The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

American Dre Parker is the target of bullies when he moves to Beijing, so the local handyman comes to his aid…

Cast and story:
* This remake of The Karate Kid, filmed 26 years after the original, follows the same basic storyline. But there are also some significant changes.
* Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is an American boy who’s forced to move to China when his mother, Shelley (Taraji P Henson), gets a new job. Unlike the original movie’s 16-year-old Daniel, Dre is just 12.
* They leave a drab, saturated, rainy Detroit and fly to the vibrant, bright, busy Beijing. It soon becomes clear that one of the aims of this American/Chinese co-production is to show off China in a positive light. Both the city and the surrounding countryside look gorgeous, while the film ignores any difficult political stuff.
* Having moved into an apartment building, Dre soon meets handyman Han (Jackie Chan). He’s a bit of a loner and doesn’t mix with the other workmen. (Han solo, you might say.) He also tinkers with a damaged car that’s parked inside his home.
* Dre then plays basketball with some new friends (not football, as in the 1984 film). He flirts with a girl called Meiying (Wenwen Han) but irritates a local bully called Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng and his cronies are soon picking on Dre, who tries to fight back but ends up getting hurt.
* So, wanting a way of defending himself, Dre seeks out a local kung-fu school. (Yup, that’s right. Because we’re in China, the story’s martial art is kung-fu not karate. They kept the movie title from 1984 just for marketing reasons.) But wouldn’t you know it? The school he investigates is where Cheng and co are being taught how to be thugs by a psycho sensei.
* This telling of the story has no fancy-dress party, but Dre – like Daniel before him – still can’t resist tipping water over Cheng and legging it. Cheng gives chase through the streets and eventually corners him. Cheng and his gang then start to beat Dre up, but Han appears and stops them with ease… Now, here is a significant area where this movie has missed the point of the original. In the 1984 film, it’s a huge moment when the elderly, short, meek Mr Miyagi quashes a rough, tough gang of aggressive teenagers. He shouldn’t be able to do that! Here, however, the teenagers have been aged down to 12. And the Mr Miyagi figure is played by Jackie fucking Chan. *Of course* he can best a gang of brats. He’d still win if there were a hundred of them! The surprise, the wow factor, is totally lost by these casting choices.
* Han visits the king-fu school and – like Mr Miyagi in 1984 – strikes a deal with the bullies’ teacher, Li (Yu Rongguang). Cheng will leave Dre alone until after an upcoming tournament. The sequence is capped by a good gag: because the deal is struck in Chinese, it’s only on the walk home that Dre finds out he has to fight in a competition. “Huh?” he asks, not unreasonably.
* We then get the equivalent of the wax-on/wax-off stuff from the original – but with a nice twist. Dre has a habit of dropping his coat on the floor, and Han had earlier seen his mother getting irate about it. So, to begin with, Dre’s training regime consists *only* of him hanging his jacket up, putting it back on, taking it off, hanging it up again… and so on, ad infinitum. Of course, Dre gets frustrated with doing this a thousand times, but he’s unconsciously learning the basic kung-fu moves.
* Meanwhile, Dre is also still trying to chat up Meiying. They see each other at a shadow-puppet show and share a kiss. But her fussy parents object to her dating an American boy when she should be practising the violin. (Later, though, they’re impressed when Dre learns how to suck up to them in Chinese.)
* Jackie Chan then gets the same drama scene that Pat Morita had in the original: Dre finds Han drunk and mourning his dead family. Mr Miyagi’s wife and son died 40 years earlier in childbirth; Han’s were killed in a car crash – in the car he’s now obsessively tinkering with. It’s a very sweet moment when Dre pulls his friend out of his depression.
* After a training montage, we’re into the Open Kung-fu Tournament. The story then follows much the same beats as in 1984.

