Friday, June 11, 2010

review | The Karate Kid

KUNG FU BLANDA | If you're staring at the poster for THE KARATE KID, trying to keep your eyes from rolling out of your head and across the mall multiplex floor, and wondering why on earth somebody felt the need to remake one of the most beloved underdog stories in cinematic history, you'll find your answers in a quick glance at the credits: Hey, look! It’s Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith! They produced the film, and 11 years ago, they produced its star, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. Yep, Jaden Smith, their young son, somehow got the lead role played by Ralph Macchio in the 1984 original... only Macchio was 23 at the time, believable as a high schooler nonetheless, while Smith, as Dre, a spunky 12-year-old who moves from Detroit to Beijing with his single mom (Taraji P. Henson), has yet to hit puberty. Also, he’s tiny. Very tiny. Able to fit in most pants pockets with enough room left for a coin purse, an iPhone, and a small bag of Funyuns. He could easily pass for, say, 9, which is kinda why this Karate Kid puts an icky taste in the mouth at the outset. When Dre gets beaten up by a wrathful bully (Zhenwei Wang, suitably menacing even in a purple flannel and skinny jeans) and his cronies, he gets BEATEN UP. With AIR-KICKS. To the STERNUM. In a PUBLIC PARK. In the MIDDLE OF THE DAY. It’s an over-the-top scene that bypasses its blatant bid for empathy and slides straight into ineffectual excess. There are 1.3 billion people in China. At least some of them are adults, right? Kindhearted, do-gooder adults who’d swiftly and decisively break up a live performance of Bloodsport: The Playground Years?

Oh! There is at least one kindhearted, do-gooder adult in China/the movie: Mr. Han (Jackie Chan, emitting an agreeable Pat Morita-ish vibe), a bristly handyman who rescues Dre as his tormentors are about to murder him (probably) in an alley. Dre ingratiates himself to Mr. Han ("What up, Mr. Han?!"), and Mr. Han teaches Dre kung fu and, by proxy, life awareness or some shit ("Kung fu lives in everything we do, xiao Dre"). Speaking of which, this movie is titled Kung Fu Kid overseas, but not here in America, where we are clearly too stupid to discern between the codified culture of China and Japan. Anyway, Dre's antagonists disappear for the better part of an hour, and the focus shifts to various training montages (obligatory), a poignant backstory for Mr. Han that literally comes out of nowhere (jarring), and predominantly Dre's tentative flirtation with a violin-prodigy classmate (lovely newcomer Wenwen Han) (weird). There's a kiss at a puppet show, an arcade dance-off, some parental drama at a music recital, and eventually — because the film suddenly remembers its focus is self-defense, not puppy love — a big showdown at a youth kung fu tournament, where a JumboTron introduces the participants like they're characters from Mortal Kombat. This sequence also feels insanely vicious. Maybe I'm out of touch with the hardcore-ness of preteen martial arts competitions, but if I was the referee, I would've disqualified more than half of these children and sent them to bed without supper.

Here's everything else you need to know: KK '84 had the Crane Kick; KK '10 has the Cobra Xerox. (Don't ask.) KK '84 had "Wax on! Wax off!"; KK '10 has "Jacket on! Jacket off!" (Nice of them to keep it masturbatory-sounding.) Jaden Smith was cute in The Pursuit of Happyness (acting opposite his dad) and stiff in The Day the Earth Stood Still; his work in this is best described as diligent but uncharismatic. The same can be said of the movie. The Karate Kid is too obvious to be rousing, too protracted (140 minutes, baby!) to rate as an okay diversion, but thanks to beautiful cinematography (by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire's Roger Pratt) and production design (by Push's François Séguin), it's never less than tolerable. And let's be honest: For a film that exists solely because of brazen nepotism — Jaden Smith even raps over the closing credits! — that's practically a glowing recommendation. C —Jasper

Rating: PG. Running time: 140 minutes.

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