Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Karate Kid: Then and Now

Like most children of the 1980's, 'The Karate Kid' paid my VCR frequent visits. "Wax on, wax off" randomly found its way into conversation and The Crane never got old.

Upon seeing the trailer of The Karate Kid (2010), I was riddled with skepticism. A long-time Jackie Chan fan and lover of the original film, I couldn't possibly imagine how any of this was a good idea. If anything, it felt like a step down. Not to mention, Pat Morita's Oscar-nominated performance as Mr. Miyagi felt irreplaceable. It is, but I was pleasantly surprised that this film breathed new life into a franchise long in need of a makeover. That's not to suggest I'd like to see any more versions of it. While the traditionalist in me was offended by the need to remake a favored childhood film, I also understand that younger generations would rather watch anything but something made prior to their birth. From this angle, this remake feels like a necessity. It's a feel-good winning formula audiences never tire of.

Watching the opening title sequence of the 2010 version, I noted that Will Smith & Jada Pinkett-Smith were among the films producers, heavily implying that Jaden Smith landed a role due to his parents involvement. I found myself studying his movements, trying to find glimpses of his parents. What I didn't anticipate was his natural talent and on-screen watchability. Yes, he was cute, and like most child stars will earn him harsher critiques, but his real appeal lies in his ability to bring the authenticity and heart to the picture required of any actor taking on the title role in the series. Dre Parker is more confident than Daniel LaRusso (who happened to be far more skittish than I remembered upon revisiting the original film for this review). However, his lack of karate skills and small stature and the ferocity of his enemies instantly makes you feel he's at a disadvantage. Watching both films back-to-back, Dre appears far more capable towards the film's climax of being a great fighter than Daniel. It seems Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) has prepared him far more for battle than Miyagi. Jackie Chan doesn't try to replicate Pat Morita, nor should he. Both turn in performances worthy of their leads. Only instead of Morita upstaging Ralph Macchio, Jaden Smith somehow manages to steal the show from world-famous icon Jackie Chan, no small feat. By the film's climax, I forgot Jaden Smith's family relations and had to give him the props he clearly deserved; only to be horrified that the film's ending title sequence is loaded with pictures of Jaden hanging out on set with his famous parents. Clearly, their names in the credits roll wasn't enough. This was a true disappointment felt after a feel-good show.

The ultimate curse of any celebrity offspring is having one famous parent, nonetheless two, and finding a way to dissociate the public with that. Every celebrity child suffers for this, as they have to work twice as hard to earn a name for themselves and endure constant comparison. Jaden Smith had the opportunity of a lifetime and proved himself worthy of it, regardless of how he ended up with the part to begin with. Sadly, his parents couldn't let him bask in his cinematic glory without reminding us all of his birthright. Given that I haven't seen Will Smith in a few years, I guess he felt the need to stay relevant. I personally feel they did their son a true disservice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his son also does a Will Smith-esque rap in a soundtrack song in the film's ending. I have hope for Jaden Smith's acting future, he is a capable and multi-talented young artist who can forge his own path if he uses his parents as inspirations, not clones.

The Karate Kid story is timeless. Not simply because of fancy martial arts moves or unique character relationships, but because The Karate Kid is about self-respect. We all have choices in our daily lives to pack up our things and walk away or to confront challenges head-on. When the going gets tough, we can shape up or ship out. There comes a time in all our lives where we learn to stand on our own two legs (or one) and set out to chart a new course toward the life we deserve and truly want. Note that Miyagi and Han's lessons come in unconventional ways but teach discipline through the simple practices of picking up your clothes off the floor or painting a fence. After all, if respect doesn't begin within our own personal environments, we can't expect it outside our front door. LaRusso and Parker learn to respect themselves which ultimately leads them on the path to earning the respect of others. Not through flying fists but through an unwillingness to let the bullies have the last word and to take a stand. We all deserve to live lives free of fear and oppression, but acceptance first begins with us.


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