The Karate Kid | Going the Distance

Cinema reviews for September 16
The Karate Kid

Directed by Harald Zwart. Starring Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Rongguang Yu, Zhensu Wu, Zhiheng Wang, Zhenwei Wang, Jared Minns, Shijia Lü, Yi Zhao, Bo Zhang, Luke Carberry, Cameron Hillman, Ghye Samuel Brown, Rocky Shi, Ji Wang. Written by Christopher Murphey, Robert Mark Kamen.

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2010´s The Karate Kid, a remake of John G. Avildsen´s iconic 1984 film, is competently made and executed, with charismatic lead performances by Jackie Chan and (especially) Jaden Smith. But – stop me if you´ve heard this one before – it doesn´t live up to the original. As watchable and (at times) likable and even touching as this movie is, it ultimately comes across as bland and disposable entertainment.

It´s not that the material isn´t fresh anymore; it wasn´t fresh in ´84, or even in ´76, when Avildsen made the similarly-plotted Rocky. 2010´s Karate Kid just doesn´t offer up enough personality, it doesn´t strike any resonant pop culture chords. There´s nothing like Joe Esposito´s You´re the Best on the soundtrack (its replacement? Justin Bieber´s Never Say Never). No Cobra Kai. No “sweep the leg!” No “wax on, wax off,” though they do try something similar with a jacket. “Drop it. Hang it up. Put it on. Take it off.” I don´t think that´s gonna catch on.

There´s not even any karate here. This version takes place in China, with Mr. Han (Chan) training his young protégé in the art of (of course) kung fu. It´s a cash-grab, brand-recognition, our-audience-won´t-even-know thing, but the film would´ve survived better – without such direct comparison to the original – under its working title, The Kung Fu Kid. I´m sure Kung Fu (as in Panda) means more than Karate Kid to the Justin Bieber crowd, anyway.

Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett) stars as Dre Parker, a young grade-schooler who is transplanted from Detroit to Beijing along with his mother (Taraji P. Henson). He doesn´t speak a word of Chinese, but it´s OK, nearly everyone he encounters speaks perfect English. He makes a quick American friend upon his arrival (who is never seen again), chats up a pretty local girl (Wenwen Han) at the playground, and then gets the shit kicked out of him by the neighborhood bullies, led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang in the William Zabka role), who don´t take kindly to his, uh, existence.

The kids here are of the preteen variety, which adds an interesting (if uncomfortable) spin to the violent fight scenes (Ralph Macchio was 22 when the original was released, twice Smith´s age here). The handyman Mr. Han steps in to save Dre from his attackers, which he does by redirecting their punches toward each other. It´s a nice fight scene, surprisingly well-edited, but more than a bit unusual to see the middle-aged Chan disposing of 12-year-olds.

Han visits the bullies´ instructor to make peace, but instead finds John Kreese reincarnated as Master Li (Rongguang Yu), who demands a fight before they can leave – either with him or the boy. Han agrees to train Dre, and have him fight in an upcoming tournament. Li (as Kreese was in the original) is the real villain here, but he´s so arbitrarily over-the-top evil he comes across a joke; you wouldn´t believe someone like this could actually become a martial arts instructor, but then again, a similar situation is described in Jessica Yu´s documentary Protagonist.

It might not seem like I have the highest regard for The Karate Kid, but I just can´t help comparing it to the original; while watching the movie, I was stunned at how effective it is (especially considering where director Harald Zwart is coming from, namely The Pink Panther 2). No, this film is fluid and entirely fun despite some length and pacing issues (especially in the second half, following countless training montages).

Chan is good in a more weighty role than usual (though fans take note – he only has the one short fight scene) but he´s overshadowed by the vibrant, good-natured, puppy-dog-eyed Smith, who has all the charisma of his father. Cinematography by Roger Pratt is often remarkable; the use of color frequently reminded me of Zhang Yimou.

For a little over two hours, 2010´s Karate Kid works just fine. Anything more than that, however, and you´re asking too much; in a few months time, this will be a forgotten exercise while the 25-year-old original still burns bright.

Note: The Karate Kid is screening in a Czech-dubbed version in most cinemas, but you can catch it in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Cinestar Anděl.



Going the Distance

Directed by Nanette Burstein. Starring Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, Ron Livingston, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jim Gaffigan, Natalie Morales, Kelli Garner, June Diane Raphael, Rob Riggle, Sarah Burns, Terry Beaver, Matt Servitto, Leighton Meester. Written by Geoff LaTulippe.

Going the Distance has received some vicious reviews and flopped at the US box office, which is a real shame. Nanette Burstein´s film isn´t revolutionary, but it is remarkable given the current state of the romantic comedy genre.

More specifically, raunchy, R-rated romantic comedy; Going the Distance is cut from the same cloth as a number of films that have tried to breed your traditional Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan chick flick with more guy-friendly Judd Apatow-style movie. This subgenre traditionally gives us films like What Happens in Vegas, The Ugly Truth, or other fare so vile you´ll need to cleanse your soul afterward with an Ingmar Bergman marathon.

And now there´s Going the Distance, and I cannot stress enough how wonderfully decent this movie is. The comedy works, the romance works, the characters aren´t making idiots out of themselves or biting off each other´s head throughout the film before arbitrarily shacking up at the end. It´s not perfect – the storytelling is a mess, and there´s never enough plot to really sustain the film – but it´s just so refreshingly ‘OK´.

Justin Long stars as Garrett, a mildly unhappy music exec who has just broken up with his girlfriend. Drew Barrymore is Erin, a harried summer intern at a New York City newspaper. The two meet cute over an arcade game of Centipede at a local bar, hit it off and spend the night together. Neither is looking for anything long-term – he´s just out of a relationship, she goes back to Stanford in six weeks – but they fall in love anyway, and are eventually forced into a long-distance relationship.

With the title and plot, Going the Distance seems to have labeled itself as the ‘long-distance relationship´ movie. In reality, that´s just a plot device – Barrymore and Long are together for most of the running time, and only rarely do we dig into the realities of a long-distance relationship, like Skype and phone sex.

And that is, bizarrely, all the story we get here. Will she move to New York? Will he move to California? Will they stick together or will they drift apart? There´s little arguing between Erin and Garrett here, no miscommunication, no question of fidelity, and for that break in the traditional formula I was eternally grateful. It does, however, leave us a formula film with little formula to sustain itself.

But Burstein, with a background in documentaries (American Teen and, with Brett Morgen, The Kid Stays in the Picture and On the Ropes) always keeps things lively and realistic. Characters make decisions with their heads instead of their hearts, almost unheard of in the genre.

Barrymore and Long are likable (and apparently a real-life couple, though they could´ve fooled me) but an excellent supporting cast steals the show. Jason Sudekis and (especially) Charlie Day (of It´s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) are hilarious as Garrett´s best friends; ditto Christina Applegate as Erin´s sister.


Also opening: Luc Besson’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adčle Blanc-Sec (showtimes | IMDb), an adventure-comedy based on the popular French comic. Screening in French with Czech subtitles.

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