Review: This remake of The Karate Kid is enjoyable enough, with a mixture of pros and cons. It’s directed with an indie sensibility, so as well as lots of handheld camerawork we get some lovely and kooky images. When the drama comes it’s often effective – especially the moment when Dre realises Han’s been teaching him to fight – while the fights themselves are great; helped by some violent sound effects, you feel every punch and kick. But the movie is too long (135 minutes) and lowering the characters’ ages works against the story. Writing Dre and the other kids as 12-year-olds makes the bullies seem silly rather than menacing; gives Han an unfair advantage; and pushes Dre’s ‘romance’ with Meiying into uncomfortable territory. Presumably the switch was made so that Jaden Smith – the son of executive producer Will Smith – could be cast.

Six cobras out of 10

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The Next Karate Kid (1994, Christopher Cain)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Mr Miyagi gets a new student when the granddaughter of a friend needs some help…

Cast and story:
* In the opening scene, Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) – the only character to be carried over from the previous films – talks to the widow of an old army buddy during a ceremony to honour their platoon.
* Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers) invites him to her house in Boston, where he meets her surly teenage granddaughter Julie (Hilary Swank). The girl is bitter and angry because her parents have been killed in a car crash; her only friend is a tame hawk she secretly houses on the roof of her school.
* Seeing that Louisa is struggling, Mr Miyagi suggests a plan: she can live in his house in California for a few weeks and he’ll stay to look after Julie. (Louisa now vanishes from the story entirely: she misses her granddaughter’s suspension from school, birthday and high-school prom. Great timing, Granny!)
* Julie goes to a very strange school (or at least it seems strange to this British viewer). It’s a place where a thuggish fraternity wear branded T-shirts and roam the halls dishing out punishments. Even more strangely, their leader is a grown man: Colonel Dugan (Michael Ironside), who even bosses the principle around. One of the self-titled Alpha Elite, a cocky little shit called Ned Randall (Michael Cavalieri), picks on Julie for no readily apparent reason.
* Meanwhile, another pupil she doesn’t know despite going to school with him for several years is Eric McGowen (Chris Conrad). He takes a shine to her and even learns about her hawk.
* Visiting the school, Mr Miyagi sees how cruel Dugan is with his students and intervenes. The bullying continues, though, and Julie is then suspended for some lame reason or other. So Mr Miyagi offers to take her away for a couple of weeks…
* They go to a Buddhist monastery somewhere within a drive of Boston. While there, Mr M teaches Julie about karate. While she learns she begins to calm down and find an inner peace. She even smiles.
* They return to Boston, but Julie is devastated to discover that nasty Ned has let her hawk loose… so in the next scene she simply retrieves the bird from a local animal sanctuary. (High drama, there!)
* Nice Eric asks Julie to the prom, but despite living in an enormous, upper-middle-class house she can’t afford or find a suitable dress. So Mr Miyagi goes and buys one for her. (The frock he picks out does not contain a huge amount of material. The perv.)
* In a lovely reversal of the wax-on/wax-off scene from the first movie, Mr Miyagi then tells Julie he’s going to show her a karate move – but as they practise it she realises he’s actually teaching her to dance.
* Julie and Eric go to the prom, but later that night the Alpha Elites target Eric and taunt him into fighting them. They give him a good beating and Dugan wants him killed (seriously?!) – but then Julie and Mr Miyagi show up. Julie fights Ned; Mr M fights Dugan. Both our heroes win, obvs.

Review: The character of Mr Miyagi is part of a grand tradition in genre cinema – the wise, old mentor who schools the young hero/es. He sits alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Doc Brown, Charles Xavier, Gandalf, Mickey Goldmill and many others. So why not give him his own spin-off film? Not a terrible idea in and of itself, but sadly this limp movie doesn’t serve him very well. For a start, he’s written and played quite differently from before. (Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the first three Karate Kid movies, wasn’t involved in this project.) The character has been repurposed as a social-worker type who can’t resist helping a damaged teenager: he’s less mysterious, more openly avuncular, and much less interesting. Elsewhere, Hilary Swank (a future Oscar-winner, of course) is perfectly fine as Julie and Michael Ironside (who’s usually able to make trash watchable) is doing his best as Dugan. There’s also some nice comedy business with the Buddhist monks and the film is occasionally sweet. But all too often it’s just cheesy. The on-the-nose dialogue and thin characters are difficult to get past, and there’s the general air of the kind of soppy TV movie you get on a weekday afternoon on Channel 5.

