As the aspiring martial artist in the new “Karate Kid” Jaden Smith is a big screen natural like his old man. Whether he’ll have a career like Will’s or one like Ralph Macchio remains to be seen, but for now, his charismatic presence is the best thing about this big summer reboot.
He plays Dre Parker, a reimagined version of the character Macchio turned into a 1980s icon. This time around he’s a cocky 12-year-old victim of the recession. “There’s nothing left for us in Detroit,” says his mother (Taraji P. Henson) as she packs him up and moves to Beijing to take a job at a car factory. There he is a fish out of water, experiencing both cultural and personality clashes. Falling for a pretty classmate () he runs afoul of class bully Cheng who opens up a forty ounce can of Bruce Lee on Dre. Alone and bruised Dre befriendsmaintenance man and kung fu master–“It’s China,” he says, “everybody knows kung fu.”–Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). The Yoda to Dre’s Jedi, Han teaches his pupil the discipline of kung fu and prepares him for the final showdown with the bullies, while Dre educates his master a thing or two about courage.
To anyone alive in the 1980s the “Karate Kid” story—although really the movie should be called “Kung Fu Kid,” as there’s no actual karate anywhere to be found—is a familiar one. The story has been freshened by a move to Beijing, but the filmmakers have wisely kept the heart and soul of the original. The underdog coming-of-age tale remains as heart tugging now as it was in 1984 hit movie but it doesn’t feel like a run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster and that’s a good thing. Director Harald Zwart takes his time with the narrative—although at 2 plus hours the simple story begins to feel slightly bloated—allowing the characters and not the action to take center stage. Add to that the beautiful Beijing backdrop and some nice performances and you have the anti-“Prince of Persia,” a movie that relies on wits and personality rather than brawn for entertainment value.
Smith is the centerpiece of the film. He’s clearly still a novice, but has inherited the best bits of both his mother (Jada Pinklett Smith) and father’s collective gene pools (he got his mother’s ears! Yay!) and has charisma to burn. He’s not going to win an Academy Award for this one, but he capably carries a great deal of the movie on his 12-year-old back.
Another surprise is Jackie Chan. Last time we saw him he was mugging his way through the truly awful “The Spy Next Door,” but here he shows his lion in winter side. For the most part he leaves his trademarked high kicking martial arts behind to focus on character and arcane sayings—“When fighting angry blind man it’s best to stay out of the way.”—but when he does fly into action somehow his trick of tying someone up with their own jacket in mid battle never gets old.
“The Karate Kid” is long, and it feels like it, with its tiresome and unfortunate catch phrase “jacket on, jacket off” (say it fast), an update of “wax on, wax off” from the first movie, but the payoff is a crowd pleaser and Jaden Smith is a superstar in the making.
It seems 2013 is the year Hollywood took Stephen Hawking, the world’s leading theoretical physicist, to heart. “The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet,” he says, suggesting that if we don’t change our ways we “might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulphuric acid.”
No fewer than three upcoming movies portray the Earth meeting an untimely end.
After Earth sees Will and Jaden Smith star as a father and son who crash land on Earth after an alien war has left the planet dead and abandoned. A Seth Rogen comedy aptly titled This is the End sees a cast of young A-listers — like Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Paul Rudd and Emma Watson — at a Hollywood party when the world suddenly ends.
This weekend Tom Cruise brings us Oblivion, another story about a scorched Earth, which Cruise’s character, a drone maintenance man, discovers the planet might not be completely abandoned.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, at least according to Hawking and Hollywood, but it isn’t the first time the world has ended, on screen anyway.
Coming a just half a dozen years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Five goes down in the almanac as the first sci-fi nuclear war film. It’s set in a world destroyed by nuclear holocaust. The only five Americans to survive include a pregnant woman and her unborn baby, a neo-Nazi, an African-American man and a bank clerk. The story of subsistence and racial intolerance is an influential movie — Roger Corman and several others have borrowed the basic plot line — but its director, Arch Oboler, was a radio producer and the film is as visually interesting as you would guess a movie made by a sound engineer to be.
The Bed Sitting Room is a British take on Five, only with jokes instead of Oboler’s earnest message. Starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, it’s set in a post-nuclear-holocaust London following the Second World War. The war lasted only two minutes and 28 seconds before the bomb was dropped, leaving this strange group of survivors, including a civilian who is next in line for the throne, to explore their devastated city.
So far we’ve talked about serious and strange end of the world movies, but how about a silly one? That would be Savage Planet, an abandoned Earth movie that sees the planet taken over by giant killer space bears!
