The Karate Kid teaches macho martial arts triumphs over scholarship
By Armond White
Twelve-year-old Jaden Smith already won the lottery when his parents Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith produced his vanity project, The Karate Kid (aka Jaden’s College Fund). Master Smith plays Dre—stereotypical hip-hop name—who unstereotypically relocates from Detroit to China with his widowed mother. “There’s nothing left for us in Detroit. This is what we got. This is home!” blurts Mom (the overemphatic Taraji P. Henson). Home means the escapist world of a Hollywood remake in which the Smith dynasty emulates the moral lesson of John Avildsen’s 1986 The Karate Kid.
This Malibu version of No Child Left Behind leaves behind the reality of the documentary The Lottery. Director Madeleine Sackler reports on efforts by four black New York kids whose parents apply for enrollment in the charter school Harlem Success Academy. Yearly admission by lottery selects 475 students out of 3,000 applicants to HSA. The Smiths aim for bigger box-office numbers by offering a secondhand fantasy that replaces academic hard work with the superficial amusement of martial arts self-defense.
Remaking The Karate Kid epitomizes the hoodwink that pop culture has brought down on contemporary youth—especially in black and Latino working-class families. In Will Smith’s version of uplifting hip-hop, the original film’s moral lesson becomes a tutorial in survival, but this “reality” overlooks the necessity of (unexciting) fundamental education and scholarship. Distraction begins with its title playing off a well-known Japanese brand despite the different Chinese skill set being pushed. And it continues with the usual hip-hop emphasis on machismo as a measurement of achievement. In hip-hop terms, street life equals bank life. This crassness distills the clip in The Lottery where President Obama addresses the education crisis as “an achievement gap costing millions of dollars.” Whoever Obama was addressing, his mercenary logic has a slightly different appeal than Smith’s, yet neither is especially interested in the moral problem that made Avildsen’s film universally popular.
In Robert Mark Kamen’s original script—which showed early signs of the anecdotal ingenuity in his scripts for the Transporter films and Taken—the conditions of a working-class American kid learning life issues did not falsify the needs of his community and so were quite effective (almost canonical, like it or not). As taught by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita in the original film franchise), an elderly Japanese-American with ambivalent feelings about his country, the lessons had cultural and historical depth. But the Smith reboot ignores all that, disregarding the conditions of American urban decrepitude to show how Dre is taught to fight a bunch of kung-fu-trained bullies by janitor Mr. Han (Jackie Chan, giving the film’s only solid performance). Call it Kill Bill 3.
The pretense that Kung-fu Dre connects to a larger world is not politically useful compared to The Lottery’s David vs. Goliath fight, where the struggle for a good education means fighting the public school system and New York City Council—both held hostage by the teachers’ unions. Fascinating drama occurs when New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum babbles the usual middle-class liberal excuse that poverty stifles the educational system and HSA instructor Meredith Gotlin quickly rebuts how “education combats poverty.”
The Lottery’s hard facts combat Will Smith’s specious underdog fantasy. Its quasi-Kung-fu/Buddhism typically substitutes any tradition and discipline besides American Christianity—a contemporary Hollywood bias that fits neatly into Smiths’ Obamalike, post-Civil Rights imperiousness. These days education has everything to do with affordability. Smith’s escapism placates parents who cannot afford to send their children to good schools and who must contend with the dire misery of public education run/ruined by bureaucracy. And yet this Karate Kid glosses the bureaucracy of China’s education system; there was a richer sense of class disparity in the school scenes of Stephen Chow’s great CJ7. Will Smith and his factotum director Harald Zwart (where does Smith find these third-rate European hacks?) seem uninvested in exploring/teaching Chinese culture other than participating in a multinational co-production. Remaking Chen Kaige’s powerful father-son, art-education 2003 film Together would at least have been a sensible choice.
Chen’s Together had the most affecting child-mentor scenes until The Lottery. Of the Roachford, Goodwine, Yoanson and Horne families who personify a nationwide yearning for educational reform, two of the children—young Yoanson and Horne—demonstrate a heartrendingly common effort: The Yoanson boy’s difficulty counting is a classic instance of intellectual struggle and parental impatience. The Horne girl’s interpretation of her deaf mother’s signing presents a startling visual echo of the mother’s virtue and intelligence—learned behavior. These scenes show how recognizable and inspiring cinematic reflection can be. They make up for The Lottery’s simple, major failing to show exactly how the lottery (fate) works. But this omission is not as insulting as the Smith dynasty’s narcissism. Little Jaden cannot project the will to survive as the histrionic Ralph Macchio did. Smith’s precocious, unformed cuteness recalls how Shirley Temple verged on being insufferable.
Dre’s big throwdown is no match for the epic battle in The Lottery when the dubious “community” organization Acorn storms a Harlem meeting and urges black parents to go belligerent on the motives of the HSA’s white administrator Eva Moskowitz, or the scene where Moskowitz tries defending herself against Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s hostile ethnic arrogance. This fundamental social warfare makes Smith’s fantasy martial-arts clashes even more meretricious. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid wasn’t great, but it’s a teachable example of pop discourse; it worked in principle. This two-and-a-half hour remake—a Smith family home movie—doesn’t work at all.
Directed by Madeleine Sackler
Runtime: 81 min.
The Karate Kid
Directed by Harald Zwart
Runtime: 140 min.