Karate Kid (directed by Harald Swartz, 2010) is an excruciatingly violent film. It features boys of early adolescent years in full-contact fights delivering hard body blows, back-breaking throws and countless kicks to the head. That a film should show such things as going on in back lanes, out of view of adults, is distressing enough but to portray them as fare in public tournaments for minors, officiated by adults and watched by friends and family, is disgusting. In fact, it is a perverse fantasy, which, ironically, as such, is in keeping with almost everything else about this film.
Take the story, for one. Black American widow, Sherry Parker (Taraji P. Henson), migrates to Beijing with her 12 year-old son, Dre (Jaden Smith), because Detroit has nothing to offer them any more. That’s Beijing in mainland China. To say the least, this is contrary to typical immigration patterns but, as this is a children’s movie, we can let it ride.
There Dre’s life becomes much worse as he finds himself viciously and repeatedly bashed by a gang of boys, whose leader has a crush on a girl, who has taken a shine to Dre. As everyone knows, males thrive on exerting power over each other and the most basic way to do this is through a physical fight. A female is as good a provocation as any. Karate Kid peels off thousands of years of civilising evolution and reveals man in his primeval state of bloodlust. Thump or be thumped. There’s no suggestion that perhaps violent bashing is not the best or the right way to settle disputes. No, the answer is to train hard and smash up your opponent. That’s The Karate Kid way, except that the kid is in China, so he learns Chinese martial art, popularly but erroneously, called kung fu.
This is where Mr Han (Jackie Chan) comes in. He is the maintenance man at Dre’s apartment block and has good martial arts skills. As a fighter, he has “kung fu,” which means “great skill acquired through training.” Mr Han is 100% anti-fighting but the plot is engineered so that he has no choice, which is a classic kung fu movie ruse. Dre trains hard as Mr Han takes him through a hybrid style of wushu, hung gar and wing chun kung fu. Chan spends most of his screen time shuffling around with dropped shoulders and a crushed spine because Mr Han has a sad backstory. However, in the skills demo scenes, he rises as a master, gliding through the moves and employing classic blocks while using the opponent’s energy to defeat him. These vignettes are the only positive contribution that the film makes to the understanding of martial arts. There are moves to be learned with understanding and they need to be practised.
However, the film also dishes up dollops of mumbo jumbo that seriously challenge credibility. The scene in the mountain temple, which has Hong Kong action movie legend, Michelle Yeoh, balancing on a dangling ledge, holding a cobra enthralled by the power of her chi, is nonsense. Likewise, Mr Han’s ability to repair serious human soft tissue damage by the use of what looks like a flaming cotton ball is an insult to our intelligence and an aspersion on the genuine healing powers of traditional Chinese medicine. If someone bashes any part of your body hard and repeatedly, they will cause you grievous harm that even the most powerful, scientific medicine cannot repair instantly. To make a seemingly realistic film for young adolescents and to suggest otherwise is grossly misleading.
The film’s biggest lie, is, unfortunately, one to which males are most susceptible – if you train long and hard enough, you will be able to annihilate your enemies with your powerful blows. Facts are that to excel at any accomplishment – even beating someone to a pulp – requires an innate talent or predisposition and then, when two opponents of equal skill meet, the bigger one will always win in a physical fight. In a physical contest, size does matter, which is why in most officially-staged fighting bouts, contestants are divided, in categories, by weight.
The most disappointing thing about Karate Kid is that it has nothing to say about the use of your most powerful weapon in the battle for survival: your brain. When making Enter the Dragon (1972), Bruce Lee took great pains to ensure that Chinese martial art was intelligently represented, so, in one of the early scenes, he demonstrates “the art of fighting without fighting.”
Karate Kid does a great disservice to the practice of traditional martial arts as they are taught by any properly-trained, responsible martial arts teacher. The thug boys all learn kung fu form an evil teacher, Master Li (Yu Rongguang), whose huge school appears to be training a good percentage of Bejing’s children. This teacher orders his students to crush all opponents mercilessly and completely. The overwhelming emphasis on aggressive assault is far removed from what goes on in your typical martial arts school, anywhere in the world, and especially one that offers children’s classes. There, the emphasis is on simple skill development, a bit of self-defence, a bit of exercise, a bit of healthy socialising and cultivating some understanding of the mastery of the self that is the objective of the training. Training requires co-operation with and respect for others. If there are tournaments, they are highly controlled by endless safety rules and are tightly supervised to ensure that no harm comes to anyone. For example, the Australian Kung-Fu (Wu Shu) Federation is bound by the rules of its parent body, the International Wu Shu Federation in Beijing. Full contact tournament junior division entrants cannot be under 16 or over 18, they are grouped according to weight, kicks to the head are banned, as are any repeated punches to the head. Put one body part wrong and you are out.
In view of this, the tournament scene at the end of Karate Kid, which features the film’s most violent fight sequences, with Master Li urging his student to break Dre’s leg, is really pushing it. That Dre’s mother should be cheering him on, as he sustains and delivers punishing blows, is utterly unbelievable. Most mothers would be on the phone to the police and the child protection authorities if they so much as heard about something like this event, let alone condoned their children’s participation in it.
As someone who has been a serious student of wing chun kung fu since 1996, after seeing Jackie Chan hit the wooden dummy in Rumble in the Bronx (directed by Stanley Tong, 1995), I rushed off to see Jackie in this latest offering. Although he doesn’t disappoint, nor does any of the acting from the children or Yu Rongguang, everything else does. It is the extreme violence with which I take issue. I would just as soon show Enter the Dragon and Road House (1989) – both R rated but possibly because they also include drug themes – to children, as this film, because at least they show that violence has painful and potentially deadly consequences. Ironically, children are more likely to try delivering a kick to someone’s head – as we see often in Karate Kid – than to twist someone’s head and break the spine, as we see in Enter the Dragon. It would also be better for children to see Dalton (Patrick Swayze), in Road House, stitching up his own wound than Mr Han miraculously repairing Dre’s crushed leg so that he can continue belting his enemies in the tournament.
In 1996, I took my nine year-old daughter to Rumble in the Bronx, which had an M rating, because the violence is cartoonish nonsense but the display of physical skill is dazzling. The bad guys are easily vanquished by the good guys. Normally, I would not recommend such a film for kids under 12 but my daughter was a child raised on the performing arts, who knew from 18 months of age that Lambert the Sheepish Lion would always save his mama by scaring the big bad wolf off the cliff. I also made her do wing chun for a year before she was allowed to go alone on the bus to school because I wanted her to be able to defend herself and have a healthy awareness of how to maximise personal safety.
When I went to see Karate Kid, I knew it had no karate in it and that probably should have prepared me for all the other lies that this film spreads. That the lies should be directed at children is a gross negligence of responsibility. The film should have an M rating. And why doesn’t Jackie Chan make a proper martial arts movie that the whole family can enjoy? If anyone can do that, Jackie is the man.