The Effective Updated Remake
Recently Hollywood has been taken to task for the deluge of remakes of old films, modern films, TV series, and foreign films. Some of them are mystifying; why American Studios need to remake a British film less than 5 years old is beyond me. Why American studios need to remake foreign language films in English even newer than that is even stranger… But remaking old ideas is the nature of film and can, in some ways, advance both modern film and shed new light on the original. Case in point, The Karate Kid. The 1984 film is a martial arts film as much as Rocky is a boxing film. In fact, both Kid and Rocky had the same director, John A. Avildson. Avildson’s Kid is about the outsider, forced to move from his only home to a strange land where social classes and rules of behavior are different from the world he knows. Karate is the outlet he uses to fit in, and then excel, to win the respect of the society he has been thrust into. It stresses the most important lesson of martial arts, that it be learned so it never has to be used, and is bolstered by fantastic performances by both a young Ralph Macchio (an under-appreciated performance on his part) and an aging Pat Morita who was nominated for an Academy Award for his Mr. Miyagi and finally allowed him to shed the role of Arnold from Happy Days. Interestingly, the part was envisioned for Toshiro Mifune, who was believed to be too intense for the role. It’s a buddy story, as the brash youth befriends the lonely aging master; an action flick, as Macchio’s Daniel fights his way to respect; and a coming-of-age story, as Daniel matures as his Karate lessons continue. It spawned a few sequels. The sequels were less successful but did no harm to the message of the original story.
The 2010 remake initially came as terrible news to many of us who grew up with the original. First, we were given the news that Jackie Chan, an excellent actor who has martial arts ability not possessed by Morita, but also has proven himself to be a fine dramatic actor, would be cast in the “Miyagi” role. Many of us who are fans of Asian films at first felt fear that the creators might pull a Memoirs of a Geisha on us and try to pass Chan off as Japanese, as Hollywood apparently believes all Asian ethnicities are interchangeable. Instead, we were hit with another piece of news that the film would take place in China… and that it was essentially being used as a vehicle for Will Smith’s son, Jayden, and produced by Smith’s production company. It all smelled like a setup; a big budget film designed to promote a star’s kid’s career and make money off of a younger generation without having to create an all-new story. Even more unusual was the film’s title, which remained The Karate Kid, despite the fact that it took place in China and the titular Kid was clearly going to be learning China’s Kung Fu not Japan’s Karate. Forums went ablaze with comments of how Hollywood was “raping” the childhoods of countless American 20-30 somethings (though if your childhood was fragile enough to be based around a 1984 movie perhaps it’s time to find something new to hang your hat on anyway…) and it was destroying the legacy of the original (as though the ever diminishing sequels hadn’t already taken some of the shine off that apple).
Then the film came out. It was clear that the makers of this film not only admired and honored the original, but also its message. Chan’s Mr. Han was every bit as nuanced as the original Miyagi, and the story of the outsider was just as poignant in the new story as in the 1984 version. In many ways it is a superior film, the class struggle has a more meaningful ending (even if it is a bit more Hollywood) as Jayden’s character, the young Dre, receives acceptance from Meiying’s family unlike Daniel who did not receive the same from Ali’s. The martial arts message is just as clear, and the ending in which the Kid receives acceptance is a bit more in-your-face. It displayed some terrific film making and a very interesting partnership between U.S. and Chinese film industries. In one scene Han appears to chase flies with chopsticks, playing off of the notion in the original of Miyagi trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. Han then smacks the fly with a fly swatter, showing that this is the same film, but a different film at the same time. It doesn’t mock the original scene or claim to be better, it simply announces that this different film.
It fails to achieve the near-perfection of Fistful of Dollars however in some aspects and due to its compromises. Through no fault of his own, 12-year-old Jayden Smith is not quite the emotionally powerful actor 16-year-old Ralph Macchio was in the original. Macchio’s character was goofy, fun, playful, helpless, brash, and despairing and Macchio was able to portray all of these remarkably well. Jayden’s character, Dre, didn’t have nearly the range given to Daniel in the 1984 version, partially due to the writing, and while Jayden was excellent in some areas, he was only serviceable in others, largely due to inexperience. Still it is easy to see he will probably achieve every bit of the ability his father has at portraying both drama and comedy effectively as he ages. The most disappointing aspect of the film is Mr. Han’s tragedy is nowhere near as meaningful as Mr. Miyagi’s, and that point, one of the most powerful points in the first film, is misused in the remake.
In the 1984 version Miyagi served honorably in World War II as a soldier in Europe. While he bravely served his nation, winning a medal of honor (a fact not thrust in the audience’s face through dialogue but found by Daniel during the scene), his pregnant wife was in a Japanese internment camp in the United States where she died during child birth due to the poor medical treatment available in the camp. Miyagi bravely served his adoptive nation, while the nation’s racist policies essentially killed his wife and child. On the anniversary of his wife’s (and unborn child’s) death, Miyagi dresses in his army jacket and drinks his pains away. The scene breaks the stone-wall-like Miyagi down, the man who seems so unbeatable shows he has been beaten by life; it shows why he is lonely, why he at first refuses to allow Daniel into his life, and eventually why he comes to accept him as a surrogate son. Daniel for his part can only listen to what has happened. When Miyagi finally passes out, Daniel can only make him comfortable in his bed and cover him with blankets. He then goes through Miyagi’s World War II materials, which Miyagi has stashed away, medals and commendations, and the photograph of his wife. The scene remains powerful because of its multilayered messages: Miyagi was a hero then, he stays a hero now; he can save Daniel in a way he couldn’t save his own son; and for Daniel’s part he sees there are some problems that cannot be fixed, talked out, or ever gotten over; all he can do is be there for his friend.
Mr. Han suffered his own tragedy, losing his wife and son in a car accident after an argument. During the film we see Han working on a beaten up Volkswagen Scirocco in his home. On the day Dre doesn’t train he comes to see Han who is destroying the car he just restored. He relates the story of his wife and son, (who was a couple years younger than Dre), when he and his wife argued, and he accidentally wrecked the car in a rainstorm, killing both his wife and son. While Han is old enough to have experienced some of the more relevant and important moments in recent Chinese history (such as the Great Leap Forward) that would have more poignantly paralleled the original story, I get the impression the Chinese film industry possibly did not want to criticize recent Chinese history as thoroughly as Avildson was willing to criticize recent American history. We’re left instead with a car wreck, which admittedly is tragic. The more problematic element is that Dre helps Han by doing one of their training sessions immediately after the story. I can understand the impetus for this, some audiences may have desired a more active resolution to the subplot, but it is far more effective in the 1984 version. Not everything can be easily fixed. Not every problem can be resolved. Anyone who has had a friend cry on their shoulder knows sometimes the only thing you can do is be there until they recover, and be there the next time. The newer version took the easy way out on this subplot, which is a major disappointment, but not fatal to the film, which remains, overall, an excellent remake just shy of achieving a Fistful of Dollars level remake.