Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Karate Kid

After 12 year old Dre (Jaden Smith) relocates from Detroit to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) due to a work transfer, he meets a cute Asian schoolgirl who plays the violin. “You’re not doing it right,” her instructor tells her. “You have to play the pauses.” That’s valuable advice that just about every big Hollywood movie should take advantage of. It’s exactly what The Karate Kid does right. This is not, despite every opportunity to be, some slam bang action movie or some lazy remake, but a grand family entertainment. It is funny and exciting and warm and heartfelt and beautiful and genuinely cares about its character on some fundamental human level. Most movies can’t be bothered and sleepwalk their way to formulaic conclusions. The Karate Kid is awake and alive. In China Dre quickly falls out of favor with a group of young martial arts students who bully him, torment him and even beat him up. He hates China, wants to go home and, unfortunately for him, the kids all have the athletic capabilities of trained Hollywood stuntmen. Then one day, when one of the kids is prepared to administer one kick too many to poor Dre’s ribs, he is saved by his building’s maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). Dre is livid and wants to learn kung-fu in order to beat those kids into submission. No, tells Han wisely, “Kung-fu is not to create wars, it is to make peace among enemies.” Knowing that, somewhere along the line, these kids have been taught an ugly, violent kung-fu, Han goes to speak with their teacher, an evil man who teaches his students to inflict pain to their opponents and fight without mercy. The bullying will stop, promises the teacher, if Dre fights his students one-to-one in the upcoming tournament. Thus, Mr. Han becomes Dre’s personal kung-fu teacher. His first lesson: hanging up his jacket. “Kung-fu is in everything we do,” explains Han. “It is life.” What delicate insight The Karate Kid provides. Filmed in China, it’s a film that not only frolics in the beauty of the country, but respects and understands its traditions. The film misses every opportunity to romanticize kung-fu as an outlet for kids to beat each other into pulps and instead meditates on the power of kung-fu as, not a medium for violence, but a way of life that teaches honour, respect and discipline above all else. In an age where summer movies jump out of the gate with both guns blazing, it’s so refreshing to find one that takes it’s time, develops it’s characters and understands them and their ways and respects their culture. Because of this, the film has, not only a calmness, but a fullness to it as well. Kids are so used to being battered over the head with non-stop computer generated images that it’s a godsend to see scenes like the ones where the camera spins around Dre and Han as they practice atop the Great Wall of China; taking a moment away from the fight just to admire the view. Or one of the film’s best scenes in which Dre and Han practice at night, their shadows cast against the wall after a big dramatic moment. It’s not just another Hollywood fight. It’s a healing process. How powerful these lessons will be to both children and adults who yearn for the days when movies where about stories that meant something and characters we could care about and root for. It’s strange to call The Karate Kid a film in the classic tradition of grand Hollywood entertainment when it seems to be the least traditional film in a summer filled with flying tanks, stampeding bulls and cities folding in on themselves. The Karate Kid could be the first step in Hollywood learning to rediscover itself. All of this is due in no small part to the actors. In Jaden Smith you get an actor who knows how to play a real, likable kid. Sure, you can see the smooth wit of his superstar father Will shining out from around the edges but this, like dad, is a genuinely talented kid. Smith is funny and smooth, not in a condescending way, but in a way that a cool but kind of insecure 12 year old kid would be. But like all kids that age, he’s not perfect and has a lesson or two he is yet to learn. That he learns it through his training is not cheaply sentimental but reflects a genuine growing process in which a kid doesn’t quite become a man, but steps onto the road towards it. Jackie Chan, slowing down in his age, has hung up his hat as an action movie hero and instead does a wonderful job of being old and wise, while never quite letting go of that boyish charm that made him a star in the first place. His Han is also not a perfect man and, despite his hard, ragged exterior, houses deep dramatic hurts that Chan is able to perfectly channel. If the film takes one wrong step it is in the tournament itself in which kids fight like highly skilled Hollywood martial artists and not, you know, like kids. The big, supposed to be impressive moves, which are mostly aided by computers, are the only unnatural thing in the entire movie and end up distracting for a moment from what is, otherwise a wonderful, endearing film.

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