The New Karate Kid
I was watching the featurette on my Karate Kid special edition DVD my ex-girlfriend gave me for Christmas when I first saw screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. He looked way younger than I expected him to look. He could easily have passed for mid-thirties, which would have made him somewhere around 5 or 6 when he first started writing the Karate Kid. I Googled his age, but I couldn’t find anything.
The same could be said about Christopher Murphy, the screenwriter of the new Karate Kid remake. I Googled his age too, and I couldn’t find anything. I am convinced these people are immortals (either that or they are just lowly screenwriters, and no one gives a flying rat’s ass about how old they are).
However, the issue of age becomes a highly visible constraint on the part of writers in the remake because here, as much as they pull from the original, they constantly compensate for the fact that the protagonist in the new version is only 12-years-old, as opposed to the Daniel-san we have all come to know as an angst-ridden teenager (who by the way is also immortal).
One way this problem manifests itself is by way of the retelling of the famous post-Halloween dance scene in the original. In this scene Mr. Miyagi beats the crap out of a bunch of Cobra Kai’s who were on the verge of killing Daniel-san. In this new version, all the Cobra Kai’s are 12-year-olds. Technically, when Pat Morita beat up the teenage Cobra Kais, he was committing assault on minors, but no one cared because they were big blonde d-bags in skeleton bodysuits. In the new version, Jackie Chan is put in a situation where he is being attacked by a bunch of tiny Chinese kids who take the place of the original teenage antagonists. He has to fight them, but he can’t hit them. When I was watching it, I remember thinking Oh man, how are they gonna pull this one off? These guys are screwed! That thought remained on the forefront of my mind throughout the course of the film.
Fortunately, in this particular instance Jackie Chan’s natural comedic fighting style helped our writers out of the corner they had gotten themselves into. And much to the credit of the writers, the issue of child assault—which could have easily been swept under the rug for the rest of the film—was addressed in the development of the persona of the evil teacher who smacks one of his students in the face after the student hesitates to finish his opponent in a sparring session. Not only does this address the problem, it also gives motivation to our new antagonist, who is ostensibly a victim of some sort of bizarre form of surrogate child abuse.
Under any other circumstances, this might all seem ridiculous; then again this is a surrogate film with a surrogate plot to substitute for the original film, which in and of itself is a retelling of a classic coming of age archetype where the young protagonist, who—against all odds (no matter how odd)—stands up to and ultimately triumphs over the antagonist—the living manifestation of the fear of the protagonist. The hero is blessed with a teacher/father figure who takes him as far as he can go before he faces the final challenge on his own. There’s a love interest/problem subplot, which connects back to the antagonist. Over the course of the story, the hero changes. He loses his fear. He gets the girl. Does any of this sound familiar?
Obviously, the original Karate Kid brought nothing new to the table in terms of the coming of age template. Then again, that’s not what most people think about when they remember the movie. What I remember is Cobra Kai! Cobra Kai! Cobra Kai! No mercy! Wax on, wax off! Johnny, get him a body bag! Yeah!!!
Regrettably, we don’t get any of that stuff in the new one; although, that isn't to say it wasn't an enjoyable watch. On the contrary, it evoked a great deal of nostalgia; it was funny at times, and Jaden Smith’s performance was a delight; the fight choreography was light years ahead of the original, but ultimately, the new version just couldn't deliver the immortality of the original—the idiosyncrasies that make a person want to watch a film over and over, the way one does with the original Karate Kid.
Moreover, the new version shied away from dealing with areas diehard Karate Kid fans have been wrestling with for years. For example, in the original the most compelling scenes are always the ones with Johnny and the Sensei, yet their exaggerations as villains are hardly rationalized. All we know is that the Sensei is a wacked out Vietnam vet who teaches his students to be bullies. Like their predecessors, perhaps misguided by a false sense of mystique that acts as a lame excuse for poor character development, the creators of this new version squander the opportunity to explore the depth and intricacies of that relationship, as well as the opportunity to create an even more powerful antagonist by presenting the story from his perspective, completing the anti-hero personas glimpsed at in the original. The chance to delve into Karate kid/Cobra Kai mythology was missed again, and it's a damn shame.
Most quasi-successful authors in this genre write under the presumption that a protagonist is only as strong as the antagonist. However, while attempting to do this, they constantly write in fear of ending up with an antagonist who arouses more interest or empathy in the audience than the protagonist. This is a reasonable fear. The fallout from this manifestation has tainted the legacies of stories like Star Wars, Batman, Superman and countless others.
However, if there is ever going to be an integral elevation in the hero/coming of age genre it will undoubtedly be realized in a story where the protagonist and antagonist compete for the love of the audience at the highest level. In this story the audience will not know who to root for, and they will lose themselves in the fall through the gap between coming of age and tragedy.
As for the Karate Kid, something tells me we haven't heard the last from him or his cronies...
Click here to read an excerpt from my absurdist literary prequel to the Karate Kid published in the University of Mary Washington's Tomfoolery Review.