The Karate Kid

Wax On Doesn’t Always Wax Off 

A review and analysis of The Karate Kid

(Copyright c. 2010 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.)  

       Have you ever applied too much wax to your car, especially on a hot summer day, only to find that the wax was difficult to remove and you did not achieve the luster that you had expected?  Worse yet, did you ever try to take an old car with a weatherworn finish and try to get back some the shine, only to find that you could not achieve that original gleam?  Yet, in both cases, you still might have come out with a decent ride.  So it is with the remake of The Karate Kid.  The film, starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, for most theatregoers and martial arts fan, will still be a reasonably excitement-filled movie experience, which will also delve into the spiritual aspects of kung fu.

       The new version very nearly parallels the original screenplay, with only minor variations and a few steals from The Karate Kid Part II.  In the original, for example, a Jersey boy must contend with the L.A. lifestyle and bullying karate students; in the second version, the kid ends up in Okinawa, where he must encounter bullying karate students, adjust to a foreign culture, and find romance with an Okinawa girl.  In the remake, the kid winds up in China, where he must encounter bullying kung fu students, adjust to the new environment, and romance a young Chinese girl.  And, of course, both are befriended and trained by a fatherly maintenance man who just happens to be a martial arts master.

       The difficulties with the new version begin at the outset.  Daniel (Ralph Macchio) of the original is 17 years old, whereas Dre (Jaden) is 12.  It would be difficult enough to train an inexperienced 17-year-old to black belt level in a mere 6 – 7 weeks in the U.S., let alone take a 12-year-old to championship kung fu form in a country where that martial art is so deeply imbedded in the culture.  If you recall, in the original, the CobraKai bullies attack Daniel on Halloween night, and the tournament is held on December 19.  However, one fundamental premise for all movie fans or theatergoers is what is called “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  Thus, the actuality of a marital arts practitioner or any athlete, for that matter, to win a major tournament without any prior competition certainly stretches that premise to the limits.  Of course, not too many films today care about logic, even if they purport to be realistic.

       In the original version, the teacher, Miyagi (Pat Morita) tells Daniel that the amount of training is not as important as the quality of training.  Well, that is true, up to a point.  This leads us to another premise of the Karate Kid films.  And that is, that analogical training is superior to actual practice.  In other words, one can become proficient in blocking kicks and strikes by waxing on and waxing off a car, and not necessarily by extensive practice against many and various opponents.

       In the remake, the actions of wax on and wax off are replaced by “jacket on, jacket off.”  Dre constantly, upon his arrival home, drops his jacket on the floor, expecting his mother to pick it up and hang it up for him.  While fixing a shower faucet in the home, Han observes Dre’s undisciplined and disrespectful behavior.  Thus, the first training lesson for Dre is to drape his jacket over his shoulders, simulating putting it on, then to drop it on the ground, and then to pick it up.  The final motion is to place the jacket on a hook, using a flicking action of both wrists.  Of course, after days of this monotonous and frustrating activity, Han eventually makes the martial arts connection, since the swinging action of draping the jacket simulates blocking, picking up the jacket represents ducking, and the flicking action enhances flexibility.

       Well, let’s examine this theory of analogical training.  For lack of a better term, I would call the use of practical forms of work, e.g., painting a fence, sanding a floor, and waxing a car, to enhance one’s marital arts skills “muscle memory transfer.”  In other words, the actions of, say, waxing a car, are transferred mentally and kinetically to the martial arts action of blocking, and a kind of analogical association is created between the two motions.  As the practitioner is waxing on and off, he or she is visualizing the martial art movement.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this concept.  As Han (Chan) says to Dre, “Everything is kung fu.”  So, if a practitioner can constantly (hopefully, on the unconscious level) analogically relate every action made to a martial arts movement, the practitioner is, thus, constantly practicing.

       However, in the Karate Kid films, this concept is somewhat distorted, since it purports to work in reverse, and does not utilize visualization.  It would seem to me that, in order for the concept to work, the individual should have a reasonable degree of skill and understanding of the chi, or ki (energy), that controls the action.  If this comprehension is not there and if this reverse form of the concept is truly valid, then the local car wash would have entered the tournament and taken first place.  Excuse my irony here, but I think you get my point.

       The most important theme in both films is the internal development of the practitioner.  In this case, the growth of the student, not just as a martial artist but also more importantly as a person, is the most essential goal.  Becoming one with an opponent is less important than maintaining balance in society and being in accordance with the natural forces in the universe.  A master sees a violent wind blow a tree nearly to the ground, but then sees the tree bend but not break, and then pop back up.  Now he understands the essence of flexibility in his art form.  Ideally, the harmony and peace gained from martial arts training should carry over into daily life, and not just be confined to the practice hall or to martial arts.  Thus, the master learns to be more flexible when encountering the blustery forces of society, knowing that he can bend back up and take his original shape.  As Han says to Dre, “Life can knock us down, but we can choose to get back up.”

       The word sensei utilizes the Chinese/Japanese charters sen (before) and sei (life).  Thus, the usual translation, “teacher,” is not entirely accurate.  The sensei is one who has lived before the student and has thus encountered more of life’s adversity.  So the teacher passes on, not just his martial arts knowledge but also his life’s experiences.  The relationship between student and teacher is well developed in both versions and is the most important theme of each, since students learn more than martial arts from their respective mentors.  While Pat Morita is a tough act to follow, Jackie Chan gives an admirable performance in a rare dramatic role.  More than that, Chan’s martial arts skills far surpass those of Morita’s, and thus the martial arts sequences are choreographed much more skillfully and aesthetically.  In fact, all of the martial arts in the remake, especially in the final tournament, far exceed those displayed in the original.

