Friday, March 12, 2010

The Karate Kid Re-Visited

With the Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith re-imagining of The Kung Fu Karate Kid coming out this summer, Abby and I decided to re-watch the original. "Re-watch" may not be the right word. I watched the sequels many, many times growing up, but I have no recollection of the original. I can remember many of the scenes, because the sequels mined their predecessor for footage whenever possible--the first five minutes of the second movie is a montage of the scenes from the first, including the final fight of the tournament.

On a side note, one my memories from the second film is this girl who appears to run out of the audience and hug Daniel after he wins the tournament--which struck me as a child as a weird thing to happen at a karate tournament. You never see her face, so I always remembered her as the random girl with the large butt. Turns out it was Elisabeth Shue.

Anyway, the original's good, but while we watched it Abby and I realized that you could never make that movie today. Why?

1. There's almost as much karate in the movie as there is in the title. With the exception of a few beatings through the middle, even as Daniel trains, there's not much fighting until the third act. When it finally happens, it's very watchable--not as over-the-top as what we're seeing in the previews for the 2010 version, but still fast and frenetic.

2. Lax pacing, in addition to a long running time (just over two hours). It's not that slower and longer movies don't regularly come out, it's just that a movie with the word "karate" in the title could not be nearly as relaxed if it were made today. There is no conflict in the film at all for about twenty minutes. It's an hour before Daniel signs up for the tournament, which drives the plot for the rest of the film and cements the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. And if I had to cut anything, it'd be the romance subplot.

3. Mr. Miyagi is a bad influence. Under his supervision, Daniel lies on a registration form, drives without a license, and drinks alcohol.

4. Daniel is kind of a prick. The central conflict is about Daniel and some bullies, but Daniel doesn't help his cause at all. He starts two of the fights that lead to his epic beat-downs (although he certainly didn't deserve the beating they gave him)

5. Only the bad guys care about winning. Miyagi says over and over that Daniel doesn't have to win and that he shouldn't expect to win. The point is to make a good fight. His antagonists, on the other hand, are driven to win at all costs.

6. The main characters are actually kinda sorta like real human beings. Daniel is a jerky little teen from Newark. Mr. Miyagi is a lonely old Okinawan. Modern movies like heroes to be righteous and use quirks as proxies for flaws. Daniel and Miyagi's flaws are big and bold, while their quirks are more subtle. One of my favorite bits was the wide lapels on Mr. Miyagi's suit--because it's his only suit and he bought it in the seventies. It could have been played for comedy, but it was subdued--a character facet for anyone who cared to notice.

7. The 80's song montage. Back To The Future had The Power Of Love; Beverly Hills Cop had The Heat Is On; Top Gun had Danger Zone; Rocky had Eye Of The Tiger. Big movies in the 80's all had their cheesy theme song, it's just what you did. For The Karate Kid, the bulk of the climactic karate tournament happens while Joe Esposito sings You're The Best, kicked off by Elisabeth Shue (hilariously) invoking the title. The film suffers a little from it.

8. The training regimen almost kind of makes sense. Daniel has studied karate before the film's opening scenes--but he's learned it from books. Daniel is referred to as "Karate Kid" before he spends any kind of time with Mr. Miyagi, and when they do start training, they mostly work on his form, strength, balance, and reflexes. So it's mostly believable that Daniel can go from getting-his-ass-handed-to-him to winning the tournament in only two months--he already knew how to fight, he just sucked at it. The most telling sign of his transformation comes in the locker room when he nearly has an altercation. Two months ago, when confronted, he would have run or charged. This time, he snaps immediately into a defensive posture.

The Karate Kid works (where its sequels fail) because it's a triumph of solid storytelling over placating your audience. Yes, there's not a lot of fighting in it, but the movie isn't about fighting. It's about a kid without a father who goes on a right of passage and develops a relationship with an older man who lost his son. Their friendship is born of mutual respect and admiration, and their friendship is the heart and soul of the movie.

I'm curious about the re-invention. It's not hiding the fact that it will be drastically different, even the characters named are different (Dre instead of Daniel, Mr. Han instead of Mr. Miyagi). It takes place in Beijing rather than Los Angeles, the mentor is Chinese, not Okinawan. Etc, etc, etc. I'll defer to Rotten Tomatoes before I see it in theaters, but I'm cautiously optimistic--it might be a worthwhile.

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