But I Caught a Crane Kick to the Face: Overthinking the New “Karate Kid”

Spoilers and all. Not so much for the end: um, the evil guy sweeps the leg, the hero does the secret cool technique he’s been wanting to do all movie and wins the champeenship. If you don’t know that by now, well, you have my apologies and you can pass them on to the bats in the cave where you’ve clearly spent the last twenty-odd years.

Okay, so, first off, I liked it, which was a relief. I’m not opposed to remakes or reinterpretations–um, obviously–and I think that we could, as an Internet, really stand to get past the immediate hand-flapping and pearl-clutching and general OH MY GOD THEY’RE REBOOTING A FRANCHISE THE END TIMES ARE UPON US HEAD FOR THE HILLS OTAKU AND CHILDREN FIRST that goes on every single time that someone decides to put a different spin on an existing property.

And now I’ve got to tangent a bit on how really really annoying that attitude is. Seriously. For one thing, Hollywood–most prominently–has been doing this for the last, oh, fifteen years at least. Sometimes the results are damn good (Iron Man, Buffy the TV show); sometimes they’re extremely bad ( Clash of the Titans, Catwoman, I am looking at you: feel free to slink away in shame); the remake-ness doesn’t seem to be a factor. For another…people in general have been doing this for just about ever. If I have to go into the evolution of fairy tales and the Arthurian myth cycle and so forth, I will become very cranky, so, for a third thing, shut up, and also shut up.

Which isn’t to say that remakes don’t have their pitfalls: excessive dark grittification, as in Clash, or getting too wrapped up in your own arch knowing-ness about the source material and forgetting to tell the damn story already, or trying too hard to reach the Hip Phat Fresh Groovy Youth of Today, which is what I was particularly worried about in this case, because I don’t really need to see two hours of “talk to the hand” or jokes about Hannah Montana or whatever. (If that’s what kids these days do. I don’t know. I’m old.)

My cynicism was totally off-base, and this makes me happy. Karate Kid 2010 has some pop-culture references, of course–uh duh, it’s set in the real world–but it’s not blatant or self-conscious about that. Certainly it doesn’t come off any more Totally Radical than the original did in all its eighties-tasticness. It was cute, and sweet, and I actually preferred the pre-teen romance plot in this one to Larusso’s Brooding Vaguely Class-Based and Definitely Passive-Aggressively Annoying Rage in the original. Maybe once you subtract four years from your hero, you can also make him not be a pissy little stalker where romance is concerned. I rewatched the Golf ‘N’ Stuff scene for, um, research purposes just now, and I’m totally rooting for Alli’s friends and also sort of regretful that she didn’t punch Danny too. (Also: Golf ‘N’ Stuff! I saw about a thousand commercials for that in my youth. Hee.)

Actually, the gender stuff in the remake was pretty well improved overall. Still fails the Bechdel–which, in fairness, is harder not to do when the whole thing is from the tight POV of a male protagonist–but Mom is reasonably cool, there’s a quietly strong female principal, and the love interest actually has some sort of life and ambitions of her own. I would still kill for a remake with women in some of the lead roles (I know, Next Karate Kid, and it sucked, but that doesn’t mean a female student can’t work*, and a female eighty-year-old mentor would be severely badass), and though I know tournament sparring is generally separated by gender, there’s no reason why there can’t be girls among the class members or female teachers, but things in this movie are definitely better. As they should be, you know, since it’s fifteen or so years later.

The fact that the kids are, well, kids had some interesting effects too. The plotline itself didn’t change much, but, for example, the scene where Mentor Guy rescues Our Hero? In 1985, Miyagi comes in punching, there’s a few roundhouses to the gut, and someone gets kicked in what Hell Comes to Frogtown causes me to occasionally call “the government property”. 2010, Mr. Han mostly gets out of the bullies’ way, shoves them into each other, and administers the occasional joint lock–which can totally break bones, but which doesn’t have the visual impact of a punch. He starts to hit one of them, *once*: he stops himself, and it’s A Moment.

Because, well, a sixty-year-old guy going to town on a bunch of teenage punks is made of solid win. (Especially a short sixty-year-old: the visuals of the rescue scene are pretty impressive.) A forty-year-old beating on kids whose voices haven’t changed yet? Not so cool. (Not that Larusso’s voice gives the impression that the Puberty Fairy’s been really generous to him, mind. Er, sorry, Ralph Macchio….twenty-two? Seriously? Whoa.)  Jackie Chan being a lot younger than Pat Morita wouldn’t help with that, but largely…dude, they’re twelve, and the movie knows that.

Which also means that Not!Cobra Kai is now a whole lot creepier than the original was.

I mean, Original Flavor Evil Sensei–Kreese? He has a name? Thanks, Wikipedia, but I’m going to go with my nonclemature–was a bully, and an asshat, and possibly a racist (unless I’m conflating him with the drunken rednecks who get their Bud Lite sliced by Miyagi). He’s also a lot sketchier when viewed from the twenty-first century and by someone closer to his age, because you wonder why exactly dude gives so much of a damn about instilling pseudo-Nietzchean-law-of-the-jungle views in, um, high school boys, and then you start suspecting that, when not at the Cobra Kai dojo, he spends a lot of time in his basement surrounded by canned food, back issues of Soldier of Fortune, and like forty-three guns. Each of which he’s given a female name.

