Karate Kids

Recently we watched both versions of The Karate Kid.

The original was airing on television the other day. I’ve always liked that movie and hadn’t seen it for a long time. While the clothes and the soundtrack do date the film horribly in spots, I was pleased to see that it held up well.

Until then I didn’t really have any desire to see the remake. First of all, I generally loathe remakes. I can’t think of too many examples where a remake has improved on the source material. And besides that it really annoyed me they called the Jaden Smith/Jackie Chan version The Karate Kid. There’s no karate in the film. They practice kung-fu.

But anyway…

The basic plot of both films is the same. Kid moves to a new place with his mom. He crushes on a rich girl. Doesn’t fit in. He gets bullied and beaten up by some other kids who learn martial arts from some dickhead. Kid befriends the maintenance man. Turns out the maintenance man knows how to fight. Maintenance man teaches kid martial arts and some life lessons. Kid and maintenance man become close. Kid has showdown with the bullies at a martial arts tournament and wins.

The Macchio/Morita Karate Kid works because of the ability to identify with the character of Daniel LaRusso. Daniel’s a gangly and goofy teenager. His dad has just died. He and his mother are forced to move from one coast to another due to a job opportunity. Daniel’s the odd man out in the new school. He looks different from the other students—he’s swarthy and everyone else seems to be Aryan poster children; he’s poor and they’re all rich; he talks with an accent they don’t have and uses slang they don’t know. He ends up crushing on the popular girl that’s way out of his league. And now he’s the target of the school dickheads.

But Dre Parker, as played by Jaden Smith, is a little kid. He’s every bit a little kid and, worst of all, he seems cooler as a little kid than any of us do as adults. The new film never really addresses him being the odd man out. There’s never an issue of him looking, talking or acting differently from everyone else. And there absolutely no mention at all of him and his mother being the only African-Americans we ever see on screen. The bullies tormenting Dre are also little kids. So, not only do we never get any sort of real sense of why they’re bullying him, especially when they seem to leave everyone else alone, they have no air of menace. When you’re a 17 year old teenager, physically you’re pretty much a grown man. As a grown man you pose a threat an 11 year old just can’t, even if the 11 year old is making his widdle grimacy maaad faace at chu.

The teenager is the eternal outsider.

A little kid is just a little kid.

I remember what being a teenager is like. I remember what it felt like to not fit in and think no one else understood that. I remember wanting to talk to the pretty, rich girl at school and not being able to. I remember getting teased and I remember being bullied. I remembered trying to fumble my way through all those big life events.

The only thing I remember about being 12 is the huge internal debate of: Do I play with my G.I. Joe or Star Wars' action figures?

But Dre’s age ruins something even more important. If you’re going to acknowledge the Karate Kid as having any emotional resonance and power beyond entertaining you for 90 minutes, it comes from the relationship of the two main characters. Miyagi fills the gap left by Daniel’s dead father. Daniel fills the hole left by Miyagi’s dead family. Their relationship operates on multiple levels, father and son, teacher and student, and friends. That dynamic shifts and changes throughout the film as Miyagi helps Daniel along on his journey into manhood and he’s confronted by all those big life questions: what does it means to be a man, what is honor, and what is friendship?That's a relationship a grown man can't have, on the same level, with a child.

The only thing Mr. Han does is teach Dre kung-fu.

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