Saturday, June 12, 2010

The New Karate Kid Shows How to Remake a Classic

On Thursday, I had free passes to see the new Karate Kid film. Work received a stack of passes to distribute, so I saw quite a few people from work at Lloyd Center Cinemas for this special showing. I debated back and forth whether or not to see it, but since a friend of mine wanted to see it as well, it was enough to get me to go.

A few weeks ago, when I saw the special summer issue of Entertainment Weekly, I was disappointed by the lack of exciting films that I want to see. This is the first summer since 1982 where there is not a single film that I'm excited to see. The only big film on the horizon that I can't wait to see are Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Christmas release about Abraham Lincoln and the two films about the Beat Generation / Jack Kerouac. I guess you can say that biopics has officially become my favourite type of film, and there aren't any major ones out this summer.

I had very low expectations for the remake of The Karate Kid. Because I consider the first two Karate Kid films to be perfect classics, that is a tall order to fill. In fact, between the first two, I'd give a slight edge to the sequel because they go to Okinawa and I really liked the Japanese girl in the film. I also loved the theme song, "Glory of Love" by Peter Cetera (the movie song of the summer of 1986).

It did not take long, however, for me to really get into this remake once scenes of Beijing appeared in the background. In fact, taking the story to China is probably the wisest thing the film producers did. The movie follows the same plot and storyline as the original film. Single mother and son move away from their home (New Jersey in the original, Detroit in the remake) to a strange new place (the Los Angeles metropolis in the original, Beijing in the remake). Both Karate Kids soon meet a girl who captures his interest, which doesn't sit well with the local bad boy and his gang. The Kids get bullied until a maintenance man (Mr. Miyagi in the original, Mr. Han in the remake) saves them from a major ass whupping. So begins a deal to learn martial arts (Karate in the original, Kung Fu in the remake) for the tournament, where the Kids will show what they are made of to their bully rivals, who are part of a martial arts dojo taught by a bad guy barking "No mercy!"

If I walked into the theater skeptical about the ability to remake a film that is a classic, I walked out a true believer. The remake is definitely a fresh retelling, with enough cool new stuff to disguise the familiar storylines. The cinematography is outstanding (a virtual tourist advertisement for China! Not only do we see Beijing on the big screen for the first time, but also the mountains, with an awesome clifftop monastery reminiscent of Batman Begins, another successful reboot of a classic story). The casting is perfect (Jackie Chan as the guru, a worthy equal to Pat Morita's Miyagi; Will Smith's son Jaden as the Kid). The mom is hilarious and the Chinese girl is pretty cute (she almost gives the Japanese girl in The Karate Kid Part II a run for her money). Its hilarious to see her dance to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." If you're going to remake a film, certainly the music needs to be updated as well, which this film does quite well.

During one moment, when Mr. Han explains what "chi" is to his young pupil, Dre, my mind immediately thought of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Almost psychically, Dre mentions Yoda and the Force "and all that"! That's a pretty good, self-aware moment of humour in this film, which doesn't take itself or its "spirituality" too seriously. I loved the scene at the clifftop monastery, where a lady balancing on a ledge high above any ground mesmerizes a cobra, which mimicks her movement. Cobras have been my favourite breed of snake since childhood (they just look cool). My mom used to tell me stories about her childhood in which she enjoyed playing with cobras, teasing them with a stick. The venom of one, though, blinded her dog when it spat.

After such a cool scene, you can pretty much expect that it would show up later on. An update on the crane technique of the original film. The tournament also shows what technology can do, as the competitors bracket board has been digitized, like a computer game, with playbacks so that the competitor can watch his own key moves.

When the film ended, the entire audience applauded...both for the boy and possibly for the film itself. Outside, I noticed some kids practicing karate / kung fu moves on each other. Hey, I did stuff like that after I saw the original in the theaters 26 years ago. Good to see a new generation enjoying the fresh update of a classic from my adolescence. In summary, this movie is exactly how to remake a classic...set it in a foreign location, have enough original elements to disguise the familiar storyline, and pick a good cast. If there was one bit of unrealistic weakness to the film, I'd have to say that I found it incredible when the mother tells her son that China was their new home now. There was no going back to Detroit. Really? The reason they move to China is because she worked for the auto industry and there weren't any jobs left in Detroit, so she was reassigned to an auto plant in China. I find it hard to believe that a single mother would go so far away from her family, friends, and support network for a job in the automotive industry. Also, what does it say about our country if we can't even manufacture cars anymore?

After seeing this movie, I'd love to live and work in China for a couple years. However, I would not want to live there much longer than that. For one thing, the pollution is pretty bad (the film doesn't show it, though). That's not good for your health. It would be an interesting experience for a couple years, but any longer than that and I would begin to miss life in America. Anyhow, I hope this movie is a hit. It certainly deserves to be one. I doubt we'll see a more feel-good movie of the summer, and this has the subtext of an American beating the crap out of the Chinese in the end. If only our economy could do that in reality, but I'd have to say that Chinese bankers have us on that one.

I highly recommend seeing this film. After watching it, I am planning to watch the original and its sequels this summer.

The picture above is the classic plot climax to the original film, where Daniel Larusso uses his crane technique on Johnny's chin, to win the competition and title.

