At 12:01 AM last Friday, my friend Adam and I went to see the new "Karate Kid". I figured I wasn't going to like it. And I was correct -- I did not like it.
There are a few scattered spoilers but, come on, there's nothing to spoil here. You know the story, you know the original, and nothing I write is going to change your enjoyment if you go see this movie.
My friend Adam came decked out in his Cobra Kai shirt. This photo was taken after the movie when he was very disappointed.
The title sets it up to fail. This review doesn't exist in a vacuum because it fundamentally can't -- I am unable to evaluate 2010's "The Karate Kid" on its own merits because it is called "The Karate Kid". If this movie had any other title, I could review it for itself. (Although I probably wouldn't. There's a reason The Rock's "Tooth Fairy" didn't get an 11 Points list.)
Because it's called "The Karate Kid" and it's considered a remake/reboot/re-whatever of the 1984 classic, all I could do as I watched (and all I can do now) is compare it to the original.
And it's going to lose that battle. Other than comic book movies which get rebooted all the time, this is the first iconic movie of my generation to get this treatment. So it's not just competing with 1984's "Karate Kid" as a self-contained movie -- it's also competing with 26 years of snowballed nostalgia. And nostalgia is one of the hardest forces in the world to overcome. (Especially with inferior casting and an inferior script.)
Tweens. Going in, I knew Ralph Macchio's role was being played by Will Smith's 11-year-old son. But I didn't quite realize the full implications of his age.
Real bullies don't wear orange.
This story just doesn't work with middle schoolers. There's too much of a difference between 12-year-old bullies and the 16-, 17-year-old bullies of the original. The stakes are different, the assholeishness channels from a different place, the amount of physical pain they can inflict is significantly reduced, and the motor skills aren't quite where they need to be to perform credible moves. It's hard to really view the lead bad guy and his friends as a legit, imminent threat when none of them has armpit hair. (And that's not an Asian body hair thing, that's a kid thing.)
Also, when this movie recreates the Miyagi-saves-Daniel-by-fighting-the-bullies scene, Jackie Chan towers over the kids -- a stark contrast to Miyagi taking out a group all of whom dwarfed him -- and won't even hit them because they're just little boys.
If they hadn't branded it "The Karate Kid" and put Jackie Chan in it, this movie would've been straight-to-ABC Family. And the age of the kids is the main reason.
Reseda vs. China Somehow, Daniel-San felt more like a fish out of water in Reseda than Will Smith's son did in China. Think about that: A white kid in California felt more out of place than a black kid in China.
Not that they didn't try. Oh, how blatantly they tried to show Jaden Smith's "Dre" character struggling -- struggling with chopsticks, struggling with Chinese, struggling with watching TV. But in the film (which, by the way, got funding from the Chinese government), everyone in China speaks English... the love interest girl likes him from moment one... outside of a few pre-teen bullies, China is portrayed as instantly welcoming to ex-pat Americans... and Dre's mom is so much more omnipresent than Daniel's that Dre never feels like a stranger alone in a strange land.
Setting the movie in China certainly allows for some stunning visuals -- swooping helicopter shots, practicing kung fu on the Great Wall, running past the Olympic stadium, a woman balancing on a beam above a tree-lined valley taming a cobra. But it also made the movie feel exponentially less like "this could happen to you."
The '84 "Karate Kid" scarred me as a boy because it felt like something that could totally happen to me once I was old enough to go to high school. (And actually crossed my mind when I started at a brand new school in ninth grade.) The '10 "Karate Kid" feels too exotically fantastic to have the same stakes.
Mr. Miyagi vs. Mr. Han The interesting part about having Jackie Chan in the role is that he's Jackie Chan. We've seen him so many times -- we know his timing (both in fight scenes and English speaking scenes), his acting range, his "sad" face, and the way he uses his brief, punctuated sentences for jokes.
It's virtually impossible to see him as a sagacious kung fu mentor because all you really see is Jackie Chan. And his dynamic with Jaden Smith frequently ventured into "Rush Hour: Junior Edition" territory.
The '80s were great.
Strategies for hiding a black eye from mom.Daniel wore kickass aviators. Dre uses concealer. Come on.
Karate vs. Kung Fu In the original "Karate Kid", Daniel is trained in karate. In the new "Karate Kid", Dre is trained in kung fu.
And that's fine. It's in China, they do kung fu. Jackie Chan does kung fu. There is a difference between karate and kung fu. But making "The Karate Kid" about a boy NOT doing karate simply serves as a punch-in-the-face reminder that this is brand name abuse in every way. This was a by-the-numbers movie that co-opted the title of a classic in order to raise its profile.
Remember that brief controversy a few years ago about grocery stores selling pre-packed guacamole dip that didn't actually contain avocados? Remember how it became illegal and they can't do it anymore? Just sayin'.
Dre only does ONE chore as part of his training. There's no wax on, wax off here. There's no paint the fence. The only thing Dre does is pick up his jacket, put it on, take it off, hang it up.
I guess no one would believe that one of today's kids would be willing to do more than one chore.
