Smith in Dragon’s Shadow: The Karate Kid
The Karate Kid is a story of two lost souls, sans fish bowl, and a classic archetype of the surrogate father-son dynamic. Jaden Smith puts his cute kid mojo to work as Dre, who’s uprooted from his childhood home when his widowed mother is transferred to China as part of her job. The local handyman, Mr. Han, takes compassion on him when he’s continually beaten by bullies who are almost as skilled in kung fu as the handyman. Naturally, Mr. Han’s kung fu is better, both because the hero’s journey requires it to be, and because Mr. Han is played by Jackie Chan. As conventional as the story is (and familiar, given that it’s a remake of a beloved 80s classic)1, it works because it is a completely artless approach to a well-worn story.
There’s really nothing new that can be added to the formula besides the actors’ personalities. Director Harald Zwart and the writing team construct the action along familiar lines, albeit at a slightly relaxed pace. They buy wholesale into the more sentimental moments of the story, acknowledging the nostalgic good-will that comes along with the Karate Kid name. Although they re-enact key selections from the coming-of-age iconography in a ritual fashion, it’s not really a slavish remake. While Samuel Bayer’s New Nightmare followed a liturgical approach to its source material without any conviction, The Karate Kid makes a more sincere effort to pass the nostalgia on to the next generation by refusing to be postmodern in any respect.
Take the archetypal first kiss. The film is a kind of fairy tale. This very Western myth2 is conflated with an old Chinese fairy tale, depicted as a shadow play: fanciful, exotic, touristy, intimate, and slightly comic. It’s a nostalgia bauble. The moment is oversold, but beautifully presented. It’s a perfect memory, real or not.
Smith’s lack of screen presence actually works in the film’s favor. Since he hasn’t yet developed his old man’s chops or charisma (given time, though, he might), he’s mostly just a modestly talented, precocious, adorable kid whose extraordinary pedigree is undercut by the film’s exposure of how ordinary a talent he is. Even though his parents’ money and star power is the only reason he’s in the film (or that the film got made in the first place), his failure to justify that indulgence makes him look even more like a fish out of water. He’s not bad at all, but he is someone who convincingly needs to live out the real fantasy of the film: going to China and learning martial arts from Jackie freakin’ Chan.
Whenever Chan is on screen, his presence energizes the performances of everyone around him. Instead of playing up his superstar persona, he’s a one-man chemistry set, delivering one of his most restrained performances in order to execute rock-solid supporting work. The shift in approach makes sense for an actor abandoning the pyrotechnic Hong Kong aesthetics for a more internationally respectable, middlebrow approach. Chan seems to have consummated the mainland assimilationist vein that emerged explicitly in Police Story 3: Supercop, moving from the face of Hong Kong to the face of pan-Chinese culture, and finally to transforming into the icon of silver screen international diplomacy, teaching a Michigan kid everything he needs to know about life, then letting him take all the credit. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that Chan is clearly in an ambassadorial role; China takes a backseat to U.S. ascendancy by giving its biggest star second billing to the marquee-untested son of America’s (arguably) biggest star.3
American escapism often takes the form of our native sons and daughters taking flight to distant shores to lose their Americanness in other, more “exotic” cultures. Given that China’s own identity is still in flux, Jaden Smith’s grounding in its ancient traditions seems ironically perfect. Here’s this modern, adolescent, rich kid, the son of two actors, who is establishing an identity as an actor in the role of a kid re-establishing his identity in a country and culture that has been undergoing an identity crisis for the last few decades, even though it collectively represents some of the oldest traditions on the earth. There’s no way the filmmakers could have planned this kind of density. Instead, all of these contextual considerations are subsumed by the firm premise of (a remake of) a formulaic fight film. The only allusion to all these ideas appears in the final credits: a narcissistic photo album sequence.
The final credit sequences are the dead giveaway that Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with Jackie Chan. Earlier this year, The Spy Next Door coasted on Chan’s affability and the cultural cachet he has accrued as “the man who does all his own stunts.” The uninspired, wire-assisted action scenes were only undermined by an opening credits sequence showcasing some of his more impressive moments from Chan’s Hong Kong heyday. The closing credits sequence, which we’ve traditionally come to associate with brutal outtakes of stunts and fight choreography gone wrong, instead showcased Chan’s imperfect command of English.
The whole appeal of seeing biffed fight cues and botched stunts isn’t just the queasy, voyeuristic thrill of seeing real people get seriously hurt. The appeal is that, by witnessing how much these magicians lay on the line for the benefit of the fickle audience, we arrive at a heightened level of appreciation for their dedication, craft, and the grace with which those stunts are finally, flawlessly executed. Instead of this, we were instead invited to look at Chan as a one-note clown who butchers his line readings and performs rudimentary somersaults like a trained monkey.
After spending the last two hours trying to convince us that Jaden Smith is an underprivileged, scrappy kid from Detroit — as opposed to a spoiled brat who’s the heir apparent to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — the illusion is chop-socked to smithereens. This narcissistic photo album reminds us that Will Smith has the power to put his son in pictures, and has the clout to make a movie happen just so Will, Jada, and Jaden can pal around with Asia’s biggest star for a couple months and take in the sights that even most of China’s impoverished population doesn’t have the money to see in its lifetime.
Before bile gets the best of me, I should admit that I’m torn on how to feel about this. On the one hand, I have a romantic notion that it’s kind of cool to see a bit of Old Hollywood glamour being sprinkled around in this way, entrenching the legend of the Smith-Pinkett union as a genuine acting family dynasty a la the Barrymores, Clooneys, and Talmadges. On the other hand, part of me bristles at the fact that a decently entertaining remake showcasing the more dramatic talents of my favorite actor is reduced to a series of kitschy postcards (Great Wall! Forbidden City! Picturesque Oriental slums!) disingenuously placating us less privileged country cousins with a “Wish you were here!”
For kids, the escapism of The Karate Kid is a portal to a world where Jackie Chan materializes out of a corner shack to help you take on bullies and be the father you never had. For adults, the coming-of-age nostalgia channels the longing for Otherness, besides reflecting the way the experience of age must find a way to impart its wisdom and ethics to the younger generation. Sometimes, that may require taking a less active, less glamourous role, giving the children a chance in the spotlight, a chance to prove themselves or fail.
Chan’s triumph in this film is that he carries the dignity of an entire nation in a pivotal role in the development of the progeny of an upwardly mobile younger nation. He’s true to his art and to an ideal while refusing to be a stereotype. As spry and wily as his performance is, its force derives partly from the way he wears his character’s age and mistakes. His shuffling gait isn’t just an affectation; it’s got literal and symbolic weight. Emotionally, spiritually, and physically, Mr. Han is a broken old man. Not always. Not even mostly. But it’s not a comic weakness, exploited outrageous situation comedy. It’s a steady-eyed perception of a character that may or may not stand for Chan’s own career, his country, and the place of his own archetype in pop culture. He makes it real; flesh and blood; part of the narrative and cultural tradition. This makes it powerful, a great performance, and a counterbalance against the shallow materialism nipping at the edges of the project. Chan does what he’s always done: bridge the gap between commerce and art with the sheer grace of his presence and the skill of his craft. He’s still a hero, pure and simple.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.
- “Classic” in the sense that a lot of people who grew up with the film — and there are a lot — consider it a classic, in spite of what the term “classic” actually means. ↩
- you can tell a “Western” myth from an “Eastern” myth by the fact that Hollywood called a kung fu story The Karate Kid for marketing purposes. ↩
- I suppose that’s nothing new. Chris Tucker got first billing over Chan in the last Rush Hour movie. At least Owen Wilson knew his place. ↩