Before the original came out, when I was in elementary school, after being bullied on by the class bully, I had went into another classroom (at Birchcrest Elementary in Bellevue, Nebraska) and completely trashed it. I threw chairs off of desks and just made a mess of things. Did I get in trouble? No. Surprisingly, no. A teacher came in and saw what I was doing. Instead of getting angry, she asked me what was wrong. When I told her, she listened with compassion and then we restored the classroom back to the way it was. She also asked me, "Have you ever thought about taking karate classes?" I don't think I ever considered it nor was I interested.

That incident is one that has stayed with me all these years (if someone made a movie of my life, it would be a crucial early scene or flashback sequence). Punishing me would not have been a good solution. Listening and having me restore the classroom actually worked. I never trashed a classroom ever again. And after graduating out of elementary school, I never became targeted by bullies ever again. This wasn't because I learned karate or some other form of self-defense. I think its because in that one moment in elementary school, I became aware of my "power." A year later, in the summer before I started a new experience at Logan Fontenelle Junior High School in Bellevue, Nebraska, a movie about a skinny new kid with ethnic looks dealing with bullies was released. It was one of the films that I felt a personal connection to the character (much like I how I related to the Elliott character in E.T. because the actor was the same age as me). There is another reason why this film also feels like a personal one for me...

The actress, Elisabeth Shue, has an uncanny resemblance to a cousin of mine, Pamela. In the early 1980s, my dad's older brother married a divorced lady who had four children living with her (and two older sons who lived with her ex). The youngest daughter was two years older than me and we became good friends. Though her mother (my Aunt Marie) was unpopular in my family (her personality was a bit much to take), I really liked Pamela. In fact, every time I watch The Karate Kid, I'm transported back to my own teenage days because Elisabeth not only looks like my cousin, but also acts like her as well. I think the appropriate term is "doppelganger." Had my uncle not been married to her mother, Pamela and I might have dated. I felt that close to her and we had often wished that we lived in the same city (she was in Minnesota and we were in Nebraska). We were penpals for awhile and she even joined the Air Force because of my dad's advice. However, she didn't like the Air Force and had an unwed pregnancy that allowed her to get an early release from her contract.

In 2003, she had gotten back in touch with me after we lost contact sometime in the early 1990s. Since I happened to be going to visit relatives in Minnesota that October/November, I made a point to visit her and meet her family on Halloween. It turned out to be a disaster and a disappointment. She and her family (her husband is a dairy farmer and she has four children, the youngest two were her husband's biological children) were constantly go-go-go from one activity to another. We never had a chance to sit down and talk. Their lives were way too chaotic for my liking and I also realized how different we ended up becoming. She's an evangelical Christian and conservative. Oh well. In my memories, she'll always be that lookalike from The Karate Kid (to my Daniel Larusso!).

The Karate Kid Part II came out in the summer of 1986. Though the film is set in Okinawa, the scenes are actually in Hawaii. A family from church that is good friends with my family had mentioned to us that people they knew were in the movie and that it was filmed in the small towns on the eastern side of Oahu, near Kaneohe. Thanks to their reveal, in my mind, each time I see this movie, I cannot help but think of Hawaii instead of Okinawa. I hate it when people "ruin" the movie for me! Oh well, they are a great family and I'm glad that friends of theirs were able to experience movie magic.

This sequel is probably my favourite sequel of all time, because it is rare that a sequel can ever outdo the original. Like the remake, the producers were smart to move the story to a foreign locale and show more insight into the Mr. Miyagi character, as well as introduce Daniel to a pretty cute Japanese lady. In place of the crane technique, a drum reveals another cool karate move. Topping it all off is a power ballad by Peter Cetera that just gives me chills even today.

When I visited my best friend Nicholas in the summer of 1989, he told me that some guy at the theater when he went to see Batman was raving that The Karate Kid Part III would be the biggest hit of the summer. He and I both thought that was ridiculous. I was with Premiere magazine in thinking that Ghostbusters II would be the biggest hit of that spectacular summer at the movies, while Nicholas believed (correctly, it turns out) that Batman would rule the box office. The Karate Kid Part III was a bomb. I don't remember much about it, other than that Daniel Larusso was too chubby to play "the kid" convincingly, especially since this movie took place in the same time frame as the first two. I look forward, though, to watching this film for only the second time...just to be reminded why it failed to find an audience that summer.

I never saw The Next Karate Kid, in which Mr. Miyagi took on a female student, played by a pre-famous Hilary Swank (an actress I've never liked). I'll also finally watch this film soon just out of curiosity. I guess you could say that the new movie has inspired me to revisit the original and its three sequels.

A film update I hope to see soon is Ghostbusters. I think an awesome update should feature Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Chris Rock, and Steve Carell as the Ghostbusters. Imagine what they could do with CGI technology and a bad ass script written by Judd Apatow (the current writing king of guy's comedy in Hollywood)! Oh, and the update should be in a ghost-friendly locale like New Orleans. Filming in New York City again would be a mistake. Been there, done that. Time for a new location and plot (no giant marshmallow men or Lady Liberty coming alive; no ancient gods ushering in armaggedon).

My dad was right, though, when he told me years ago that when I live long enough, I'll see the same ideas come around again. We must be getting old when Hollywood is remaking movies that we grew up loving and relating to.


Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Loved the original karate kid.

Anonymous said...

i'm new... promise to brief nearly more often!

Anonymous said...

i'm new... expectancy to brief round more time after time!