I long ago gave up hand-wringing about Hollywood’s preoccupation with remakes. Still the trailers for Harald Zwart’s remake of The Karate Kid the 1984 underdog classic that introduced such priceless phrases as “Wax on wax off” and “Sweep the leg!” into the pop-culture lexicon set me ill at ease. To me the film seemed little more than a high-profile vanity project for child star Jaden Smith son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett who for all we know gave him the movie as a Christmas gift a $40 million stocking-stuffer. Pillage my childhood memories if you must Hollywood but damnit at least show a little respect for the source material.
Much has changed in the update: Daniel Larusso is now Dre Parker; California’s San Fernando Valley is now Beijing China; Mr. Miyagi is now Mr. Han; and karate is now kung fu. Most of the story beats and thematic elements however are essentially the same. After his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer 12-year-old Dre (Smith) is forced to move from his native Detroit to the unfamiliar climes of Beijing where he’s besieged by a local group of pubescent fascists after being caught innocently flirting with a pretty schoolmate.
Dre’s tormentors all of whom practice a peculiarly sadistic version of kung fu taught at the neighborhood martial arts academy adhere vigorously to the “No weakness no pain no mercy” credo of their autocratic master. As such they’re not about to let their puny prey off with just one humiliating beatdown. During a subsequent ass-whooping Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) the eccentric maintenance man from Dre’s apartment building comes to the rescue fending off the ruthless urchins with some pretty fancy fighting moves of his own. After some cajoling Mr. Han reluctantly agrees to teach the child kung fu and several life lessons and inspirational montages later a resurgent Dre finally faces up to his adversaries at a climactic kung fu tournament.
The case for nepotism in this new Karate Kid is not without merit. Though allegedly 11 years old Smith doesn’t look a day over 10 and appears jarringly undersized for a 12-year-old. Seeing the baby-faced lad (he definitely takes after his mom in the looks department) get repeatedly brutalized by adolescent thugs twice his size gets uncomfortable as do later scenes of him training shirtless his torso the size of Chan’s forearm.
But it’s a minor quibble. In truth Smith surpasses his predecessor Macchio in both acting ability and martial arts proficiency. Whereas Daniel-San’s fighting scenes in the original Karate Kid require a suspension of disbelief that diminishes his eventual triumph at the All-Valley Karate Championships (Even as a kid I always suspected that the Cobra Kai kids were either sandbagging it or their sensai was the worst in-game coach since Jim Tressel) Smith’s moves are both more authentic and more athletic. Moreover he has the good sense not to collapse hysterically into a wailing heap at the slightest touch from an opponent as Macchio so famously did.
The Karate Kid is every bit an unabashed crowd-pleaser -- which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing in a summer movie season that has thus far given audiences precious little to cheer for. At two-and-a-half hours it takes far too long to get going and would have benefited from a more assured hand behind the camera. Zwart’s overemphasis on the bullying and fish-out-of-water elements becomes redundant and the dialogue and culture-clash jokes border on embarrassing at times. But the meat of the story the bond that forms between an unlikely kung fu teacher and his equally unlikely student is undeniably affecting.
