The Karate Kid – more like the MMA Kid

The long days of summer are upon us, and with a mid-afternoon karate lesson preventing me from taking a day trip with my boys, we decided to hit a matinee showing of The Karate Kid. I have deliberated about seeing this movie more than most viewers, and I was surprised by what I liked — and didn’t like — in the film.

We’ll start with the good. Jackie Chan. That’s all I have to say. From his first appearance as the stoop-shouldered Mr. Han slurping ramen from a cup in his dingy workshop, Chan is a changed man from Rush Hour or his Hong Kong kung-fu movies. There is a riff on Mr. Miyagi’s chopstick fly catching. Only Mr. Han gives up on the chopsticks after a few tries, reaching instead for the flyswatter. Then, to further emphasize his down and out state, Han uses the chopsticks to clear he fly guts from the swatter, wipes the chopsticks on his workpants, and keeps on shoveling the noodles.

As Jaden Smith’s character Dre trains with Mr. Han, the master’s secret past is revealed

in a particularly gut-wrenching scene. It is wrapped up with a bit too much Hollywood convenience, but not before drawing a few tears from this mama.

My favorite parts had to be the mountaintop training scenes. Isn’t that how all Kung Fu masters teach? The scenery is just beautiful and makes me hope to visit China eventually. Jaden Smith shows a surprising range and depth for a child actor, and while his dad might have gotten him the job, Jaden has earned his place in the family business.

Now, onto the 64-thousand dollar question: is The Karate Kid racist? Well, does any Hollywood blockbuster for the masses not trade on the most basic of stereotypes? So yeah, it kind of bugged me that the Chinese martial arts academy is this gigantic monolith filled with interchangeable followers of a particularly unscrupulous master. And the Chinese girl love interest (Why couldn’t they have made this character older than 12? Oh, right. Because it’s Hollywood. Could they have waited until Jaden was a few years older?) has an imperious father who commands her to tell Dre, ”We can no longer be friends. You are bad for my life.”  Just like it sort of  bugged me that Smith’s Dre might as well be breaking into a soft shoe every time he’s trying to impress someone, and that his mother is a finger-snapping girlfriend. *sigh*

(Spoiler alert) Back to that love story. Really? This required tremendous amounts of willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, a twelve-year old girl from China is ”can I touch your hair?” chasing after the Black American new kid on the block. And when Mr. Han plays the role of Mandarin translating Cyrano de Bergerac to help Dre win back his girl, her imperious father automatically relents and allows her to attend his Kung Fu tournament, saying, “In this family, we keep our promises.” Really? Had the screenplay been written from a truly Chinese mindset, the answer would have been more like, “In this family, we take care of our own first. To hell with you, Black Devil!”

Which brings me to the fighting. This was my main concern while watching the movie. The fight scenes — both the back alley bullying and the official tournament — have taken it up a notch from the Daniel-san days. Or maybe I was just extra sensitive because my five year old was watching. I felt compelled to cover his eyes during more than one scene, and was whispering constantly, “This doesn’t usually happen in real life. You know this is just pretend, right?”

The Kung Fu tournament is on par with one of those Ultimate Fighting Championships, complete with the rotating headshots on the Jumbotron. I’m no expert on Kung Fu, but  I didn’t think they were supposed to fight like that. The head punching and strangleholds involved in this “youth” tournament would make Frank Shamrock want to tap out.

I know I sound like I’m down on the movie, but overall, I enjoyed The Karate Kid, as did my karate kids. If anything, maybe it’ll remind them to pick up their jackets.

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