Wednesday, June 16, 2010
"Everything is Kung Fu" - The Karate Kid (2010)
As Jackie Chan, playing reclusive maintenance man, Mr. Han, says in Harald Zwart's passionate remake of The Karate Kid, "Everything is Kung Fu." Cool. I guess that means there's a magic to kung fu. Indeed, there's a magic to this story, first made in 1984, the decade of many many sequels, because the up-from-obscurity-to-kung-fu-victory formula here works once again, gives Jackie Chan a chance to play a troubled character, presents the very promising debut of Jaden Smith, and takes us to China as well.
Now I've only seen parts of the 1984 original on television, though I've seen Hilary Swank tap her inner Million Dollar Baby in ubiquitous training montages in The Next Karate Kid (1994), so I'm not a devotee of the franchise, and I'm not missing the whimsical and witty Pat Morita here. Nevertheless, I was taken for a wonderful ride in this rendition, starting with an absorbing opening chapter in which director Swart is not afraid to take time to develop the alienation felt by twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Smith) when he ends up moving to Beijing with his mother (Taraji P. Henson).
A nice attention to detail makes you feel the jet-lag, the dense air, the alien sights and sounds. You feel the dampness with its suggestion of alien smells. Of course, we know little Dre will end up victimized by bullies. We know he will try to fight back on a number of occasions. And we know that Mr. Han will intervene to teach Dre the way to fulfillment: learn kung fu and kick butt at the big tournament. But it's believable fantasy.
It's also very atmospheric fantasy. The opening scenes, as I have said, realistically portray the feel of an alien land. In addition, the requiste training montages play out in beautiful settings. Yes, they do some training on the Great Wall. At the beginning of Dre's training program, Mr. Han makes the boy climb the many steps to a mountaintop monastery, where devotees of Chinese spiritualism do their thing in picuresque courtyards. "This is like Mulan," my daughter, Jane, said next to me. On the top of the mountain, Dre watches a kung fu guru hypnotize a cobra and control its movements on the edge of a high precipice. This skill will serve Dre well in the climactic tournament, an ending that is gripping despite its predictability.
Jackie Chan gets to do a little more acting than usual. He is a tormented individual who feels responsible for the death of wife and son in an automobile accident. Every year he rennovates the culprit car to vintage condition and then bashes it with a sledgehammer on the anniversary of the fatal accident. For Mr. Han, Dre helps fill some of the loss of his son, but training him is also a chance to teach a lesson to the cruel teacher of the kung fu boys who have victimized Dre. As Dre, Jaden Smith is suitably engaging; his father can be proud. The Karate Kid is a rousing, touching adventure, a film worthy of your time in a summer of lackluster offerings.