"Johnny! Got that number rolled?"
When I first saw The Karate Kid, I wasn't yet old enough to understand what was happening in Johnny's toilet stall. But this is one of those movies you can watch over and over and extract some new meaning every time. It's a classic–a classic coming-of-age story, a classic bullied-confronting-bully tale, and a classic story about a boy and his mentor. Maybe that's what inspired a couple of producers to raid the chest of classic 80s films and slap the name The Karate Kid on a completely unnecessary new version. The movie isn't out yet, but the trailers are all over the web and, well, this is about principle.
On the surface, the 2010 version of The Karate Kid looks like it tries to be faithful to the 1984 version we all know and love. The basic plot is the same: adolescent boy and his mother move to a new city; boy falls for girl; boy's affection for girl draws wrath of bully; mentor-to-be protects boy from bullies; mentor teaches boy how to defend himself and take down the bullies; boy defeats bullies, gets girl. Here, instead of the lovable maintenance man and gardener Pat Morita (RIP) we get maintenance man Jackie Chan; instead of Ralph Macchio's Danny LaRusso, the Jersey boy in LA, we get Will Smith's son as Dre, the Detroit boy in Beijing; and instead of karate we get kung fu.
That last point is non-trivial. Producers struggled with the title, vacillating between "The Kung Fu Kid" and "The Karate Kid," but neither title makes it okay. Karate and kung fu are not, as Mr. Miyagi would say, "Same, same." This comes across more like "all look same." Karate has its roots in Chinese kung fu, but the martial art has evolved over a really, really long time and is not the same, neither culturally nor in practice. Japanese and Chinese cultures are not interchangeable yet the toss-up between film names would make it seem that way, at least as far as Hollywood's marketing arm is concerned.
The Karate Kid has three sequels: Part II, where Daniel-san goes to Japan; Part III, which should really be called "The Revenge of the Cobra Kai"; and "The Next Karate Kid," where Hilary Swank replaces Ralph Macchio as Miyagi's new student. Some or all of these may have sucked (I actually love Part II), but at least they involve karate, not kung fu, and, more importantly, Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi is essential to The Karate Kid franchise, and while Jackie Chan is awesome, he's no Pat Morita. Sometimes things should just die with the actors who've made them what they are. Maybe Will Smith always wanted to play Daniel-san but, realizing he is far too old, took the opportunity to thrust his son into the fantasy role. Since Pat Morita is gone, Jackie Chan will have to do. Jackie Chan deserves better than this.
Maybe this is meant to be an homage, you say, like a musician covering a song of written by one of his heroes. Surely the scene in the trailer with Chan catching flies with chopsticks and "You're the Best Around" playing in the background is a shout out to the original. But it's pretty lame and besides: what's wrong with the original? Do some of the folks down there in Hollywood have calendar reminders set for when great movies reach a certain age, like when wine has reached the perfect vintage and it's time to pop it open? Do I need to worry that a remake of The Goonies is next, especially since it came out the year after The Karate Kid? Imagine it, trust fund babies using their iPhones to find a sunken sailboat in a West Coast marina!
Between The Crazies, Clash of the Titans, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and "We Are the World" (don't get me started on that debacle, or the rumored "Rashomon 2010"), this is shaping up to to be the year of the remake. The Karate Kid can't possibly be as wretched as the hyper-auto-tuned "We Are the World" remake, but it's certainly not going to sweep the original, at least not sentimentally. Maybe Hollywood needs Johnny to hurry up with that number so they can get some creativity flowing.