Four dancing monks out of 10

The Karate Kid Part III (1989, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Daniel LaRusso’s former nemesis John Kreese enlists a powerful friend to help get revenge…

Cast and story:
* As with Part II, this film begins with a montage of the story so far. We get clips from the first two movies to remind us who John Kreese (Martin Kove) is and why he hates Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) so much.
* As this film’s story gets underway, Kreese is down on his luck. He’s shuffling about unshaven and his once-thriving dojo has closed down. So he goes to see his boss: Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who’s also an old pal from their Vietnam days. (The 16-year age gap between the actors doesn’t seem to be important.) Silver is a ponytailed twat: a crass businessman who’s made his fortune by dealing in nuclear waste. Seeing his friend so defeated, he pays for Kreese to go on holiday and then resolves to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for… you know, winning a minor karate tournament for under-18s… Right, okay…
* As Kreese gets on a plane, coming the other way at the airport are Daniel and Mr Miyagi. They’re just getting home from their trip to Okinawa in the previous film (which means this 1989 movie is actually set in 1985). Daniel’s bulked up somewhat while on holiday.
* The pair soon get a shock: Daniel’s apartment building, where Mr M works as caretaker, is being demolished. With Daniel’s mum looking after an ill relative in New Jersey (Randee Heller returns for a tiny cameo at the end of a phone), Daniel moves in with Mr Miyagi. He also uses his college fund to set up a new business for his friend: a bonsai shop.
* Meanwhile, Terry Silver is working full-time on his revenge plan. He hires a young karate hotshot called Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), who bullies Daniel into competing in the next Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championship. However, not keen on the situation, Mr Miyagi refuses to train his friend.
* Terry then goes to Daniel and claims to be from Kreese’s original dojo. He apologises for what happened in the first film and tells Daniel that Kreese has died. Oh, and while he’s here why doesn’t he train Daniel for the competition? However, Terry’s tactics are harsher and more violent than Miyagi’s and the training regime not only injures Daniel but makes him feel uneasy…
* As with the last film, Daniel’s girlfriend has dumped him off-screen. But he soon meets a young woman who works in the pottery shop across the street. Jessica Andrews (a bland Robyn Lively) is introduced via a suggestive shot of her hands caressing some clay on a wheel, but the relationship never really goes anywhere. She even drops out of the story before the karate-tournament climax.
* After Daniel tells Terry he’s not going to fight in the tournament after all, Silver reveals that he’s in league with Mike Barnes… and Kreese, who’s not dead! The whole thing’s been a plan to punish Daniel for winning in the first film! Mwa-ha-ha-ha! The three are about to beat Danny up, but then Mr Miyagi arrives (yay!) and saves him. Finally, Mr M agrees to train Daniel for this year’s tournament.
* A rule change has just been brought in that says the defending champion goes straight through to the final, so at least we’re saved a montage of Daniel beating no-hopers. Then in the final he faces – wouldn’t you know it? – Mike Barnes, who keeps alternating between scoring a point and hurting Daniel on purpose. But Daniel eventually manages to win. Kreese and Silver, watching on from the sidelines, are not happy.

