Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Karate Kid

The Film: The Karate Kid

The Actors: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, etc.

The Dealio: Sticking close to the original, but offering a locale swap, this version of the '80's flick, transplants the action to China, the newest go-to setting for movies.
What remains unchanged is this: we are presented with a faintly undersized kid, a sorta square peg not even aware that he should be trying to fit into a round space, meeting, in his own haphazard way an assortment of 'coming-of-age' issues, as well with cultural, language and alienation challenges.
Dre Parker's mom, a widow transferred from Detroit to Beijing for an unspecified job (something to do with an auto factory, because, as we all know, there are no Chinese who can either build cars or work in the offices of the places which do), drags her completely unenthused son with her.
Before they have been in the country 24 hours, 12 year old Dre is regularly zigging when he should have zagged, being hazed and beaten up, in the new place. Be it ever thus. During one such encounter with a group of boys who appear to be about 25 years old, Dre is saved from having his face caved in. His rescuer? The enigmatic, mostly non-verbal apartment-house handy man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). Before you can say 'wax on, wax off', Han is training Dre for a kung fu tournament, where he has the potential of engaging not one or two, but pretty much all the young thuggies who have been dotting his eyes and awarding him pink bellies that glow in the dark. Aaaand, out of the frying pan, into the fire we go with him. Along the way, his mom remains totally clueless about what is going on, knowing, deep down inside that he is just not trying hard enough to fit in and accept China as his new home. As if this kid doesn't have enough going on, he also meets and begins to fall for a local girl, being groomed as China's next great violin protege by her family and teacher (who all exist in an uptight, emotion-free universe, where Dre is a polluting presence to be excised at any cost by the young lady in question. Natch).

The Grading Session: 4.67 pengies out of 5. No new ground is broken in this retelling of the intriguing tale, but none is actually required. We all know that we want to see Dre grow and develop as a fully-realised, decent human being, who cares as much about others as himself, and works his way through several types of uncharted, dangerous territories- not the least of which is this whole becoming a teen-person thaang.
A lot of reviewers have made much of what an exquisite little gem Jaden Smith is; I agree that he does do a fantastic job here. However, for me, the real revelation came from Jackie Chan- not an actor known for his restraint and moderation in whatever role he assumes. Here, he is as surprisingly nuanced and absorbing as Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Careful, now: I am not comparing these two movies, only two actors moving outside their usual comfort zones and showing us something very small, personal, and different than what we are used to seeing from them.
The music was okay (Justin Beiber? With Jaden providing the rap? Pu-leez), and not offensive in any overt way. The classical music soars.
There are breathtakingly beautiful scenes set against the grim snapshots of the workaday world of life in any super-large city, any place in the world, where premium is placed on not standing out and defensively blending in.
Too, here is a lovely scene, near the end of the film, set at Mr. Han's house. The scene calls for what I call 'precision acting'. There is initially a great deal of noise and bombast- but not spoken. The ending of the scene is a shadow play, gentle as the first snow flake of a blizzard, as it drifts down, almost imperceptibly, to the ground. Wonderful moment for everyone involved.

Lessons Learned: Apparently, 'Kung fu is everything; it is in everything.' Did not know that. And now I do.
Also: there are really creepy dojo masters all over the world, not just in LA.
Lastly, this: Jaden's parents may have cherry-picked this project for their son as his foot-in-the-door vehicle into acting as a long-termed career, but he holds his own in a cast of more mature, seasoned and recognised adults.
What a nice surprise. It would have been tragic to have had The Karate Kid reboot turn out to be a sort of Paris Hilton redux.

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