Big Jim New Review: The Karate Kid

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So, I'm going to skip the clever images and extensive, exhaustive background here and get right to it.

I saw the new "Karate Kid" tonight, and to be blunt, I think it is far superior to the original. I was flat out opposed to this when I first heard about it, and am willing to admit that I was wrong. Very wrong. There are many people who hold the original up to an unrealistic standard that it outright does not deserve. Yes it is a classic of my childhood and I have many fond memories of it throughout my life. It was not a perfect, or for that matter particularly good movie. If you don't believe me try watching it again divorced from your childhood. If you remove the nostalgia you are left with a fairly mediocre film.

This is not to say that the new one is a masterpiece, but there are SEVERAL flaws in the original film that are corrected in this one. In his rather positive review, Roger Ebert observes, " The original was one of its year's best movies. The new one lacks the perfect freshness of that one; there aren't many surprises, as it follows the 1984 version almost point by point."

I am going to disagree with the "one of its year's best movies," line, but more on that at another time. What I am going with is "it follows the 1984 version almost point by point." What makes this film superior is when and how it deviates from the original. There are some things I have always had a problem with in the original and I am going to discuss each one of them alongside how the remake fixed them.

What happened to dad?

In the original series Daniel's father is not mentioned until almost half way through part two. You don't know if mom is divorced, you don't know if dad died, you don't know if he ran off before Daniel was born, you don't know if he was some magic virgin birth spawned by midi-chlorians. You don't know anything about him. That is a HUGE sticking point for me. How do you not mention dad? He had to go somewhere and what happened to him is going to have a huge impact on how Daniel develops as a character.

In the remake you get one shot, just one, that explains the entire thing with subtle beauty. Before a single line of dialogue is spoken we are given a shot of the door jamb in Dre's room. On it you have lines marking his height at different dates and the respective significant events. It goes from "got first tooth," to, "hit first home run," then abruptly stops at, "dad died." That might seem morbid to list, but it is obvious that this is Dre cataloging his life in the only way he knows how, and when his father dies that suddenly stops because part of his life is over. Before he leaves, he takes a pencil and marks the wall at his height, far above the last mark and writes, "Moved to China," as his last action before leaving the only home he's ever known.

The move.

This is one of my biggest problems with the original. You are given no real reason for the move. Yes, there is mention of a job with "Rocket Computers," but that seems to vanish almost immediately as she becomes a waitress/manager in training for "The Orient Express Restaurant." This makes the move feel less like a character situation and more like a plot device. We don't see anything that Daniel is leaving behind, we don't see any gain to the move, all we do see is a situational necessity that creates a fish out of water scenario which doesn't play very true.

In the new one mom has a job that relocates her. There is a solid, actual reason for it. We not only see the room where Dre spent his life but we also see him saying goodbye to his best friend. This adds weight. Here he is moving for a definite reason that is beyond his control and leaving an actual life behind. His last moments in his room were especially moving for me because I've been in that situation before. When I was 8 my dad was stationed in Panama for 3 years and I had to pack the only room I'd ever known to move to a country where I didn't know anybody, didn't speak the language, and seemed like it was on the other side of the world. I remember sitting in my packed up room and feeling so overwhelmed, and that feeling was captured perfectly in this movie.

Mom

Mrs. LaRusso exists because Daniel needs at least one parent to keep it from being a movie about a homeless kid learning how to stand up to the rich kids who keep him from eating from their dumpsters. She isn't developed beyond, "grinning and optimistic." She might have more going on, but we never see it. With the exception of her making breakfast once and driving her son on the most awkward first date in movie history that doesn't end with Ben Stiller's dick caught in a zipper, she is a non entity in his life. In fact, Daniels entire homelike is left out of it. This makes his character less real. Instead of being someone we can relate to he becomes someone who moves from necessary situation to necessary situation. He is a function of the plot, instead of the plot being a function of his actions.

Dre's mother is an actual, believable parent figure. She takes him to his first day of school, goes out and does things with him, and notices when he is out late with the stranger who is teaching him how to fight. Basically, she serves a purpose.

Fish out of water.

The original was pushing this point. Yeah, moving from New Jersey to California is a culture shock. People have natural tans, it doesn't look like Bosnia, and everything doesn't smell like garlic and sewage. But it's still basically the same culture.

Moving to China, on the other hand. Not only does he not know the language, he doesn't understand the customs, the culture, etiquette, anything. He is literally as far away from everything he knows as he can get.

Daniel/Dre.

The problem with Daniel stems from many of the other problems in the film. He is a stereotypical teenage geek we know very little about. He gets stuck in this situation that has no real gravity (the move), and ends up in a fight with some guy because he doesn't know when to mind his own business and gets in over his head. I want to like him more but the movie gives me no real reason to.

Part of how they fix this is by making Dre much younger and smaller. You feel for him. He is not only a fish out of water, he is a fish out of his depth. He is the new kid who talks to a girl and ends up getting his ass kicked, hard. You feel for the kid because not only is there nothing in his new world he can relate to, there is nothing we can relate to. With him as our only guide we see everything as he does, so his triumphs and defeats hit us especially hard.

The bully/girl situation.