Review: This tired re-tread of the first Karate Kid film suffers from an obvious, cartoon villain. We’re asked to believe that a powerful, successful millionaire is willing to spend weeks of his life engineering a convoluted plan simply to embarrass a schoolboy. Terry Silver is like a bad guy from The A-Team or Scooby-Doo. He has no depth, no nuance, no personality beyond being a bad guy (“What do you mean you can’t dump it in Borneo? Who in Borneo knows what chloride sludge is?”). At least the first movie’s chief antagonist was an angry teenager who was embarrassed about being dumped. Part III also has a very boring love story for Daniel, though part of this lacklustreness was because they cast a 17-year-old to play opposite the 27-year-old Ralph Macchio and some of the more romantic scenes had to be dropped. A disappointingly drab film.

Five bonsai trees out of 10

The Karate Kid Part II (1986, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Mr Miyagi hears that his father is dying, he returns home to Okinawa. His young friend Daniel comes with him, but both are soon the targets of bullies…

Cast and story:
* We begin with a recap montage of the first film. (Don’t you miss sequels that did that?) So we’re reminded of how schoolboy Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) met handyman-cum-karate-teacher Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) and how a close friendship developed between them. It’s a lengthy sequence: almost five minutes.
* Then there are scenes set immediately after the climax of the first film. Daniel’s mum and girlfriend are said to have gone on ahead to a restaurant (to save hiring the actresses), but bad guy John Kreese (Martin Kove) is there. He’s aggressive and racist, so Mr Miyagi puts him in his place and embarrasses him.
* We then cut to six months later. Daniel has been dumped off-screen by Ali, while his mother has to go away for a few weeks for work, then Mr M gets a letter from an old pal in Okinawa. His father is seriously ill so he must leave for Japan. Faithful Daniel goes too because he’s now at a loose end over summer.
* When they arrive, things don’t go well. Miyagi’s former best friend, Sato (Danny Kamekona), is still holding a grudge from 45 years earlier and wants a fight to the death. Turns out, Mr M fell in love with a woman who was planning to marry Sato.
* Our heroes also meet Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto), a young thug with a shit-eating grin who works for his uncle Sato. He takes against Daniel because… well, you know, plot.
* Also living in the village are Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman Miyagi fell in love with, and her hot niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), who shares a flirtation subplot with Daniel. In one romantic sequence the young pair explore a coastal area typified by some dodgy matte paintings of ancient ruins.
* After Mr M’s father dies, Sato gives him three days to mourn but then wants the duel he’s been waiting 45 years for. Meanwhile, Daniel has pissed off Chozen (somehow) so he’s got problems of his own.
* After a lot of going round in circles, things finally reach a head when there’s a violent storm. Sato’s house is destroyed, but because Mr M is a nice guy he saves his rival’s life. Sato is grateful and the grudge is forgotten (yay!).
* However, Chozen still wants to hurt Daniel (seriously, pal, get over it!). So he gate-crashes a ceremonial dance being held in the matte-painting castle and attacks Daniel. The pair fight and Daniel gets the upper hand, but because he’s a nice guy he declines to kill his rival.

Review: This disappointing sequel suffers from three main problems. Firstly, it lacks drive. There’s a sedate pace to the storytelling – especially in the middle third – while neither Mr Miyagi nor Daniel are ever attempting to achieve anything beyond ‘not getting beaten up’. Secondly, the dialogue is often tiresome with lots of scenes of Daniel asking questions and Mr M explaning Okinawan culture. There are also several lines that feel like they’ve been added to explain a plot hole (“But I thought you said…”, that kind of thing). And thirdly, the story is difficult to get excited about. The plot sees grown men bullying the elderly and a teenager over something that happened 45 years ago. You spend half the film wondering why Daniel and Mr Miyagi don’t just shrug their shoulders and go back home. Even potentially interesting story material feels thrown away. Our characters’ overseas visit is a trip back in time – to a country of old cars, antiquated customs and rock’n’roll music. Meanwhile, a nearby US Army base is eating up the village, bringing modernity and danger. Helicopters sometimes fly past in the background of bucolic scenes. But none of this has any bearing on the story.

