The James Clayton Column: Two karate kids find oneness

As Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith hit the cinemas with their remake of 80s classic The Karate Kid, James examines the spiritual undercurrents in both films…

Some scruffy-looking, half-witted nerf herder punks have been picking on our kid Jaden Smith before he’s even had a chance to unpack his suitcase and settle in to his new life in Beijing. The nerve of these roughhouse hoodlums!

This is wrong and unjust. They’re getting in the way of his preteen romance with the Chinese violinist virtuoso girl. They’re making the little American outsider feel even more homesick and alienated. Where do these bullies get off, eh?

At this point in a Will Smith film, our main man would scream “Aww, hell no!” and rise up ready to beat the bad guys’ punk asses down and probably proceed to save the world. Except this isn’t a Will Smith film. He’s only on board as a producer and – as everyone knows – the producer’s job is to turn up to the premiere and shout at people over the phone while they float around their pool in Malibu.

Will Smith turns out to be the Fresh Prince of Vanishing Into Thin Air when his child needs him most, which means the twelve-year-old is left to take the pasting without help from an action star parent. Aww, hell no! Will no one step forward and intervene before Jaden’s body and self-esteem are trampled into the dust?

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Sadly, Pat Morita is dead, but luckily enough, the boy has the next best thing to Papa Smith. Enter Jackie Chan, martial arts dynamo and irrepressible, unstoppable chopsocky supremo. In Mr Miyagi’s absence, I can’t think of anyone better to teach self-defence and the art of overcoming adversity with character and chutzpah.

Jackie is possibly the finest person on the planet to show Jaden’s character Dre that “everything is kung fu”. Whatever the movie – Drunken Master, Police Story, Rush Hour, whatever – over half the running time is Chan the Man turning everyday objects and settings into tremendous slapstick or ad-hoc self-defence props.

Resourcefulness, ingenuity and imagination are the reasons that Jackie Chan is Hong Kong’s most successful cinematic export. He doesn’t do kung fu. He is kung fu, lives kung fu and carries the essence of kung fu into the world around him. All the while he does it with enthusiasm and an infectious smile.

Just as Mr Miyagi showed Danny LaRusso that mastery of self and the secret of martial arts can be found in the painting of a fence or the waxing of a car, maintenance man Han (Jackie Chan) illustrates that the essence lies in such mundane motions as the hanging up of a jacket.

I think I prefer the “wax on, wax off” technique to the coat hanger style of tuition championed by Han, however, which brings me to the problem with The Karate Kid. This isn’t The Karate Kid. This, if anything, is The Kung Fu Kid.

The Karate Kid is Pat Morita teaching East Coast exile Ralph Macchio the lessons of his Okinawa ancestry through the sanding of floorboards. The youngster from New Jersey overcomes his tormentors, gains respect and gets the girl in an LA underdog tale that climaxes with a crane kick victory at the All-Valley Karate Tournament.

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This newly released movie may basically be the same plot with a black American from Detroit having difficulty in China, but it isn’t really The Karate Kid. The title character learns Chinese kung fu, so why mix up legacies and tangle a fresh, unique-enough flick with a beloved piece of 80s cult legend?

It may have the same narrative, but the newer film is distinct enough in terms of setting, characters, aesthetics and so shouldn’t be hamstrung by a title that calls to mind waxed cars, grasshoppers, 80s perms and Mr Miyagi.

The Kung Fu Dream, as it’s called in Chan’s homeland, also differs from the Morita-Macchio tag-team tale in that the teacher gets a bit tougher on his student. Danny LaRusso’s housework and beachcombing looks pretty easy compared to what Dre must go through in the lead-up to competition. To list a few of the kid’s ordeals, Mr Han attacks him through a shower curtain, smacks tennis balls at him and forces the little guy to trek up a mountain to the Dragon Well. (There’s a cable car, you know.)

Dre has to take on the Great Wall of China, perform body-bending splits and jog in the mud, which is a bit more hardcore than LaRusso’s training regime. Thus, we realise the key difference between original and remake. One is American pop culture that thematically features martial arts. The other is a martial arts feature pretty firmly in Far Eastern culture.

Allow me a moment to act as wise grand sifu. Imagine that I’m a venerable old gentleman with long white hair and a wispy beard perfect for meditative stroking. I’m sitting lotus position atop the heavenly pagoda overlooking the jade lakes so serene beneath the Wudang Mountains. I’ve just caught a mosquito with a pair of chopsticks and performed five perfect somersaults in one leap onto the temple roof and have accordingly impressed you. Accept and worship me as your sagacious master, grasshopper.

The way I see it (and I’m the sifu who catches insects with chopsticks and holds the wisdom of the chopsocky ancients in my cranium, so I’d know), the two Karate Kids can be distinguished by a vital disparity in their essential ‘isness’, the energy flow and ideological heart of the movie.

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In The Karate Kid of 1984, martial arts illumination comes to Danny LaRusso. In The Karate Kid of 2010 (a.k.a. The Kung Fu Dream) Dre Parker comes to martial arts illumination.

In the former, LaRusso is the hero and he absorbs martial arts. In the latter, martial arts is the hero and it absorbs Dre Parker. Yang flows into yin and balance is achieved. Yin flows into yang and balance is achieved.

They’re the same, but different in tone and in martial arts tradition. Everything is karate. Everything is kung fu. The underdog overcomes the trials by finding balance and oneness with himself – body, mind and spirit – and the surrounding world.

The message is a positive one that expresses the ethos at the heart of the practice of martial arts and it’s a message worth repeating again and again, no matter how unoriginal the plot or how irritating the Justin Bieber credits music is. It’s a shame to think that it’s obscured and potentially lost as people read the movie as “a remake of The Karate Kid without Mr Miyagi”.

James’ previous column can be found here.

More thoughts from James can be found at

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