Beat on the Brat: Age and the ‘Karate Kid’

With its win over the weekend of 11 June, the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid appears poised to become one of the Summer’s few breakout hits. For many, this is akin to cinematic blasphemy, like George Lucas’ prequel planned raping of their memories of Star War or the continued redux of classic horror characters. For others, especially those divested of any emotional connection to the 1984 Ralph Macchio/Pat Morita effort, it remains a rousing revamp of a crowd-pleaser, a cheer for the hero and hiss the bad guy experience that, while clearly manipulative, manages to fulfill the requirements of a populist, popcorn entertainment.

For a select few, however, the new Karate Kid is riddled with problematic issues. For one, the movie doesn’t deal with the ancient Japanese martial art. Instead, kung fu becomes the discipline of choice when Daniel-san lite Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) finds his pre-pubescent self immersed in a new country and culture — in this case, China. Next, the classic newbie vs. bully dynamic is muddled by a cutesy interracial crush between our lead and likable violin protégée Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han). It makes the actions of overaggressive bad guy Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) seem slightly outrageous. Casting has also been voiced as a concern, since no movie clash featuring Jackie Chan as secret sage Mr. Han is going to end up with Dre going down to defeat, and the inordinately long time it takes to get to the denouement has left some feeling drained.

But it is the notion of having an 11-year-old boy mercilessly beaten (and then even further physically damaged during the finale) that has some critics seeing People’s Republic red. Smith, the offspring of mega-celebrity parents Will and Jada Pinkett, is only 12, and is playing a mere grade schooler in the new Karate Kid. Macchio was a 23 year old playing 18 in the original and it’s that difference that is causing consternation and concern. At first, it seems like part and parcel of the long standing taboo about placing children in mortal peril. Up until the turn of the millennium, few films would show kids in dire jeopardy. It was the rare exercise in boundary pushing that would actually maim, or even kill, a juvenile, and for some, the way in which Dre is treated in the new film is an abuse that no amount of disbelief suspension can resolve.

It is rough at first. Smith’s cocky newbie is more or less used as a punching bag by Cheng and his gang, the boy’s body frequently left bruised and bloodied. It’s not just the quality of the beatings, either. Dre is hounded by this group of Asian thugs, so much so that it leaves many questioning the motives (and mental acuity) of his mother. That it takes Mr. Han, a highly skilled adult, to initially put Cheng in his place proposes that Dre is horribly outmatched here, and director Harald Zwart tends to linger on these scenes with an almost pornographic lust for violence. It’s hard to say if the reaction comes from age as much as how obsessive the narrative treatment is (after all, the man is striving for a last act filled with cheers and triumph). Whatever the case, quite a few journalists have given themselves blisters wringing their hands over this horrific aspect to what is supposed to be a family film.

On a certain level, they have a point. Recently, in Florida, a small community on the West Coast was shocked to see several middle school boys arrested for allegedly hazing and raping their classmate, who was also male. The victim was 13, his assailants all 14 and/or 15. The area was floored by the proposed facts, involving ridicule, a broomstick, and a piece of sports equipment, but what made the situation seem all the more important was the ages. The notion that teenagers, in this case kids just breaking into their adolescent years, would be capable of such a callous, criminal act was just unfathomable. Even those who attempted to defend the accused argued that, if the whole matter was some elaborate fabrication on the part of the victim, what does that say about the kind of children we are raising.

It’s the complicated self-reflective nature of said situation that really make adults uncomfortable. Few if any are focused on the more prurient elements of such a case, but instead look to what it says about their skills as parents, proposed protectors of those who are claimed as being incapable of caring for themselves. Worse, some may see the actions of their aggressive, bullying brats and believe it is a direct result of some manner of proactive stance they’ve taken. While it’s clear that, for many, the continuing idolatry of the child provides a complex background from which to experience such stories — or in the case of The Karate Kid, such brutal boys-on-boy behavior – the biggest question becomes one of appropriateness, and appeal.

All criminal actions aside, few would want to see a film where animals are systematically mistreated for the sake of someone’s amusement. The goona-goona movies of the mid ’70s, Italy’s answer to the growing need for gore in genre efforts, have few champions. Many look to Cannibal Holocaust or Cannibal Ferox and immediately dismiss them for their levels of creature cruelty. So it makes sense that people with a similar propensity toward children would have the same reaction. But is it really the same? Killing a kitten is indeed horrific, but isn’t it a question of helplessness over human nature? When a man fights with another, blood and body parts flying as part of the cinematic stuntwork, do we question the morality, or the muscle, or the participants? Kids falls somewhere in the middle, caught between a sense of vulnerability and the notion of their status as adults in the making.

The new Karate Kid fully exploits this concept, giving Dre the father figure he so desperately needs while accenting his own inability to defend himself against highly skilled adversaries. Unlike Macchio’s Daniel, who was just an uncoordinated geek in a SoCal overflowing with physical specimens, Smith’s character is seen as popular as part of his Detroit surroundings. But when moved 6000 miles to the West, the crash of cultures is more than traditional. Dre is viewed as unable to handle Chinese society, made soft by a Western way of living that provides an unhealthy hand to mouth sense of entitlement. Perhaps what many critics are responding to is not the notion of an 11 year old being beaten at all. Maybe what they are sensing is a shift in the demographic mindset. Instead of allowing wee ones a free ride through life, movies may be finally ready to face the facts about growing up in 2010 – and, of course, it won’t always be pretty.

Still, it’s rough watching a small, underdeveloped entity being pounded for nothing less than the satisfaction of the storyline. Dre must suffer in order for his redemption to be meaningful. The more suffering, the more celebrating at the end. It’s all part of the epic poem precepts of even the earliest drama and if today’s audiences are willing to work within the scales of such juvenile justice, then so be it. Unlike the recent ruckus over Kick-Ass‘s Hit-Girl, the concern isn’t so much about the message being sent as it is viewing said missive in all its blood-soaked, broken bones glory. There are other reasons for this new Karate Kid to be scrutinized. The age of its protagonist is just another ridiculous red herring in an argument that will never establish common ground. Violence and vindication is the same, be it at 11 or 18. At least in this case, it’s just a movie.