Karate Kid (2010) Review

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.

Blazenka Brysha

Pride and Prejudice and Profit$


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a publisher in search of profits must be in want of a most marketable text. Indeed, if one were to maximise the margins, one could do no better than prey on a much-loved and globally recognised testament of the Western Canon.

And that is how Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Classics, 2009) came to be. At the suggestion of an editor, Grahame-Smith hacked his way through Austen’s most popular text, inserting zombie action into the storyline and rewriting Austen’s characters to deal with these new plot twists. Zombies are the living dead, the walking corpses that wander roboticly in search of the living, on whose brains they feed after cracking open their skulls. Zombiism is an infectious state transmitted through biting, as we learn when Charlotte Lucas confides in Elizabeth Bennet that she has been bitten by a zombie and therefore, as her days are numbered, she will marry Mr Collins because he can fulfil her modest expectations of the marital state and give her a proper beheading and Christian burial after her transformation into a zombie is complete. Charlotte’s descent into decomposing housewife oozing pus and talking in what sounds like Sambo-speak, awh mah lawd, it do make me laff.

In Grahame-Smith’s version of Austen’s England, the country is in the throes of a zombie plague and as zombies can only be dispatched by beheadings, their violent destruction is the responsibility of the military but citizens with a serious interest in survival also require deadly fighting skills because they might be needed as zombies are likely to gatecrash balls, eat the kitchen staff of a grand estate as they prepare to serve desert, which is ruined by the bloody splatter, and interrupt just about any genteel activity found in an Austen novel. So, Grahame-Smith’s Bennet sisters are Shaolin-trained warriors, Wickham, D’Arcy and Lady Catherine de Burgh are initiates of the Japanese fighting arts and the zombies are just freestyle cannibals, giving everyone ample opportunity for frequent, lethal encounters and buckets of yuckky viscera.

But I’m making the work sound a lot better than it reads. While blood, gore and guts, with a supernatural twist – staple fodder of late 20thC youth entertainment – have been added by the hospital biohazard skipful, Grahame-Smith does a poor job of marrying his contribution to Austen’s archaic, and by modern standards of informality, delightfully pompous language.

Clearly, the popularity enjoyed by Pride and Prejudice in recent years has more to do with its treatment on screen than Austen’s skill with language. Filmed versions of the book have abounded, most notably the BBC’s 1995 TV production with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the leads, capturing the essence of Austen’s opus in 6 easy episodes without anyone but writer Andrew Davies, an award-winning screen adaptor of classic novels, having to read a word of the novel. Nevertheless, Austen, as the teller of the story, is given full credit for her creation, which is, more or less, a love story for teenagers, featuring a number of mateable virgins and their suitors, an assortment of problematic relatives, and throbbing with unresolved sexual tension more volatile than an industrial accident in a pharmaceutical laboratory manufacturing hormones for the treatment of flagging libidos.

The virgins cover all types: sexy and sweet (Jane), sexy and sharp (Elizabeth), sexy, buxom and bawdy (Lydia), sexy and silly (Kitty), sexy and juvenile (Miss D’Arcy), sexless and intellectual (Mary), sexless and dowdy (Charlotte), sexless and sickly (Miss de Bourgh), and last but not least that great archetype, sexless and shrewish (Miss Bingley). Zip up your pants, boys! Speaking of which, the bachelors offer varying degrees of eligibility, covering the 19thC desirable job wishlist. Among them we have the landed gentry in D’Arcy, the fantastically rich, impossibly handsome and scandalously arrogant alpha male/bad boy, and his friend, Bingley, a beagle reincarnated as a good-natured, rich, upper class twit; the clergy in Mr Collins, a drivelling slimeball, next to whom it is agony to sit let alone contemplate physical contact with; and, of course, the military in Wickham, the mendacious reprobate slipping as easily into virgins’ confidence as into their vaginas, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is without any glaring faults apart from being “a younger son” whose consequent lack of fortune prevents him from marrying where he might like. But Austen does not spoil everyone’s fun by dwelling too long on anything remotely serious here; she saves that for Persuasion.

The relatives are as easily dispatched as zombies milling on a busy helicopter landing pad. Mrs Bennet who talks too much and thinks too little is a constant embarrassment to her children. Mr Bennet, who speaks in cutting sarcasms, spends all his time hiding in his library. Best of all is Lady Catherine de Burgh, the aunt from hell who proves that social status, riches and genetic pedigree are no guarantee of good breeding, personal quality and effectualness.

When you take a close look at Austen’s story and characters there are many ways to improve on it and Seth Grahame-Smith tries his best to fix it.

Aside from the poetic treatment of Charlotte and giving Lady Catherine a troupe of ninjas, Grahame-Smith disappoints.

His feeling for Asian martial arts is as fake as Charlotte Collins’s orgasms would have been. The Bennets are Shaolin (Temple in China) Chinese boxing followers so they would never set foot in dojos (Japanese karate training halls) except to vanquish a karate opponent (see – literally – Fist of Fury, 1972, Lo Wei). Elizabeth Bennet would never use a Katana – a Samurai sword – when she could use a dragon pole, which would give her better reach until she could get in with her butterfly swords, one for each hand, spun in continuous figure 8 motion, dismembering anything in reach. If Grahame-Smith tackled a religious subject he would have a Methodist minister say Mass in a mosque. A little bit of credibility, please.

The reworked novel’s conclusion is more horrifying than any zombie-wreaked havoc: “the sisters Bennet – servants of His Majesty, protectors of Hertfordshire, beholders of the secrets of Shaolin, and brides of death – were now, three of them, brides of man, their swords quieted by that only force more powerful than any warrior.” It’s not just the secrets of Shaolin about which Seth doesn’t have a clue.

But it is Grahame-Smith’s crime against language that is heinous beyond censure. It includes Mr Bennet referring to his wife as a “silly woman” and other lazy modernisms where period detailing of form and content may have been vastly more amusing and indeed the very palliative to make so odd a concoction as Mr Grahame-Smith’s endeavour bearable for those with highly-attuned cultural sensitivities. Worst of all, it features the mutilation of a pronoun, “…as for my sisters and I, our father thought it best that we give less of our time to books…”(p34). Here Seth is not alone and a plague of this is upon “us”, that’s “you and me”, babe, not YOU AND I! A plague is upon me and upon you but you will still be you whether you are the subject or the object, whereas I will be me when I am the object. Why do you do this to us, the other readers and me? On the back cover blurb of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it states, “Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature” so, he can consider this his class in English language.

Seth, all I can say is,”You have offended me, my (literary/literate)family and the Shaolin Temple.” Well done, old chap!

Blazenka Brysha took many classes in English literature and language, on both sides of the desk. She devours books with all the greedy, lip-smacking relish of a zombie cracking open a toddler’s soft skull and sucking out the warm brain, which is probably why her daughter gave her a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a birthday gift.

Also published in The Group Online Magazine, Issue 5.