by HELEN GEIB
It’s depressing that I’ve almost come to expect that the so-called “family” films that have huge opening weekends will be rude, crude, and not something I’d want my friends’ kids to see. So it made me very happy when The Karate Kid didn’t even come close to meeting my expectations. It’s longer than it needs to be and overly melodramatic in supplying one of the main characters with a tragic back story, but those are flaws that are easy to excuse. This is an entertaining and thoroughly nice movie with wide audience appeal.
Dre is 12 years old and moving to China. His single mother (dad died a few years before) has been transferred from Detroit to Beijing and Dre is going with her. It’s a long way from home in every way, but at least there’s a sweet, pretty bi-lingual Chinese girl at his new school who likes him. Life in Beijing might not be so bad after all… if it wasn’t for the schoolyard bullies led by nasty little xenophobe-in-the-making Cheng. Cheng and his gang are advanced students at a kung fu school where the teacher’s mantra is “no mercy.” Fortunately for Dre, the maintenance man at his apartment building knows kung fu and is disgusted by the evil teacher’s perversion of the martial art. Mr. Han undertakes to teach Dre real kung fu so he can compete in an upcoming open tournament against his tormentors. Win or lose on the scoreboard, he will win by earning respect.
Jaden Smith plays Dre. Smith is Will Smith’s son, but he didn’t need nepotism to get this part. He is a talented child actor with a natural liveliness that is entirely charming. The writing and the acting make a child character who is neither precocious nor preternaturally mature, but believably childlike. At the same time, Dre is fast growing out of childhood- because he’s at that age and because things are changing rapidly around him.
Jackie Chan plays Mr. Han. It’s a good part for him. The movie treats his character with great respect and though it’s a kung fu movie, doesn’t ask too much kung fu from his old, oft-broken bones (leaving almost all the fighting to the more energetic and resilient youngsters). Chan is good for the movie too. Mr. Han’s amusing, premature curmudgeonliness is immediately tempered by Chan’s tremendous likability. From his first scene with Dre we are comfortable in the knowledge they are destined to become an affectionate teacher-student/surrogate father and son, and watch with pleasure as the relationship gradually develops. Chan/Mr. Han’s steady master and Smith/Dre’s buoyant novice make a great pair.
The film should really be entitled “The Kung Fu Kid,” and diverges in a number of other ways from its source as well (although holding to the basic storyline and character relationships). Not the least of the changes is the change of setting. This Karate Kid was photographed on-location in Beijing and the Chinese countryside around the Great Wall; this is a film that is not afraid to photograph a training montage against sweeping vistas. The scenic tour is one of the best parts of the movie, giving it visual interest it wouldn’t otherwise have. It also serves as a good introduction to Chinese culture for the children in the audience.
As a fan of kung fu movies and Jackie Chan, my favorite scene could only be Chan’s one fight. Early on, Mr. Han steps in to defend Dre when the bullies are beating him up in the apartment courtyard. Naturally they don’t like some old man interfering in their “no mercy” punishment of the upstart foreigner. However, their attack on Mr. Han goes badly awry when he literally turns them against each other (a deflected fist hits another attacker, three become tangled in one’s jacket, and so on). As Dre summarizes wonderingly and admiringly afterward, “You didn’t hit them, they just beat each other up.” A close runner-up is a pilgrimage to a mountaintop temple where Dre is awestruck by a woman who can control a cobra with her chi- as who would not be!
The Karate Kid holds a sincere admiration for kung fu, portraying it as a significant spiritual as well as physical discipline, and the spiritual as indivisible from the physical. This conception of kung fu as a way of living underlies the plot and especially the climactic tournament fight. If kung fu was only about fighting, then it would hardly be credible that Dre could advance so far against well-trained and experienced fighters, let alone have any real chance of winning the final match. But in dramatic terms, Dre winning is the only conceivable ending. He has learned real kung fu from Mr. Han, and his opponent has been taught only a hollow sham.
Other new releases this week: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Secret of Kells, Splice