I hate to admit it, but I am of that generation where the saying ‘wax on, wax off’ has a profound philosophical meaning to me. Yes I grew up watching The Karate Kid with Ralph Macchio. I saw it multiple times at the cinema, and then even more when available on video. Heck, I even went and saw Part II at the cinema. But I must have grown out of it by the third installment because I don’t think I have seen it – not even on video or television. I could be wrong here, but I believe the producers (or studio) tried to revive the franchise with The Next Karate Kid, which if I recall correctly had a young girl in it. Of course, I could go to IMDb and check the veracity of my statements, but it isn’t really necessary. My point is simply that The Karate Kid and its template about a bullied teenager learning respect and martial arts (not necessarily in that order) has been a potent one for twenty-five years. I am sure that the sporting and underdog element has been around even longer, maybe with the original Bad News Bears or something like that.
Now it’s this generation’s turn for The Karate Kid, and the ‘kid’ in question is Dre Parker, played by Jaden Smith (who as you already doubtlessly know, is the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith). Much of the talk about this film has been rather negative towards the Smith family, saying that this is just a vanity project that Will and Jada, as executive producers, have put together for their son. Maybe, but does that matter? Films in general are ‘vanity’ pieces. Even when actors go to lengths to look ugly, mis-shapen and deformed, it is still a ‘vanity piece’ – they expect to be praised for the acting, risk taking and bravery. So mum and dad love their son – what’s the big deal!
However, I must admit there are one or two slightly creepy moments, where young Jaden as Dre, is probably more buff than any twelve year old has a right to be. That aside, Smith Jnr acquits himself rather well within the parameters of the screenplay – that is. he is either a cocky, arrogant brat, or crying from the beating (or humiliation) that has befallen him. However it is safe to assume, that at the end of the film, these negative traits are no longer with the character.
The real casting coup – as predictable as it may seem on the surface – is Jackie Chan in the mentor role of Mr. Han. Pat Morita, as Mr. Miyagi, in the first few films left such an indelible impression, that he was always going to be a very hard act to follow. Again going from memory, I think Morita was nominated for a Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the first film. So Jackie had big shoes to fill – and while known for his physical and acrobatic prowess, Jackie isn’t really known for his thesping skills.
But Jackie’s status as a martial arts superstar holds him in good stead and adds weight to the training sequences. Don’t watch this film if you are expecting to see Jackie in action (although he has one amusing scene where he has the bullies beat themselves up). In this film Jackie is there to teach, not to fight.
As the film opens, Dre and his mom, Sherry Parker (Taraji P. Henson) move to China. Sherry has a new job, and Dre is dragged along. He does not speak Chinese and has trouble fitting in. He soon befriends a young Chinese girl, Meiying (Wenwen Han), but this only brings him to the attention of a group of bullies. Dre ends up in a fight with the ring leader, only to find out very painfully, that he is a proficient kung-fu student. Dre cops quite a beating.
Later, somewhat foolishly Dre tries to get revenge by throwing a bucket of dirty, gresy water over the bullies. Naturally they respond by chasing him through the streets until they corner him in an alley, and six against one, begin to beat the living tar out of him. Before the incident gets truly ugly, the maintenance man from the block of apartments in which Dre is staying, intervenes. The maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) fends off the young bullies, and then takes the battered and bloodied Dre back to his shack to patch him up with some traditional Chinese medicine.
Dre, having seen the way Han warded off the bullies, asks the old man to teach him Kung-fu. Han refuses, suggesting that ‘there are no bad students, only bad teachers’. As an adjunct here, in my travels – as few as they may be – I have noticed that martial arts centres tend to market their training to the available audience. For example, in Melbourne, most centres advertise that they teach for ‘fitness, discipline and self-defense’. Whereas in Wollongong, which is (or was) pretty much an industrial town riding on the back of the BHP Steelworks, I saw an advertisement which read (spelling not withstanding) ‘Learn the devastating art of Muang Thai’ I don’t know about you, but to me the word ‘devastating’ suggests that this martial arts centre teaches its students how to destroy things and inflict as much pain as possible. Horses for courses, I guess?
Back to The Karate Kid. Han reluctantly agrees to go with Dre to the training centre where the bullies are being taught Kung-fu. However, instead of reaching an amicable agreement with the Sifu, Han ends up arranging for Dre to compete in an upcoming martial arts tournament. The deal is that the bullies will leave Dre alone until the contest. In the tournament, they then will have the opportunity to fight with him one on one. Now all that means is that Dre now has a very short time to learn Kung-fu before the tournament. And, of course, Han aggrees to teach him.
Stylistically (and even storywise), it is the training sequences which diverge from the original The Karate Kid. There is no ‘wax on, wax off’ which, despite any nostalgic affection I may have for the original, is actually a good thing. A repeat would almost certainly be cringe worthy (although I am not to sure that the subsitute is too effective). The thing here is that you’ve got Jackie Chan as Dre’s Sifu, why not use him? As Dre’s training moves towards its completion, Jackie’s acrobatics and physicality come more to the fore, especially when Dre and Han are practically joined at the hands by two bamboo rods – mirroring each others movements.
The tournament at the end is very well choreographed and the young actors involved are also able to convey the changing moods and attitudes of the characters as the tournament progresses – as well as smaking the tar out of each other. Their performances aren’t wooden, despite the ages of the actors involved, and it would appear that they were not chosen solely on the strength of their martial art ability.
However the film does have plenty of flaws and plot points that just don’t make sense, or at the very least are not explained properly. Like Dre’s schooling – is he sent to an International school? If so, why are there predominantly Chinese local students attending the school? Or if it is just a regular high school, how is Dre expected to learn when he doesn’t speak Chinese?
As was the case in the original, the resolution of the film is contrived and unbelievable too. But here, with the villainy of the bullies amplified to breaking point, the pat resolution is even more unconvincing. Not the fights scenes, but how the bullies suddenly have a change of attitude.
Despite any criticisms that could be levelled at this film, it is first and foremost a fat slice of family entertainment, particularly if you have teenage boys. Pointing out its flaws and shortcomings is a bit like stating that ‘Hippogriffs do not exist’. It’s all about going with the story – forget reality. The contrivances are there simply to make the story more entertaining, and there is nothing wrong with that.
The Karate Kid is solid entertainment based on a proven formula, with a hint of old fashioned travelogue thrown in as background, and with the bonus of a likeable cast. You could do worse.