Rexxx is a superstar dog in Hollywood with movies such as Jurassic Bark and The Fast and the Furrious on his plate. On the set of his latest movie he is being a diva refusing to come to the set because one of the spotted coats in his trailer reminds him of a snooty Dalmation who broke his heart. Eventually Rexxx’s people convince him he can outlive the Taco Bell Chihuahua dog's legacy if he performs this one great stunt. But while diving out of an airplane Rexxx forgets his parachute and lands in a truck full of tomatoes. He ends up running into a boy Shane (Josh Hutcherson) who’s really not into dogs. Shane’s dad is a fire captain (Bruce Greenwood) and the boy’s extended family is a group of well-meaning misfit firefighters at the Dogpatch Station. They're in constant competition with their rival fire station and the city manager (Steven Culp) is warning the Dogpatch Station that they will soon be closing down. On top of it all there are lots of mysterious fires breaking out around Dogpatch. Can Rexxx help save the day? Hutcherson is an amiable child star. After his recent dramatic role in Bridge to Terabithia and as the older brother in Zathura it's clear he's got a long career ahead of him. He comes across as clever and sensible while the world around him is often going haywire. And the young actor has a superb connection with Greenwood as his distant father. Also doing a fine job is Culp as the city manager and Greenwood’s best friend. The last time these two veteran character actors starred together was in Thirteen Days. Teddy Sears (TV’s Ugly Betty) is particularly funny and charming as the fireman who keeps sliding on top of his fellow firefighters when going down the pole. But of course this is a dog's movie and the four Irish setters used to play the lead pup do some pretty cool stunts and reaction shots. Rexxx comes across as delightfully personable even though he smells bad. Director Todd Holland certainly knows how to direct family stories after winning three Emmys for Malcolm in the Middle. This father-son story centers on a recent tragedy and neither of them deal well with it instead becoming more and more distant from each other. Of course the dog’s intrusion brings them together but the storyline cleverly dances a fine line between the stereotypical genres. Firehouse Dog has both laugh-out-loud moments as well as warm fuzzy teary-eyed moments that feel very real. Of course some of the absurd facial expressions and Matrix-like moves by the dog are computer generated but it's not distracting--and not too obvious. The movie is fun for kids and parents to see together especially if they have a dog at home.
There should be a rule stating if a movie has already won the Academy Award for Best Picture it should never EVER be remade at a later time no matter who is involved. Why mess with a good thing? The 1949 All the King's Men based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren starred Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark a 1950s Louisiana politician who uses fiery rhetoric to get the poor folk to elect him as governor but who becomes corrupt in the process and is eventually assassinated. The story is loosely based on the real-life legendary 1930s Louisiana governor Huey P. Long and the original film adaptation was equally brazen and subtle wonderfully executed and won three Oscars including the top prize. But apparently the original wasn’t as authentic as this current incarnation. This time Sean Penn stars as our prime filibuster who tries to keep things lively but gets bogged down by the muddled subplots especially the one involving Stark’s PR guy Jack Burden (Jude Law) and his relationships with his very Southern godfather (Anthony Hopkins) and childhood friends (Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo). Yawn. With a cast like this it’s no wonder King's Men got remade. Penn clearly stands out of course. How could he not? His Willie Stark is the only thing sparking anything close to life in the film. But with the part such as it is Penn also tends to unnecessarily chew up scenery while everyone stands around him in a wilting repose. Law—once again narrating the proceedings (must he do this in ALL his films?)—tries to embody a character who really doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about anything except being Stark’s beck and call boy even after all the horrible things Stark makes him do to the people he supposedly loves. Winslet as Jack’s unrequited childhood love Ruffalo as her put-upon brother and Hopkins as a former judge who stands in Stark’s way to success are all just completely wasted. As is Patricia Clarkson as Stark’s campaign manager and mistress Sadie Burke who was so brilliantly played by the Oscar-winning Mercedes McCambridge in the 1949 original. Whatever happened in translation is surely not Clarkson fault. Come on guys you’ve got a powerhouse crew here. Why fritter them away? Apparently redoing All the King's Men has been a dream project of political pundit James Carville one of the film’s producers for some time. He has dabbled here and there in the entertainment industry especially in the riveting documentary The War Room so periodically through the years Carville would mention to filmmakers in passing how he had a passion for Robert Penn Warren’s novel and how deeply he wanted to see it filmed authentically. Lo and behold someone finally listened and a new King's Men was underway helmed by writer/director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) with an all-star cast. Filming on location in New Orleans and the outlying areas of Louisiana just before Hurricane Katrina hit Zaillian provides the faithfulness Carville was looking for. But did anyone at any time ask the question “Why are we doing this movie again when it was already done so well?” I repeat it was a Best Picture winner for chrissakes. And now remaking it into a giant snore-fest just ruins the mystique. Sometimes they just don’t get it.