"The Karate Kid": The Kicks Are (Just) Alright
By Tim Grierson
Jun 10, 2010
While they couldn't seem more different in terms of budget, artistic ambition, or intended audiences, The Karate Kid and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky do share an intriguing similarity: They're both films that play like echoes of earlier films that covered similar terrain. The Karate Kid may be a remake, but CC&IS is in its own way an unintentional sequel. I'll get into all this down below...
The Karate Kid (Sony/Columbia)
People complain about remakes, uttering such things like "Why are they making a new version of ______?," but the answer is really simple: because it's easy. It's easy for studio heads because they can imagine exactly how the finished film will play out, how they can market it, and what demographics it'll appeal to. And it's easy for audiences because remakes play to our nostalgia -- or maybe it's just our morbid curiosity of wondering how Hollywood will screw up a beloved property. That easiness can also be described as laziness, though: Studios don't want to come up with new ideas, which involve risk, and we audiences don't want to have to concentrate too hard on something whose entire execution we don't already know by heart. So, we bemoan remakes, and yet the reason for their existence is so obvious.
Easiness (or, more accurately, laziness) permeates every moment of director Harald Zwart's new version of The Karate Kid, a remake of the 1984 original that only retroactively do I realize helped shape my young Midwesterner's sense of what the West Coast must be like. (Elisabeth Shue's Ali Mills lives there, which is excellent, but so do a bunch of blond bullies.) Rather than being transplanted from New Jersey to Southern California like in the original film, the protagonist of the new version (Dre, played by Jaden Smith) is uprooted from Detroit with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) for a move to China. I won't bother with much more plot description because, don't worry, you already know it all: He meets a girl, gets his ass kicked by some local boys, meets a wise older man (Jackie Chan) who teaches him martial arts, and competes in a big kung-fu competition wherein he will face off with those same local boys.
Zwart's film enhances the dislocation of director John G. Avildsen's 1984 original, creating a cultural and ethnic disconnection for Dre that, frankly, isn't nearly as compelling as it should be. Perhaps it's a sign of enlightened thinking that this new Kid doesn't spend a moment dwelling on racism or East-vs.-West tension, but the result is a film that exists in a bland Hollywood version of "exotic" China. (Although I do give the filmmakers credit for not playing up the "Wow, isn't China weird?" angle for laughs, which might have been part of their agreement to get such access to the country's gorgeous locales.) So what we have instead is the old film in a new setting, playing out almost exactly as you'd imagine it would.
Such a faithful recreation is hardly criminal, but a few aspects of this new version made it impossible for me to get onboard completely. The first is Dre's age. The original Kid featured a character in high school, allowing for a real sense of the adolescent angst that goes on during that time of bullies and awkward romantic crushes. But the new film has a 12-year-old Dre, which both makes the character's problems a little less urgent -- he really is a kid in this one -- and makes the accompanying kung-fu violence (complete with elaborate choreography) too adult and severe for Dre and his similarly-aged nemeses. It may seem like a small thing, but watching little kids go through rites of passage that are like light versions of something you'd expect in an Ong Bak is distracting.
The other problem is Smith. Yes, he's the son of Will Smith, and while the tyke rebounds considerably from his dreadful performance in another remake, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I'm starting to wonder if his natural, empathetic turn in The Pursuit of Happyness was either an aberration or proof that he needs his dad as his onscreen partner to really emote. Regardless, Smith is partly hamstrung by a script that doesn't corner the market on originality or wit, but I found myself wishing during the character's many moments of mouthing drearily earnest dialogue that he could let fly with the sort of hip response that his dad used to wield with such natural, charming grace. Smith isn't a bad actor, but he has yet to really display his father's skill at filling a frame with his personality.
As for Chan, he gives a nicely muted performance as Dre's kung-fu trainer, but the aging action hero wasn't cast for his mediocre acting abilities -- like this remake as a whole, he's appealing to our fond memories of past glories. So nobody really captivates in this Karate Kid, and Zwart's timid don't-screw-anything-up direction merely adds to the blandness of the whole affair. It's just all a little too easy -- and forgettable.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director Jan Kounen's Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky would probably prefer if there wasn't another cinematic Coco Chanel in the art-house audience's collective consciousness, last year's Coco Before Chanel starring doe-eyed Audrey Tautou as the fashion icon before she became a fashion icon. But while comparisons between the two films are inevitable, the truth is that the Tautou movie serves as a fine complement to Kounen's portrait of the love affair between Chanel and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Coco Before Chanel plays a bit like the sort of dark "origin story" reboot that's become so fashionable in our action-movie franchises. That film, directed by Anne Fontaine, explored how the plucky young orphan Chanel became an unlikely mogul, positioning her eventual success and worldwide acclaim as if she was a female Michael Corleone, a figure of extreme power who had to lose her soul to get it. With that as your background into the character, Kounen's film almost plays like a sequel, showing how the now-famous Chanel dealt with her dark, unsatisfied spirit by engaging in a hopeless affair with Stravinsky.
In her mixed review, Michelle Orange complains that "Magnetized by their mutual status and ambition, these two seem to be drawn to each other out of selfish, narcissistic validation more than anything," but to me that's very much the point of Kounen's heavily arty romantic drama. From their first few meetings, there's a sense that these two mythic figures share a connection that mere mortals couldn't possibly understand, and yet the movie has no illusions that these two are meant to be together or will end up together. Put another way, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky plays like an early-20th-century version of all the celebrity romances we can't escape on the magazine stands and online. And as with our response to those modern-day courtships, Kounen's film has its grim fascinations, even if it's a little lightweight.
As Stravinsky, the usually solid Mads Mikkelsen -- he was even good in the new Clash of the Titans -- stumbles trying to making the composer a smoldering cauldron of artistic and emotional passion, but there's a reason his character gets second billing in the title. As Chanel, Anna Mouglalis is brittle, shallow, and petty in all the right ways. If Tautou's earlier performance taught us to judge Chanel as a heartbroken woman who's learned to bury her emotions in her ambitions, then Mouglalis reveals the unhappy ending of such a strategy. Neither film is particularly fantastic, but both of them do something most movies do not -- they show a famous woman who's as dark and complicated as the men who usually fill such a role.
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