Six handheld drums out of 10

The Karate Kid (1984, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A teenage boy moves to LA but is persecuted by some local bullies. So with the help of a mentor figure, he learns karate to defend himself…

Cast and story:
* The lead character is high-school student Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). At the beginning of the story he moves with his mother (Randee Heller) from New Jersey to California.
* Mother and son have a relaxed, easy-going relationship – she’s upbeat and can-do and they feel like pals as much as a family. The longer the film goes on, however, the more Lucille fades into the background. Daniel’s new parental figure becomes local handyman Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita).
* He’s an elderly bloke from Okinawa who has a dry sense of humour and a strong sense of honour, but also a tragic past. Forty years earlier, his wife and son died while he was away fighting in the war. So he’s lost a son and Daniel’s dad isn’t even mentioned – the two characters soon develop a bond, especially after Mr M saves Daniel from a beating…
* On his second day in LA, Daniel hung out with some new friends. He flirted with cute rich girl Ali Mills (an adorable Elisabeth Shue) but also angered her ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
* The sneering, aggressive Johnny and his gang of sycophantic mates arrive on the scene like the villains from a biker movie. They take against Daniel and bully him using their karate skills, so Mr M goes to see their sensei: Vietnam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove), a man so damaged by the war that he now finds pleasure in schooling teenage boys in how to beat up other teenage boys. Mr Miyagi strikes a deal: the gang will leave Daniel alone until he competes in an upcoming karate tournament.
* However, this gives Daniel just six weeks to train. (He’s also still trying to woo Ali, so it’s a busy time for the lad.) At first, Mr Miyagi’s techniques do not go down well. He forces Daniel to do some boring chores (cleaning his cars, painting his house), but then Dan realises that he’s been subliminally learning basic karate moves as he works.
* Full of this muscle memory, he then takes part in the tournament. Ali, who he’s now dating, and his mum are there for support. Despite some underhand tactics from an opponent he reaches the final, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he faces Johnny…
* Accompanied by rousing incidental music, Daniel wins the bout by using an unconventional ‘crane kick’ – an up-and-down kick to the face delivered while in mid-air – which he’d seen Mr Miyagi practise earlier in the film.

Review: As many people have pointed out, in some ways this movie is a redo of 1976’s Rocky (which was also directed by John G Avildsen). It’s a predictable, underdog story of a hero having to fight more powerful opponents with the help of a seen-it-all-before, older mentor. There’s even a stirring score from Bill Conti (Rocky, For Your Eyes Only). But that doesn’t mean it’s not a very enjoyable experience. Weaved in amongst the by-the-numbers, don’t-look-at-it-too-closely plotline are many details and delights – not least some strong performances. Macchio is very fine indeed and appropriately full of attitude and defiance despite looking about 12 years old. Shue and Heller are likeable presences, while Kove uses his three scenes to create one of the most memorable bad guys in 80s genre cinema. But the star of the show is Pat Morita. To some viewers in 1984 he would have been Arnold from the sitcom Happy Days; to others he was a stand-up comedian. Ever after, he was Mr Miyagi. Despite being just 51 during filming, he gives the character an ancient-feeling soul and a huge gravitas – as well as mixing in plenty of twinkle-eyed humour. The character is a superhero, rather than someone who comes from the real world. He can beat up a gang of teenagers and he can magically heal Daniel’s wounds. Away from Mr Miyagi, the movie feels part of the Brat Pack/John Hughes/teen movie cycle that was just getting underway in 1984. It’s set in and around an American high school (even featuring a dance held in the gymnasium); the soundtrack is filled with contemporary pop music (Bananarama!); and there’s a recurring theme of social class (Daniel is disliked because he’s poor; a person’s worth is dictated by the cost of his or her car). But there’s also something Spielbergian about it, especially in the scenes set at night which have wafts of smoke creating a spooky atmosphere and a young boy riding a BMX. Directed by Avildsen with a confident yet unfussy style – dialogue scenes often play out in uninterrupted two-shots – this is a very effective and amiable movie.

Nine Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championships out of 10