Saturday, May 22, 2010

Karate Kid, Minus the Karate

Remakes aren't necessarily bad. But for every Ocean's 11, there's twenty movies like the Gus Van Zant Psycho shot-for-shot redo and Steve Martin's awful, awful, awful Pink Panther. The Pink Panther remake was so horrible, my wife and I quit being friends with the people who took us to see it just so we didn't have to ever think about it again.

Classic movies come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them work because of a great story - these are the easiest movies to copy. Some work because of unforgettable performances and chemistry - these movies are impossible to replicate with any degree of quality. Stories can be duplicated, updated, and tweaked to suit a new cast, though that has to be done with great care.  A decade or two from now somebody can definitely remake Jurassic Park because Crichton's story was so awesome - a rich, unethical bastard tries to play God and creates a dinosaur park; what could possibly go wrong? Steven Spielberg's unbelievably good visual and sound effects brought it to life, but we would all do well to forget the performances of Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, et al.

Films that are classic because of acting and chemistry should not be duplicated. Take, for instance, The Godfather. The Godfather isn't plot-driven; the plot is meandering, if anything, and meanders Forrest Gumpishly. In short, the story is the moral decay of a man who was an army hero, separated from his family's untoward dealings, who not only eventually embraces the business, but becomes even more vicious and evil than any of them could have anticipated. Al Pacino was so effective in every phase of the transition that many in Hollywood still think he can act. (Hasn't been true since 1995 - don't forget dude was even in Gigli. Not kidding.) Marlon Brando's epic portrayal of Don Corleone spawned dozens of copycats in mafia productions thereafter. Nobody's been stupid enough to try to touch this, but in part it's because the story isn't all that interesting.

I'm not saying that Karate Kid is as good as The Godfather, but it is still iconic as a coming of age story exploring issues of family, friendship, parenting, and self-discovery. The Karate Kid is beloved because of the Daniel/Mr. Miyagi relationship. We really see the hole in Daniel's life left by not having a father to show him how to be a man and the deficit of family joy in Miyagi's life, having lost his wife decades before. Each fills the void in the other's heart, a process we see as Miyagi teaches Daniel about becoming a man as he learns karate. Much of the story is told without dialogue, in well-directed quiet moments (John G. Avildsen also directed Rocky and Lean On Me). Ralph Macchio nails the role of the vulnerable and earnest Daniel, but Pat Morita's Miyagi is convincingly wise, witty, drunken, and heartbroken. For his efforts, Morita was nominated for an Oscar.

And Jackie Chan will match this how? Jackie is a hell of an entertainer, but we don't have any evidence he can act. We don't want to hear Madonna try her hand at opera. Jaden Smith did a good job playing Will Smith's son, but that's a bit like crediting Eminem's performance in 8 Mile. Otherwise, Jaden has not put himself in the Haley Joel Osment category. I assume Will Smith is helping guide his son's choices. Will built a strong career based on savvy choices, acting in roles which would make a lot of money in pretty good movies or show his range as an actor and sometimes both. He also turned down The Matrix for Wild, Wild West and gave us Seven Pounds.

This movie is risky. The trailer looks good enough with well-choreographed fights and beautiful cinematography. However, trailers can make just about any movie look appealing. Mel Gibson's What Women Want looked pretty funny, but virtually every watchable scene in the movie was in the commercials and the rest of the movie was total garbage. Jackie Chan isn't a proven box-office draw. The Rush Hour movies did really well, but Around the World in 80 Days lost at least $40M and he isn't the lead in any true blockbusters not co-starring Chris Tucker.

As for the title, even in the trailer it says that "Dre" will be learning Kung Fu and not karate. The people behind the movie explain that Dre learned Karate from his uncle and mistakenly thought he could use it to defend himself. Chan's character will show him the errors of his ways and teach him that Kung Fu must be combated with Kung Fu. So they named the movie after the way the kid thought he could fight. It's a stupid and obscure explanation, and even Jackie Chan said they'd call it Kung Fu Kid in China.

Thus are the perils for the Karate Kid remake. Will it sink to the levels of The Next Karate Kid (featuring a performance by Hillary Swank that she certainly had Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-ed out of her brain) or will it be an Ocean's 11? You'll have to tell me 'cause I'm not risking it.