       This aspect of martial arts skill is obvious in the scenes where the teacher rescues the potential student from a beating by the bullies.  In the original, Miyage, in very short time, actually inflicts a high degree of serious pain on the bullies.  Han, however, never actually kicks or strikes any member of the gang of Beijing bullies, but skillfully manipulates their aggressive attacks against them, even causing them to actually strike and knock each other out.  The choreography is vintage Chan, but without the comic interludes and facial expressions.  The fact that Han can defeat a gang of bullies without having to use aggressive techniques exemplifies the essence of kung fu, judo, aikido, and other forms of martial arts.  This idea should have been spelled out a bit more in the film.  Han sloughs the idea off by saying, “When fighting angry blind man, best to get out of way.”

       Even though the martial arts aspects of this scene in the remake is better than the original, it lacks the ethereal quality of the original.  While in the remake, the scene takes place during the day in an alley, you might recall that, in the original, the fight takes place at night, and the bullies are dressed as skeletons for Halloween.  There is a slight fog in the air, and the mood is enhanced by the eerie sound of a Japanese flute.  After Miyagi defeats the “skeletons,” he raises Daniel (Lazarus-like), and takes him from the cemetery-like scene to what will soon become a chance to live a life without fear.

       While Macchio does his best in the martial arts sequences, his degree of flexibility and skill pale in comparison to Smith’s superior athletic prowess.  Macchio is stiff, robotic and downright clumsy when he fights.  Smith, whether he actually know marital arts or not, gives a very convincing performance, not just in the fight sequences but in the dramatic scenes as well, where he is a bit more believable than Macchio.  Young Smith shows great potential to go far in his acting career, especially as he matures and gains experience.  Of course, with Will Smith and Jaden Pinkett Smith as his parents, he certainly has genetics on his side.

       While many other parallels exist in both versions, an important divergence in the films occurs in the development of the teacher.  In the original, it is revealed that Miyage was a Medal of Honor awardee.  While he was valiantly fighting Nazi forces in Germany, his wife and child died in an internment camp as a result of complications from childbirth.  The remake provides a much deeper look into the character of Han and provides a powerful metaphor for the entire film.  Han is trying to restore his old car, but in an inebriated moment of frustration, he smashes his handiwork with a sledgehammer.  It is revealed that Han had lost control of his car and had a tragic accident bringing about the deaths of his wife and son.  He realizes that by restoring the car to its pre-accident form will not transport him into the past or bring back his family.  Han sits in the car, defeated and distraught.  It is here that Dre gets Han to rise and to begin training his student again.  Although he cannot bring back his son, Han realizes he can choose to get back up and perhaps have his son reborn through his student.

       While avid live theatre-goers, students, and teachers might want to see several productions of the same play by different groups, in order to compare the performance aspects, the average filmgoer, it seems to me, wants to be surprised by a new twist or new concept, and not just the same old predictable plots.  The Karate Kid was a successful film in many ways, not the least of which was the attempt to delineate some of the spiritual aspects of the martial arts.  The Karate Kid Part II and The Karate Kid Part III did not present anything truly new or unusual, but were really thinly veiled versions of the original.  As a matter of fact, The Next Karate Kid, was certainly not an improvement, except that Ralph Macchio was replaced by Hillary Swank, making it somewhat of a feminist version of the original.  So other than to see how Jackie Chan and Aden Smith perform the roles, or to see better martial arts, there is actually no real reason to see this remake.  Of course, one could make the same criticism regarding any trilogy, remake, or series.

       My most serious concern with both films, however, lies in the need to have a stereotypical ending, as satisfying as it might be for audiences.  In the original, after Daniel is injured in the tournament and might not be able to continue, Miyagi performs his “magical” chiropractor technique and fixes his leg so that he can continue and can achieve balance by winning the championship match.  In the remake, Han uses his knowledge of Oriental medicinal techniques to fix Dre’s leg so that he, too, can go on to win the championship and thus conquer his fear.  These are fine concepts.  However, throughout both films, the main message is that one does not have to compete or win to prove oneself.  Yet, in the final analysis both Miyagi and Han deny their own principles by allowing their students to risk possible permanent injury and continue to fight.  It is this conflicting sentiment that destroys the true nature of the martial arts.

       While some car fanatics love to take an old Mustang and spend thousands of dollars to restore it, I would rather buy a brand new 2011 5.0.  After all the time and energy put into the older version, the restorer still has an old Mustang, the same old tires, and the same old suspension.  Give me the new one with all of the enhanced technological advantages, including safety improvements and more efficient fuel consumption to accompany the updated power train and engine.  So, in conclusion, I would like to see another Karate Kid-type film, but with some novel twists and turns, and with some enhanced revelations about the martial arts.  And maybe even have the heroes choose not to compete at the end, having the courage to face their demons without having to prove themselves, especially not to insignificant individuals and maybe not even to themselves.

       One of the more unusual twists in the conclusion of a vendetta-type film occurs in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, in which the hero takes a rather unconventional, unpredictable, and non-Dirty Harry approach to taking revenge on a gang of bullies.  The hero in this film takes a different approach to heroism; it would be refreshing to see a martial arts hero do the same.

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