Between Reviews: Every Underdog Has Its Day

Posted on July 3, 2010



Nobody asked for a kung fu-flavoured remake of ‘The Karate Kid.’ But now that it’s upon us, no one’s complaining either.

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JUL o4, 2010 – THE MOST AFFECTING ASPECT of The Karate Kid isn’t the titular poppet’s evolution from spoilt brat to spiritually attuned battler, or even the eventual, inevitable triumph of good over evil (rather, the bullied over the bully, as we’re just talking about school-going children). It’s observing Jackie Chan make a career shift from centrestage to the sidelines, now content to observe the action instead of instigating it. For a generation of viewers weaned on Chan’s action-slapstick routines, this is another splash of cold water in the face, another reminder that time will not stand still – not even for the hero of Armour of God. It’s perhaps a blessing that Bruce Lee died young, forever preserved in the amber of his fighting prime, without having to segue into Wise Master Yoda roles opposite Dakota Fanning and her all-girl tai chi team.

It’s unlikely that American audiences, who’ve made an unexpected smash out of this remake, were swept along by these associations. What worked for them is probably what works for us – the eternal durability of the underdog story. The world as we know it could end in a thermonuclear flash, but the cockroaches that survive will still be watching Rocky reruns. The Karate Kid, simply put, is a charming reworking of a charming original (despite the sacrilegiously ill-advised decision to do away with Survivor and Bananarama on the soundtrack; no respect for the eighties any more, I tell you) – but with a global spin. In a reversal of roles, the student is the immigrant now, and it’s the teacher’s country, China, that he journeys to. So is his initial manhandling by locals a sly commentary on America being bullied by China? A breathless film-school thesis is no doubt in the making.

Despite its almost punishing length, The Karate Kid delivers when it needs to. The training montage – always the key to these movies – is a winner. Perhaps it’s just Pavlovian, from years and years of watching uplifting hooey, but I had gooseflesh when the unremarkable components of the action of hanging up a jacket accrued into a showcase of kung fu choreography. This segment is one of the few that tone down the original, where the grumbling student was handed a variety of domestic chores like waxing cars and painting houses before he slowly realised that he was becoming one with the rhythms of the universe. Elsewhere in this remake, there’s an alarming amount of overstatement that makes you wonder if, in the two-plus decades since the original’s release, movie audiences worldwide have been collectively lobotomised, thus completely unable to comprehend a story told with (even relative) nuance.

The instructor in the earlier film, like Mr. Han, suffered a long-ago personal tragedy, but the incident was narrated like an afterthought, a painful sliver of insight into an otherwise stoic soldier. But here, Mr. Han keeps a car inside his home, one that he repeatedly buffs and builds up only to smash again to smithereens, in order to relive the accident that took away his family. Verdi would have jumped at the chance to weave music around such melodrama. When the kid in the earlier film was bullied, it was just the usual high-school hazing, but here, the kid – no longer a teen but literally a kid – is subjected to such physical violence, with bone-crunching sound effects, it doesn’t appear so much macho one-upmanship as a steel-cage death match. Even the acronym of the school that the kid’s friend studies in, Beijing Academy of Music, makes you wince. BAM!

Why subject a child to these hardships? Why not wait till Jaden Smith grew into a teenager? (It isn’t as if every producer in Hollywood was clamouring to remake a dimly remembered eighties hit, right?) Wouldn’t a hormonal hero have presented an opportunity for a love interest, like the lovely Elisabeth Shue in the original? Doesn’t fighting for one’s honour become more momentous when the girlfriend is watching, hoping, praying from the sidelines? (Peter Cetera was so right when he sang, in The Karate Kid: Part II, “I am a man who will fight for your honour… We did it all for the glory of love.” Ah, the eighties!) There was the rich-girl-poor-boy angle too, another of those eternally durable screenwriting commodities that, when done well, never fail to raise a lump in the throat, however sheepish you may feel later.

And yet, our eyes are glued to the screen – and that’s a testament as much to Jackie Chan as the persuasiveness of utterly unsurprising feel-good formula, littered with such shlock-inspirational koans as, “Being still and doing nothing are two different things.” Even if we’ve moved on to more cynical times (or perhaps because we’ve moved on to more cynical times), the uncynical heart-warmer will never go out of fashion. We many cluck over the niggling bits, but overall, the sense is that of satisfaction. Nobody inside the movie has a hope that Jaden Gill Smith and Jackie Chan will overcome their bigger, better opponents, especially after having a leg broken in the penultimate tournament. But we, outside the movie, do. We are the film’s real cheerleaders, rejoicing when the heroes achieve a lifetime’s worth in about a quarter of a standard working day. If that’s not feel-good fantasy, what is?

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