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A remake worthy of an admission

THE KARATE KID

The remake madness continues. Mr. Miyagi is now played by Jackie Chan. Ralph Macchio has been usurped by Will Smith’s son.

On paper, it sounds like a joke. The “jacket on, jacket off” routine I read about that replaced “wax on, wax off” seemed like a cruel sex gag riffing on the first movie with the sexual maturity I’d expect from a middle school teenager. But I watched it, and I don’t even recall hearing Jackie say “jacket on, jacket off.” He said, “take the jacket off. Put it on the ground. Pick the jacket up.” Whew. Disaster averted.

Sometimes that’s what seeing one of these remakes feels like. You come in bracing for a hurricane, an absolute disaster. Then you leave having not only weathered the storm, but actually enjoyed it? What is going on?

In the final analysis, the original Karate Kid films were not considered classics. The crane kick got made fun of endlessly when I was growing up. That means its target audience even thought it was lame. So there was room to improve upon it. How would they even find the right “final blow” that impresses everybody in this cynical day and age? First of all, I’m glad they attempted to top it. They could have sidestepped it altogether, or pulled the rug out with some humor, which is how they got around Miyagi’s fly catching method; this time Chan gets his fly with a swatter and picks up its dead body with the chopsticks.

The seed of the remake tree was planted to grow money. Simple. However sometimes a film like Karate Kid has such a good idea in its root that when it grows up to be a big tree that’s green with money it can be nice to look at. I don’t know where I’m going with this metaphor. Let’s see…we’ve been watching trees like this grow from the ground, hoping to produce something really nice, not just money, but entertainment that’s satisfying for children and adults. And I think this is a great and unique example of that.

My title is not just about the price of admission. It is about my admission that not all remakes suck nuts. Sometimes, there comes along a rare film that improves on the original, retains its important story elements and seems like a worthy successor to the original. I still don’t think Chan will ever have the charm of someone like Pat Morita (at least in that role) since Pat brought so much of himself to it.I don’t think Smith’s son has the same charm of someone like Ralph Macchio, although he is about half his age in this and asked to do even more dramatically than his older Italian counterpart. The violence is harder, the dramatic beats are bigger. And the crane kick has been replaced with something bolder and even more importantly–bad ass. This is everything a remake should be. When they talk about going above the original I’ll always remember this as one of the first remakes that succeeded in the task.

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2 responses to “A remake worthy of an admission

  1. Zach

    Wow,

    Prepare for an earful of rebuttal.

    First issue, remakes are a sin. Especially remakes of films that are less than 30years old. The only exception I can even grant safe passage to was Dawn of the Dead, due to unbelievable transformation of the original material at the hands of the adept Zack Snyder. (too long i know)

    Second, there is a standard of how classic a movie from the eighties can be. I for one think that, at a minimum, the original Karate Kid is indeed a classic. The film has more layers than you are giving it credit for.

    It deals with social class stratification, as Daniel-san is a poor kid from Jersey being moved cross country with his crazy mother to Hollywood, living in a dump apartment because she can’t hold a real job; he is bullied not only as the new kid at school but also because he is living in the poorer part of town. His would be girlfriend comes from a wealthy family and they frown upon her association with him.

    Then there is Mr Miyagi, a military vet who is an alcoholic hermit taking care of the terrible apartment complex that Daniel’s family lives in and wrestling with the loss of his wife and son during the war. His feelings of social rejection in California also amplified because it was the state that sent most Japanese immigrants to ‘camps’ during world war 2 and there is still a sense of prejudice in the neighborhoods that he lives in.

    They are tied together by their mutual sense of rejection and failure, and yet through the teacher/student process they become stronger people.

    Third issue, this movie shouldn’t be called the Karate Kid as Will Smith’s son is not studying Karate…Karate is a Japanese artform as most know and KungFu is largely Chinese in its origin. Putting this blanket title of ‘karate’ in leu of the actual cultural background of the form is not only insulting to the audience but also an ugly generalization that all asian people know … ‘karate.’

    If you wanna borrow the original from me, let me know.

    Best,

    Zach

  2. Zach,

    First off thanks for reading and replying. The original Karate Kid is one of my favorite films, including both of the sequels.

    I think you did a great job breaking it down. There is a lot to the original film I appreciate. Among the characterization you listed, I also liked Daniel’s courtship. Dressing up in the shower curtain at the Halloween dance. The scenes with the bonsai tree were great, it became a symbol for inner strength that turned into a theme throughout the trilogy. And when I think of those things, their absence is definitely felt in the remake.

    Maybe I should rescind the comment about saying it isn’t classic. Of course it is. But the crane kick was cheesy. His defeated opponent crying and congratulating him was cheesy too, especially after all the antagonizing he did. The moment of awesome defeat the match builds to doesn’t come with the satisfaction you want or expect. In the remake they hit that target better. It didn’t rouse me to a standing ovation or anything, but I think it was a clever attempt at “upping the ante”. Nothing gets kids motivated more than a finish like that. For a movie about martial arts, the original ending was disparaged, considered hokey, etc.

    You have a point about the kung fu/karate differences. If you’re going to make it Kung Fu call it the Kung Fu Kid. But since this is a remake it’s all about brand recognition.

    I also thought it was a clever twist to send the kid to China. Especially in the current tense climate between our country and theirs. It’s interesting that some underlying racism became the reason for the antagonism. There were a lot of missed/dropped storylines. He meets an american kid at the beginning and that goes nowhere. The teacher of his chinese opponent seems to have some weird past with Jackie Chan’s character but it’s never understood. It isn’t a perfect remake by any means but I think for once there was an attempt made to try and be clever about it. I haven’t seen any remakes do that in recent memory.

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