But, and it really does not speak well of a person when I have to type this sentence, at least he’s dealing with high school boys, and the physical brutality in the Original Flavor Cobra Kai training scene is…well, it’s a harsh takedown, but it is a takedown:  student hits the ground, Evil Sensei Guy does a finishing move, it’s done, and it was in response to a black-belt student not paying attention. Unfortunately Merciful Student just gets yelled at. (And..okay, Evil Sensei Guy’s flagrant Issues aside, and I only know from my own experience, but I was always taught that you are kind of supposed to deliver a finishing move after a throw: not full-strength, and not because you’re trying to be Manly Killer of Manliness, but because it’s sloppy otherwise.) The no-mercy thing is beyond no good, but as far as the actions go?  Not actually the worst things ever.** OFCK students are high-school juniors and seniors, they’re at least somewhat on par with the guy.

Karate Kid 2010’s Evil Sensei–who I will refer to from now on as Shang Tsung, and if you’ve seen the movie, you know why–pretty much starts his role in the movie by slapping a twelve-year-old in the face. Because the new movie combines the two scenes above, he is, in fact, slapping a twelve-year-old in the face for showing mercy to a fallen opponent. Shang Tsung disappears for a while after that, only to reappear at the tournament, where he tells Evil Student Guy to “break his leg”. Not sweep. Break. Also something about “I don’t want him beaten; I want him broken.” Given the evidence, I strongly suspect that, after his student’s ignominious defeat, this guy drowns his sorrows with a tall cold glass of baby.

Not!Cobra Kai turns the violence up to eleven in general. Not that anyone’s running around with a chainsaw or anything, but…okay, Johnny’s got a temper, he’s a bully, he goes a little psycho on Danny after the dance, and his moves against non-Danny people in the tournament seem quick and dirty enough to be just this side of legal. But he doesn’t go out of his way to hurt any of his opponents once they’re out: he wants to win, he wants to win decisively, and he’s not kind. Cheng, on the other hand, is clearly going for his Junior Psychopath Badge: guy has to be pulled off one of his fallen opponents, at which point he starts attacking the ref…and he’s twelve. Creepy.

(The reconciliation scene with him and Dre was a little off because of that. Yeah, dude, I’m glad that you’re conceding gracefully to the guy who kicked your ass and all, but what about the other ten kids who’re leaving this tournament with compound fractures thanks to you?)

And I’ve clearly rambled about this for a while. More rambling coming in Part II: Student-Teacher Interactions, Martial Arts Prowess Through Mundane Chores, and Yay Snakes!

I am sorely disappointed in one aspect, though, and that is that nobody, in a remake of the Karate Kid in which Will Smith played a major part, thought to remix “You’re The Best”. Come on, people! Must you crush my dreams?

*It might have worked *better* if they’d given her a reason for learning karate other than being Surly Emo Delinquent kid–what, girls can’t seek out training?–and not made so much of her being ZOMG A GIRL. Daniel-san gets to win a tournament and she…goes to a dance? I don’t object to dances, but…shut up, Mark Lee.

**I understand that Evil Sensei Guy begins Karate Kid II by beating up Johnny, or trying to, though. Haven’t seen the movie.

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About isabelcooper

I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam No Proper Lady, published September 2011 by Sourcebooks Lessons After Dark, forthcoming in April 2012 from Sourcebooks I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.
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11 Responses to But I Caught a Crane Kick to the Face: Overthinking the New “Karate Kid”

  1. Abby says:

    Almost completely unrelated sidebar: it amuses me no end that they are still officially using the title With Permission Of DC Comics.

    Which makes me a hopeless nerd, but what can you do.

    • isabelcooper says:

      Hee!

      Also, checking Hulu for the original movie…apparently there was a cartoon series back in the eighties. Because everything was a cartoon series back in the eighties.

  2. Lonespark says:

    I haven’t seen it. I can’t get past the fact it isn’t called The Kung-Fu Kid or Wushu Kid. I just…some versions of Not Making Sense make less than no sense.

    • isabelcooper says:

      Yeah, I just figure the marketing department didn’t think we’d realize it was connected to the original unless they made it really obvious. Which is a bit insulting, really–how many The [Martial Arts] Kid movies are there *other* than that?

  3. Rebecca says:

    What Lonespark said; I’m also a little put out by Hollywood’s recurring “American Does Asian Culture Better Than Asians Do” schtick. That said, I wasn’t planning to see the film anyway, so.

    • isabelcooper says:

      That is an issue, yep. Sort of a two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing: POC as the main character, way better gender relations, but, as you say, the combination of setting and character becomes unfortunate.

  4. Ysidro says:

    OMG, was that a “No More Kings” reference!?!?

    • isabelcooper says:

      It was! Pandora is awesome sometimes.

      • Ysidro says:

        I love that band! I have both their albums. Have you seen the full video for “Sweep the Leg”?

        BTW, it turns out we have a mutual friend. Well, online friend in my case at least. I was telling she who is known as Firynze about your book and she was all “yeah, Izzy’s my friend!” D’oh!

  5. isabelcooper says:

    I have, and it is awesome. I need to hear more songs, though: so far my knowledge is StL and Zombie Me.

    And yay, Firynze!

    • Ysidro says:

      Oh, you do need to hear more songs! Songs about Knight Rider, songs about mermaids, songs about dancing, mash-up covers of Run-DMC, songs about Hollywood Squares!

      Yay Firynze indeed.

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