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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ulitmate Geek Fu

by Kersley Fitzgerald

Sunday night I saw a brand new movie—the likes of which I’ve never seen before. It was a singularly unique experience. Completely original.

Maybe you’ve heard of it? The Karate Kid.

Strangely enough, it copies the title of a movie I remember from when I was a kid. A lot of the plot elements are similar as well—even some of the dialogue. And yet it was completely different.

For those of you younger than I care to admit, the original followed the escapades of Daniel Larusso, played by “Johnny” from The Outsiders, as he moves from Joiysie to L.A. for his mother’s job. He’s a charmer and almost immediately falls for a soccer player played by Chris from Adventures in Babysitting. In doing so, he comes against said heroine’s ex-boyfriend who is the head thug in a karate dojo called the Cobra Kais.

After “falling off his bike” (and landing on a Cobra Kai fist) for about the third time, Daniel is rescued by his new apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi, played by Arnold from Happy Days. Mr. Miyagi agrees to go with Daniel to the dojo and ask the Cobra Kai’s sensei if he’ll tell his boys to lay off. In the course of the conversation, Mr. Miyagi agrees to train Daniel for an up-coming karate tournament. Daniel learns how to wax cars, stain fences, sand boardwalks, and paint houses, then learns how to block punches and kicks. In the meantime, he flirts with Elisabeth Shue and wanders around being charming and talking a lot.

This other, completely different, movie is about Dre Parker, played by Will Smith’s son, who moves from Detroit to Beijing because of his mom’s job. He meets a pretty violin player at his new school and gets picked on by the girl’s family friend, a kung fu expert, and his friends, more kung fu experts.

After “running into a pole” (and landing on a kung fu expert’s fist) for the third time, he’s rescued by his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han, played by Lee from Rush Hour. Mr. Han agrees to go with Dre to the kung fu school and talk to the boys’ teacher. In the course of the conversation, Mr. Han winds up agreeing to train Dre for a kung fu tournament. Dre learns how to hang up his coat, then learns how to block punches and kicks. In the meantime, he flirts with the cute violin player.

See? Totally different.

When the original Karate Kid aired in 1984, I was 14, two years younger than Daniel (and ten younger than Ralph Macchio). His mom was played by Randee Heller who, at 37, was the same age as my mom. Pat Morita was ancient at 52.

I am the same age as Tariji Henson, who plays Dre’s mom. Dre the character is 12, while Jaden Smith is close to the same age. Jackie Chan, dashing in a shorter haircut than I’m used to seeing him wear, is a fairly relatable 56.

So, as I sat in the darkened theater with my eight year old on my lap (it was cold), I have to say, yes, it was a completely different movie.

Instead of wondering if the boy would get the girl, I found myself wondering how Jada and Will encouraged Jaden to keep training. Instead of feeling for Daniel that the promised swimming pool at his new apartment complex is dry, I sigh with Dre’s mom in exasperation when Dre, once again, leaves his coat on the floor. And, instead of hoping the hero beats up the bad guy, I squeeze the Creature tighter as Mr. Han says he wants to call off the fight because he doesn’t want Dre to get hurt anymore.

Beyond the whole generational shift, though, this plot was richer for the adults in the audience. Mr. Miyagi didn’t really have a character arc. Daniel learned some poignant things about him, but he didn’t really change. He began as the all-knowing, slightly exasperated master of life and, save for a one-night bender, remained so throughout. Every interaction with Daniel was motivated by a desire to help him grow up. As Daniel’s charm worked its magic and his maturity grew, the two became friends, but it seemed to be more because Daniel wouldn’t go away, and not so much because Mr. Miyagi actually needed him.

Mr. Han had a beautiful, if clichéd, arc that paralleled Dre’s nicely. Mr. Han starts out reluctantly giving Dre the skills he needs to conquer his fear, but two-thirds of the way through the movie, Dre returns the favor. To me, it beautifully legitimized the life and strength of the twelve-year old kid. Not in a “Yes, honey, I know it hurts, let me kiss it and make it feel better” kind of way. But in a “I’ve been there, let me show you how to get back up” kind of way.

There were other, subtle differences in the characters that enriched the story. The sensei in the Cobra Kai dojo was a cartoon. A caricature missing only a black cloak and the Emperor’s shriveled hands. I understood the tension between Mr. Han and the kung fu instructor better in the second movie—and it only took a couple of looks. I could see why the bad teacher wanted Dre taken out, where in the original he honestly just came across as a jerk.

Acting was a different story. Nobody can combine teenage angst, moans of pain, and charm like Ralph Macchio. Jaden is a great rapper and an impressive dancer, but he was only about eleven when the movie was filmed. He will be a good actor, but he needs more experience before he’ll be able to do the quiet moments without making it look like the director’s at his elbow, telling him how to move.

I love Jackie Chan. I’m only half-joking when I say we named our kid after him. I’m trying to figure out if his performance was a bit stiff, or if he was just trying to portray a complex character while acting with an eleven year old. I think maybe he just seemed stiff in the first half of the movie because you don’t get to his “motivation” until the second half. I hope he does more dramatic roles. Pat Morita was, of course, excellent, but his character (grouchy old Japanese guy) was simpler.

The fighting was just as good. You probably know, Pat Morita had no martial arts experience before KK1—he was from California. Jackie Chan, on the other hand…but all he had to fight was a gang of junior high-aged boys. I found myself itching for a showdown between Jackie and the kung fu master. Not the point of the movie. But it would have been cool.

It was a good flick. We’ll probably own it. The Creature spent the next half hour trying out his kung fu moves. His mother explained that like gymnastics or Webelos, a martial art is something you do every single week, all year, and if he wanted to make that commitment, he’d need to give up Webelos. Also, you do get hit, and it does hurt.

I’m writing this on the deck of the golf club at the Academy, looking out over the Rockies, waiting for the Creature’s first golf lesson to end. As much as he’d like to be able to flip and kick and beat up kids bigger than him, I’m willing to bet he sticks with golf.

His mom, on the other hand is wondering where that old Tae Kwon Do uniform is…

Kersley Fitzgerald lives, writes, and watches movies in Colorado and is mostly over her youthful obsession with Ralph Macchio.
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