The 80's were an interesting time in American movies. There was this phenomena of the preppy bad guy that was embodied by Bill Zabka. Now, if you read any interview with Zabka he comes off as one of the nicest guys out there. But in the 80's we fell in love with the outsider and Zabka was the antithesis of this. So we get this guy who has money, confidence, and popularity which in the world of the 80's means ASSHOLE before he can even open his mouth to prove or disprove it. In the original we meet Johnny and are immediately programmed to dislike him. They make him pushy and a bit of a jerk, but not some completely evil prick, all we know is that he is the opposite of Daniel and therefore is bad. But really there is no reason to see him as the bad guy. Not because he is a good guy, but because they spend so little time setting him up that you are forced to make assumptions with no grounds.

The girl situation makes me a bit nuts too. We are not given any reason to really think Ally would be attracted to Daniel. During the 80's all you needed was the girl talking to him and that becomes the motivation. You aren't given a reason, it's happening so that is the reason.

The bullies in the remake are hard, mean little bastards who just plain don't like Dre. There is no real reason given, but as he is the foreigner and is talking to a girl who is a close family friend of one of them there is some motivation to be found. This is where the fish out of water strengthens things. He has no idea what is going on and neither do we, all that we know is this guy thinks a line has been crossed. Not only is this guy hyper aggressive, the whole unknown aspect of it makes him the situation that much harder.

Also, the girl is more believable because she is in a very strict culture and is fascinated by the new guy. He is different and doesn't try and force her to be anything, so her interest is easier to buy.

Miyagi/Han

I am not going to disparage Miyagi at all. He is iconic and all that but there are some very big gaps with him. First off, Pat Morita wasn't a martial artist. It is hard to believe that an old man who can barely kick above his knee is an ass kicking machine. There are some interesting avenues that are left unexplored. He is a Medal of Honor winner who lost his family 40 year earlier. This is heartbreaking but they don't really go much further with it. He is more of a sketch than a fully drawn character. Also, we are not given any reason to buy his relationship with Daniel. It happened, so we are supposed to accept it. Think what you want about this, but I have watched that movie closer than I should have and there is no development there. We go from him not talking, to suddenly they are hanging out, to he is training him. We don't see any bonding happen.

First off, Jackie Chan can kick the world's ass. This is fact. So right off the bat it is easy to buy him as a martial arts coach. I am not going to spoil this but you are given quite a bit of believable bonding between him and Dre. You see it happen, you see him grow attached and you see Dre help him as much as he is helping Dre. It is a very strong and fully developed relationship that is moving.

Sensei Kreese/Master Li

We are given little information about Kreese other than he is a hard assed ex-soldier who teaches hyper aggressive karate to a group of impressionable teenagers. He does go way overboard at the end, and it is a little bit of a surprise. He struck me as someone who would want Daniel beaten in public. Not taken out, but defeated to show how bad ass he is. His change is a bit too much for me and it happens too quickly.

Master Li, on the other hand, comes off as a dangerous egomaniac. His school is adorned with massive pictures of him and he teaches a bit beyond the, "Strike hard, strike first, no mercy," ideals of Kreese. The first time we see him he slaps a child for not striking another child who is on the ground. "We do not stop when our enemy is on the ground," he tells him. "Our enemies deserve pain." He is not about victory, he is about total destruction of your opponent. The scenes with Kreese upset me, the scenes with Li sicken me. You believe that Li wants to see Dre injured, not to show the superiority of his school, but to show what happens when you question him.

Training

The original is famous for the wax on/wax off, sand the floor, paint the fence, side to side training scenes. Yes, they are iconic, but they leave quite a bit to be desired when it comes to actual martial arts training. He never spars with Daniel, you never see LaRusso throw a punch in an actual combat setting. You get one scene of blocking, one scene of punching, then a bunch of balance training. Think about this, the first time you see Daniel kick is in the tournament. He would not have made it past the first match.

Now the training here does not have the same iconic feel, but it does have a more realistic vibe to it. Dre is taught how to combine blocks with punches, kicks, sweeps, and grapples. He learns how to use the moves together and actually fight. When he starts winning it is believable. You see what he actually learned come into practice so it feels like what's happening should be happening. He learned a style that works, he isn't winning because the script needed him to.

The two tournaments build in a very similar way, but the remake builds the tension better. You see him challenged, you see him struggle, but you also see his training kick in so you believe it. They also replace Joe "Bean" Esposito's "You're the Best," with "Higher Ground," by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. As a kid of the 80's I love, "You're the Best," but as a fan of punk and hard rock, "Higher Ground," got me more into it.

Li's character makes more sense in the tournament, partly because of the addition of one line. Where Kreese says, "I don't want him beat," Li says, "I don't want him beat, I want him broken." This ups the ante. You know this man has no problem with kids getting hurt, so the idea of him taking pride in the dismantling of a 12 year old isn't surprising. This kid challenged him, so he deserves to be hurt. Oh, and the way he is taken out of commission is brutal and very deliberate, there is no question.

Dénouement

I have always had a problem with the denouement in the original film. From the landing of the crane kick to credits roll is less than 30 seconds. All you get is, "You're all right LaRusso," and that's it. For a movie that clocks in at 2 hours and 6 minutes to spend that little time untying the knot is unacceptable. It just yanks the rug out.

The new version doesn't add much in the way of time, maybe a few minutes, but it is what they do with that time that makes it great. I'm not going to give anything away, but there is a lot that happens here and it is very moving.

All in all the new version does a better job with the story than the original. It is better paced, more believable, more emotional, and delivers the message better. The original is still a classic of my childhood, but the new one is something that took that frame and painted a better picture.

Oh, and for those who complain about movie companies, "ruining your childhood," by doing movies like this, invest in some therapy. If your childhood rests on the sanctity of "The Karate Kid," you may need to get out more.



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