Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Karate Kid

The most surprising thing about the new, updated Karate Kid is how old-fashioned and nostalgic it feels. So much so that, ironically, it bears less resemblance to the cynical tosh kids have nowadays, and more to its source, itself an affectionately regarded piece of 80s cheese that gave birth to several lexicon phrases ('Wax on/wax off'/'The Crane'). It's less a remake than a throwback; whether intentional or otherwise.

Jaden Smith fills Ralph Macchio's shoes (and Jackie Chan, Pat Morita's), demonstrating his father Will's effortless star chops as the bullied sprog of the title, Dre, lonely in China after moving there with his mother (Taraji P. Henson). Ignoring the controversial ethnic clouding surrounding the karate itself (it oddly circles that word regardless, substituting it instead with the phrase kung-fu), Dre soon learns to defend himself courtesy of Chan's conflicted maintenance man, working his way up the tournament ladder, while exploring a tentative first crush with a violin player.

It takes a while to get there (god forbid the language barrier device is exploited, as is the suspect notion that hot water is impossible to operate in the far east) but once Chan introduces a neat variation on the wax on routine, the film really hits its stride. Forging great chemistry with Smith (himself able to move from afflicted victim to street punk to young-action-star-in-the- making with ease), it's great to see the megastar doing withdrawn and haunted, although he'll never be mistaken for a great actor. Lavishly filmed by Roger Pratt and sensitively scored by James Horner, the pedigree of Pink Panther 2 director Harald Zwart would never have guaranteed such a handsome production.

It's pure Hollywood corn of course, patronisingly but lovingly observing a culture infinitely more complex and fascinating. Its rigid adherence to the 1984 version is what surprises the most however, sacrificing surprises in favour of a rose-tinted nostalgia, hearkening back to a less cynical era of kids filmmaking (although Lady Gaga inevitably gets a look-in) where one-sided bullies deserve their comeuppance, mentors can't quit with the life-lessons and the underdog always has his day. That the formula still works is less of a shock; you know you're being sucked into a manipulative but still rousing climax.

Transparent then, bland certainly, and with no new wrinkles to a cast-iron underdog set-up. Yet Smith and Chan can always be relied on to pull it out of the bag and the odd image is striking (a silhouetted night-time training sesh). If nothing else, it'll be the one setting the Fresh Prince's boy on the fast-track to super-stardom.