Producers of this weekend’s 1980s reboot, The Karate Kid with Jaden Smith, must be hoping for a little of the Ralph Macchio “wax on” magic to rub off on their film. The original movie, a 1984 crowd pleaser that made Macchio an underdog icon, grossed $90.8 million and spawned three sequels, all of which made money until the last one, sans Macchio, made only a tenth of the first.
The original series made Macchio and Pat Morita superstars but what happened to them and their Karate Kid alumni once the final tournament was over?
Macchio’s years as a box office draw extended past Karate Kid III, but just barely. After parts in Crossroads and My Cousin Vinny, he couldn’t make the transition into adult roles. Luckily, he avoided the post-fame pitfalls of other ’80s kid actors like the Coreys, but despite steady gigs in low budget film and episodic television he hasn’t been able to shake the spectre of his most famous character.
“‘Wax on, wax off,’” he says. “Every week someone yells out the phrase as if they’d just come up with the idea, thinking, ‘Whoa, isn’t that genius? Hey Ralph, wax on, wax off!’”
Macchio’s replacement in the franchise fared slightly better — like two Oscars better. In an attempt to inject some new blood into the series — “Who says the good guy has to be a guy?” read the advertising tagline — the 20-year-old Hilary Swank beat out hundreds of other girls to don Macchio’s gi in The Next Karate Kid. It was a flop critically —“The franchise is still kicking, but not very high,” wrote Variety — and commercially but only slowed her career momentum momentarily. By 1996 she was working regularly and by 1999 it was Oscar time.
The only actor to appear in all four of the original movies was Pat Morita, who became the first American-born Asian actor nominated for an Oscar for his performance as sensei Miyagi in the first film.
It’s impossible to imagine the films without him but he nearly didn’t get the part. Producer Jerry Weintraub initially rejected Morita, claiming he was too well known as Arnold on Happy Days.
Determined to win the role, Morita grew a beard, mimicked his uncle’s Japanese accent and screen tested.
“When Jerry saw it, he said, ‘That’s what I want — a goddamn actor,’ not realizing it was Pat,” said the late actor’s wife Evelyn.
What do you call a Will Smith movie that’s not really a Will Smith movie?
A screening of his new film, the sci fi actioner directed by M. Night Shyamalan provides the answer. “After Earth” sounds like a great Smith vehicle—he not only acts in it, but produces and has a story credit as well—but it fails to take advantage of his greatest asset—his star power.
Big Willie is Cypher Raige, a highly respected general in the intergalactic peacekeeping organization Ranger Corps, based on the planet Nova Prime. He rose through the ranks fighting the Ursa, genetically engineered beasties who can literally smell human fear. They are POed because they consider the planet their home and the humans interlopers. By learning to overcome his fear—a technique known as “ghosting”— Cypher became invisible to them.
Unfortunately his son Kitai (played by his real life son Jaden Smith) is invisible to him. To try and mend family fences he takes the youngster on a mission to deliver an Ursa specimen for use in training ghost warriors wannabes.
But after Cypher breaks his leg in a crash landing on Earth, a planet uninhabited for a millennium, Kitai must navigate the unfamiliar landscape and battle the escaped Ursa and overgrown Earth organisms—everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans!— to retrieve an emergency beacon.
Herein lies the big problem with “After Earth.” Will Smith—one of the most charismatic movie stars of the day—may have his name above the title on the poster, but he’s the star in billing only. For most of the film he lays back, motionless and bleeding, allowing the light to shine brightly on his son Jaden.
It’s too bad, the listless “After Earth” needs the elder Smith driving the film, not taking the backseat over enunciating motivational lines like, “Recognize your power: This will be your creation.”
Jaden isn’t a strong enough actor to hold the center of a massive CGI movie. He’s charismatic like his dad but here he appears to have only a handful of facial expressions and rotates between anger, surprise, fear and some serious eyebrow acting for most of the film’s scant 90 minute (including credits) running time.
Shyamalan, whose forte is not helming big summer tentpole movies, doesn’t bring much to the screen visually. The look of the movie is generic sci fi, and for every cool scene—Kitai soaring through the air in a wing suit, chased by a giant eagle—there are obvious soundstage scenes and cheesy costumes. Then there are the accents—apparently all future people sound like Rolf Harris. And don’t even get me started on the logic leaps—how do flora and fauna survive on a planet that falls into a deep freeze every night, for instance.
On the plus side it does have a pretty great last line, and at least it isn’t in 3D. But at the end of the day “After Earth’s” main crime is placing Will on the sidelines, robbing it of a star that might have been able to make this journey interesting.