing as an example to my children than the Daniel character in the original. This film is less 'mushy' than the original (which was a quintessential teen film), and my one big gripe aside from Chen's stony performance was that the romantic subplot seemed very awkward given a largely pre-teen cast. This remake also didn't overwhelm the audience with a catchy soundtrack, given that the "You're the Best" song pretty much solidified itself as an anthem in the original film. As with most Smith vehicles, there is some degree of rapping involved, but here it was at the end and didn't overshadow the key moments. The cinematography of China was amazing, and scenes of the Great Wall and the monastery made the film that much more enjoyable.
So, never let it be said that a remake can't succeed and in many, many cases improve upon the original. I'm sure this film will stand out as an exception to the rule, but if nothing else, it proved to be a more believable story with much better acting than it's kitschy, dated predecessor.