The Karate Kid
Age has always been a dicey variable in the Karate Kid universe. In The Karate Kid, Part III — perhaps the most preposterous entry in the series — the twenty-eight-year-old Ralph Macchio passed himself off as a “kid” abandoning college, with his character dating the seventeen-year-old Robyn Lively (thus lending a creepy and statutory quality to the relationship). This time around, the “kid” is truly a kid — even if the “karate” is kung fu and not karate.
The martial arts here, a watered-down take on Yuen Woo-ping, are both hilarious and disturbing. Here is a film that asks us to celebrate Jaden Smith beating another twelve-year-old in the face — a move that would surely have disqualified him from the 1984 original’s All Valley Karate Tournament — shortly after he has pinned his opponent on the mat. The remake’s aggressive sound mix invites us to revel in the bone-crunching prospects of children being thrown into the air and viciously attacked, demonstrating that America’s post-Guantanamo moral laxity has expanded considerably since Jack Bauer first waterboarded a suspect. And I’ll certainly be curious if some family values moralist emerges from the log cabin to condemn the film’s fondness for having kids beating the shit out of each other.
Jaden Smith’s Dre Parker isn’t nearly as winning as Daniel Larusso. Where Daniel was a decent kid from New Jersey who immediately introduced himself to a crazy old woman in the apartment building and brought her dog a bowl of water, immediately securing audience sympathy, Dre is more of a spoiled brat who drops his jacket on the floor, whines too much, and doesn’t even have Daniel’s soccer ball bouncing moves to impress the girl. It also doesn’t help that Jaden Smith has an annoying habit of mugging for the camera. He rolls his eyes and folds his face to the spectator instead of inhabiting his character the way that Macchio did.
Even though it’s more entertaining than most remakes, 2010’s The Karate Kid can’t come close to matching the original. And that’s because the 1984 movie was something of a masterpiece. Aside from the original’s clever method of using the Protestant work ethic as a pretext for “training” (one might make a case that Daniel’s dawn-to-dusk shifts are one of Hollywood’s greatest portrayals of efficacious slave labor), the movie was a sneaky parable about cultural appropriation. Kreese (the Martin Kove character), the military man turned dojo master, and the Cobra clan, with its Erhardian “No Fear! No Mercy!” mantra, not only presented us with a shameful bastardization of karate’s peaceful roots, but it certainly helped that Kreese, Johnny, and the various lieutenants acted like a cokehead asshole brigade. Miyagi lost his wife and daughter for reasons that involved a Japanese internment camp — one of the most disgraceful moments in American history. And the class divide between Daniel and “Ali with an I,” when taken with the feminism of Ali pursuing Daniel (rather than the reverse) and clocking the boorish Johnny, created an environment where hard work and a commitment to discipline could pull you through the American nightmare.
All this is too bad. Because had the remake’s script considered the original film’s underlying principle — that resorting to violence is only applicable when there are no other choices — it might have packed a greater punch.
Excerpted from a longer, more detailed review at Ed Rants