It took the plot beats of the original, but is otherwise completely unaware of it. The new movie basically took the outline of the original "Karate Kid" and put a different coat of paint on it. There was still the mother and son big move... still the friend who only shows up for the first 15 minutes of the movie... still the meeting with the maintenance man... still that maintenance man having drunken remorse for the past... still the evil teacher of the rival group... and on, and on, and on.
But there was only ONE tongue-in-cheek reference in the whole thing -- when it looks like Jackie Chan's about to catch a fly with chopsticks and ends up using a flyswatter instead. (As per Daniel's suggestion, 26 years ago.)
I get now -- I didn't get before -- that this movie wasn't at all intended for nostalgic "Karate Kid" fans. If we went, great, they'll take our money -- but it wasn't made for us. This was made for people who weren't alive when the original came out. So shout outs to the original weren't important.
They wanted us to laugh at Will Smith's son's fast talkin' and Jackie Chan's Jackie Chanisms... and that was it. Any winks at the original movie would've just gotten in the way.
All the quotable lines and iconic scenes were gone. Like I said in the Reseda vs. China point, there were plenty of really amazing, beautiful shots of China. And like I said... well, several times... there was plenty of fast-talkin'. But there were no iconic moments, and no iconic lines.
Yes, training on top of the Great Wall is amazing. But the minimalist beauty of doing the crane pose on a wooden post at the beach was amazing in a different, more memorable way. Dre responding to Han grabbing a fly with chopsticks by saying "Ooh that's nasty" can never compete with "Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything."
"Take off jacket, pick it up" lacks the zen-like depth of "wax on, wax off." At the final tournament, no one in the crowd yelled out "sweep the leg." If the evil dojo has a name, (1) I don't remember hearing it and (2) I assure you, it's not as cool as Cobra Kai.
Sometimes you can tell when you're watching a movie and you see something special happen. "The Karate Kid" had that, and that's not the nostalgia talking -- I remember after my parents and I finished watching it my dad spent weeks talking about wax on, wax off (and then the final "pick your car" moment that paid it all off). There's not a single quote, single moment, single beat that can be taken away from this movie. It's just another generic, throwaway movie.
"Higher Ground" replaced "You're The Best". "You're The Best" is such a ridiculous, campy song that's taken on a tremendous life of its own since it was featured over the "Karate Kid" tournament montage.
Over the tournament montage in the new "Karate Kid" (which has some awful generic name like "Open Kung Fu Tournament" or something) they play a cover of "Higher Ground". It fits the moment, it's catchy, it "moves" the action, we all know the song... all adding up to it being just another generic, disposable element in a generic, disposable movie.
The new "Karate Kid" really showed how films have evolved in two-and-a-half decades to be bigger... but not necessarily better. As we were leaving the theater, I lamented this point. Two movies called "The Karate Kid" gives me the perfect control group to see how movies have changed over the past 26 years.
And my conclusion was: Things are bigger, but that doesn't mean better.
'10 "Karate Kid" is BIGGER than '84 "Karate Kid" in every single way. The '10 version has an establishing shot showing hundreds of people doing tai chi (I think) in rhythm. It has that woman posing on a ledge over a tree-lined cliff taming a cobra. It has a tournament with a big video scoreboard featuring instantly replay. It's big. Huge.
The epitome of this is the final, climactic crane kick. As expected, Dre faces the bad guy and stands with one leg raised. But instead of doing the jump kick of the original movie, instead, he leaps into a backflip where he kicks the bad guy in the head, while still upside-down.
THAT'S the way movies have changed in 26 years. The audience is no longer OK (or, at least, believed to no longer be OK) with a simple jumping kick. This is the post-"Matrix", post-Mortal Kombat, and, yes, post-Jackie Chan world. We need to see an 11-year-old do a backflip off of one leg and kicking someone in the head on the way down.
Is that bigger? Yes. Is it better? In the case of the '10 "Karate Kid", absolutely not.
I'm not going to stand on my curmudgeonly "back in my day, Cary Grant could tell a whole story with one eyebrow" soapbox here. Films evolve, they always have. Audiences get more sophisticated -- we've seen it all, our tastes change.
And it's not always for the worse. The original "Ocean's 11" is hokey and boring compared to the remake, for example. It's just The Way It Is.
I'm only disappointed because, this time around, the bigger, flashier, modernized remake sucked 16 kinds of balls compared to the original. The "Karate Kid" brand name wasn't exactly perfect going in -- the Hilary Swank version ensured that. But that didn't feel like a bastardized version as much as this.
One final word to sum this up. When I saw that the new "Karate Kid" made an absolute fortune at the box office in its first weekend, it cracked me up. Of COURSE it made a fortune. I usually pride myself on having a sense of the cultural zeitgeist, but I missed big time on this one.
So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe people didn't care that this movie didn't have the same specialness of the original. Maybe the audience was too young to have lived the original. Or maybe this bigger, brighter remake IS what the people really wanted. I don't know.
I just know that the success means there's going to be a "Karate Kid 2" reboot coming soon as well -- and that one, I won't go see. Because if they replace Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love" with "Signed, Sealed, Delivered", my head would instantaneously explode.
This post was originally published on Friday, June 18, 2010 at 12:00:00 PM under the category Movies.