Your Parents' Money Makes Way for Itself (Talent Optional)
Yes, that is more important than anything that has to do with race, or culture, or class, or the (not) subtle influence of China’s state run production company on the film. Because while I can accept that Mr. and Mrs. Jada Pinkett Smith were going to craft a vanity project for their son and that the Chinese government would only cooperate with such a project if it projected the image of China that they want the world to see and that it would more or less cash in on an old franchise because that’s just what movies do these days, I cannot accept such a tired premise dragged out for so long.
And the worst aspect of the length is how much of it could have been pared down were it not from the imagined necessity of fitting in tourist locations for scenes that transparently fulfill that purpose and none other. It has probably the wildest sense of tonal dissonance in any of Hollywood’s contemporary Chinoserie films. During one of the numerous training sequences, Jackie Chan solemnly intones that “everything is Kung Fu.” The film then exchanges everything that is everyday, ordinary life for the extraordinary and state-approved-for-filming glories of The Great Wall and Wudang Mountain. If “everything is Kung Fu” why do you have to travel several hundred miles to teach its most important lessons?
The bloated length of The Karate Kid is not its only problem, but it is the one that I can’t stand and it is the one that could be fixed. The direction was always going to be hackish, because the director is a hack. Jaden Smith was always going to be just on the cusp of actually acting, because he’s only eleven and hasn’t really grasped the core principles of acting. Very few eleven year old kids really do, much less ones who are handed lead roles by executive producers mom and dad.
And really, the story hasn’t changed much since the original Karate Kid unless one wants to read further into its portrayal of race and culture than I care to delve in a blog post. This really is the same “new kid gets beat up, meets grumpy aloof teacher, gets pounded on by grumpy aloof teacher, self-actualizes through teacher’s training, wins” storyline that easily fit into a twenty two minute South Park episode (RockManXZ24 and I hummed “You’re Gonna Need a Montage” so, so many times). So why? Why one hundred and forty minutes?
My friend Lightwing23 quite liked this one, but issued a reservation I like to think was inspired by me: “Easily recommended for anyone except Asian cinema aficionados...” Actually, there’s things going on that only serious fans of kung fu movies will really appreciate, like Yellow River Fighter star and Shaolin Temple villain Yu Chenghui in a cameo as a judge at an audition for the Beijing Academy of Music. I could recognize that beard anywhere. Okay, that’s a rather esoteric observation by most any standard. But if anything held my interest in The Karate Kid it was kung fu legends Jackie Chan and Yu Rongguang, who played the role of “bad coach.” Yu has been playing a bad guy since the beginning of his career (although he’s best known for playing the lead in Iron Monkey) but Chan has finally done something that I thought he never would: he’s playing the master.
Chan’s major star turn was in Yuen Woo-Ping’s 1978 kung fu comedy, Drunken Master, a film that was gloriously disrespectful of elders and teachers. It’s hard to imagine Chan, who spends most of that film ducking responsibility, hitting on girls, stealing food and picking fights, suddenly playing a reserved kung fu master with such reverence. He does it well too. And it doesn’t hurt that his first fight scene in the movie is classic Chan choreography to go along with an atypical Chan performance. Chan is so good that he elevates Smith during an emotional scene in which both of them hit the right notes (it’s the only scene where Smith does). They have really good chemistry, and it really sucks that cheesy direction makes it feel like a Lifetime movie.
But this director also thought that the movie needed to be well over two hours long. Never are real issues with Beijing (smog, crime, aids riddled prostitutes) actually mentioned, resembling something along the lines of the martial arts and action films Chinese directors produced in the eighties. Zwart also films many of the fight scenes in an unpleasantly typical way, obscuring the choreography with a shaking camera in close up. Hong Kong directors of the late seventies and early eighties filmed intricate choreography in mid and long shots with long takes because it looks best that way. The filming, particularly during the final tournament, is cheesy and bland and a disservice to the exceptionally talented Chinese performers as well as Smith, who seems to have at least trained pretty hard to actually perform martial arts.
The Karate Kid (yes, I find the title annoying myself, what with it being a movie about Kung Fu) really misses the mark with its portrayal of Beijing, of China, of very early adolescent pre-sexual relationships (watching twelve year old kids kiss is incredibly icky) and it really does itself no favors by not policing its fortune cookie sayings a little bit better. Its one redeeming element is Chan, who having actually come from nothing, deserves better than this.