Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reel To Reel: The Kung Fu Karate Kid

There's a new kid in town.

Going Rate: Worth full admission.
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Martial arts violence, some mild language

The new Karate Kid is not merely the old Karate Kid transplanted to China and out of the 80's. Great. I'm tired of Hollywood suits taking perfectly good movies and remaking them rather than admit they're out of bankable ideas. The basic outline is still there: mom moves kid to new town, kid gets bullied, kid learns karate -- excuse me, kung fu -- from kindly master, kid fights bully in big tournament. But this do-over offers more emotion and depth in all the right places. It's as if the producers listened to the late Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi in the original, who said, "Karate here," tapping his head, "karate here," tapping his heart, "karate never here," tapping his belt.

Jaden Smith -- son of Will Smith -- plays the titular character Dru, a streetwise but culturally naive 12-year-old who moves to China from Detroit with his widowed mother after she's transferred. Dru doesn't know much Chinese, nor does he want to learn. Fortunately, the kids in his new neighborhood know enough English, including Meiying (Wenwen Han), a girl who quickly takes a liking to him on his first day in Beijing. That's enough to irk neighborhood bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his crew of kung fu punks. Dru gets his behind kicked once and then again when he tries to even the score.

Mr. Han (Chan) steps into the Mr. Miyagi role as the reserved maintenance man in Dru's apartment complex who saves Dru from a gang beatdown. After a fabulous sequence that proves the aging Chan has a lot of fight left in him, he offers to go to Cheng's ruthless kung fu instructor, hoping the master will order the student to behave. Only he winds up getting Dru in deeper, putting him into an open kung fu tournament that we all can see will leave Dru facing Cheng one-on-one. Han becomes Dru's teacher with a style that shows him kung fu isn't just the way one fights, it's the way one lives, even in something as rote as picking up and putting on your jacket -- which Dru does countless times as a means of showing him the basic moves he'll need.

Making our hero younger and more vulnerable is one of many ways this film improves upon the original. It's easier to accept Jaden Smith as a victim, given his innocence and the propensity of bullying victims to be in either elementary or junior high school. The young Smith has come a long way from his first big role in The Pursuit Of Happyness where he could just get away with being a cute kid. Jaden had to put sweat into this role and it shows. Wonder who taught him that?

I'm also impressed with Jackie Chan's performance. He shows a cool restraint in this film unlike anything I've seen from him before. Chan doesn't have Mr. Miyagi's ancient wit, but he gets to show another dimension of his acting abilities. He and Smith share a heartbreaking scene together where Mr. Han talks about a tragedy in his life.

One more big improvement: this film is shot almost entirely in China, and it's visually stunning, from the imperial Forbidden City to the allies and rooftops of Bejing. Submerging Smith's character into this heightens his outsider status.

Will this film replace the original in our hearts and minds? Not for me, but maybe for the kids who haven't seen Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita on video. Oh, and about the title: yes, I have heard your complaints about why this film is called The Karate Kid instead of The Kung Fu Kid. One sequence shows Dru taking a karate lesson from an instructional video. So deal with it.

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