The other day I went to see the remake of “The Karate Kid.” I went with some trepidation because the original 1984 film is so iconic and one of my favorite films. Remakes of popular films and big-screen versions of hit TV series can be nostalgic for some, while for others, they interfere with cherished memories.
I was happy that the new “Karate Kid,” which stars Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan in the Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita roles, didn’t ruin my memories of the original. In fact, after seeing it, I watched the original one again to see how the new one stacked up against it: In some parts, the new one was better; in others, it wasn’t.
Hollywood is bombarding us with remakes, sequels and movie versions of TV series (“The A-Team,” for one). According to the Hollywood Reporter, 11 sequels or franchise films will open or have already opened in the U.S. this summer. Among them are “Iron Man 2,” “Sex and the City 2,” “Shrek Forever,” Toy Story 3” and “The Twilight Saga.” As for movie remakes, we have already had “Clash of the Titans,” “The Wolfman,” Robin Hood” and “Sherlock Holmes.” Last year, there was “The Taking of Pelham 123” and “Star Trek,” among others. Before that, it was “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Pink Panther” and so on and so on.
Remakes of earlier films are nothing new. Hollywood has been doing it for 100 years, not only remaking its own films but also foreign movies, including countless Japanese horror and samurai films. But it seems to be happening with greater frequency recently. Is there such a creative drought in Hollywood? These days, the best writing is done on TV dramas and comedies and there are some brilliantly written shows. So why can't we get brilliantly written movie screenplays?
What possesses producers to resurrect TV shows from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s (some of which weren’t that good to begin with – “Charlie’s Angels”) and hope that they will appeal to modern audiences? One reason is because they think that old TV shows already have built-in brand awareness. It’s a pity that they don’t make movie versions of popular TV series during their heyday, but tight weekly production schedules don’t allow for that. In some cases, they wait until after the series finishes, and then bring back the original cast for the big screen, such as with “Star Trek,” “The X-Files” and “Sex and the City,” for example. A film version of “24” is in the works after the drama ended its 8-season run this year.
What makes a memorable TV series is not just one episode. It is watching season after season – some good episodes, some bad – creating an emotional bond between the viewer and the characters. If you are a fan, then you have grown up on these shows; so many memories, often childhood ones, are associated with them. The characters are part of the family. Year after year, we invited them into our livingrooms and now that we are grown up, we still invite them into our homes on DVDs. The old actors are too associated with their characters to allow anyone else in.
That bond cannot be duplicated with one movie, a sequel or a big-screen version 20 years later. "The A-Team" movie is just a lot of noise to modern young audiences who get fidgety if there isn't a car chase or explosion every 10 minutes. The cinematic graveyard is full of remakes of TV shows that disappeared into oblivion, among them, “Miami Vice,” “SWAT,” “Bewitched,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “I Spy,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Dennis the Menace,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” "Car 54, Where Are You?" and “The Mod Squad," to name a few. The only ones that have been successful at the box office were Tom Cruise’s three “Mission: Impossible” films (though none of them captured the spirit of the vintage TV series), “Get Smart” (which wasn’t THE “Get Smart” to devotees like me), and Brian De Palma’s 1987 version of “The Untouchables.”
The other day, I read that Russell Crowe will reprise Edward Woodward’s role as “The Equalizer” – a 1985-89 series. There is even talk of a film version of “I Dream of Jeannie” (the mind boggles), with Jessica Alba’s name rumored. Meanwhile, a pilot has been made for a contemporary “Hawaii 5-0.” I mean, come on, surely we’re not going to see the big wave, hear the famous soundtrack and watch someone else turn around on the balcony as Steve McGarrett for the opening credits. Jack Lord will turn over in his grave.
Getting back to movies, admittedly, there are some films that could do with a remake, or which can be improved upon technically because of the special effects wizardry available today. More often than not, though, the story and “the feel” that made the earlier film special are lost amid the effects. The abysmal 2008 film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and Steven Spielberg’s disappointing “War of the Worlds” in 2005 are two examples of that.
'Karate Kid' part of pop culture
With “The Karate Kid,” the challenge is remaking a movie that has become part of pop culture. I remember chatting with the late Pat Morita when he came to Japan in the mid-1980s (to promote the second film in the series, I think). Before “The Karate Kid,” the only times I had seen Morita were as a servant in an episode of “Columbo,” in “MAS*H, and as Arnold in “Happy Days.” Yet, now, he was strongly identified with his character wherever he went. Morita, who spoke flawless English (unlike Mr Miyagi), said he couldn’t count the number of people who had come up to him, saying “Wax on, wax off” or “Always look eye.” He was also amused at how many people told him they had tried the crane kick technique. Yeah, we all did it.
Morita made an interesting point about “The Karate Kid.” Until then, most martial arts films had concentrated on the physical aspect. Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris made great action films and the martial arts scenes were fantastic but there were no signature training techniques like “Wax on, wax off, paint the fence,” etc, that stuck in audiences’ minds. Nor have there been since, really. The films of Steven Seagal and Jet Li are about mashing and bashing, while Jackie Chan’s films have tended to be more comedy.
Morita said that by focusing on the spiritual (not to be confused with religious) aspect of the discipline, he believed “The Karate Kid” had inspired who knows how many teenagers in the U.S. and probably other countries to learn karate. It crossed all borders and cultures, he said.
Trivia note: The title didn’t cross all borders. For Japan, both the original film, its three sequels and the remake are titled “Best Kid.” I asked the movie distributor about this way back then and the consensus was that “Karate Kid” sounded too cartoonish.
So will the new film become iconic? Not likely, but parts of it will be memorable and stand on their own. Perhaps director Harald Zwart, who was responsible for “The Pink Panther 2” remake, learned from his mistakes. There has been some initial lampooning of its title by critics who carp that it should be “The Kung Fu Kid,” since it is set in China where the Jaden Smith character learns kung fu from his mentor. But it’s a brand name. When “The Manchurian Candidate” was remade in 2004, they got away with that one by calling the rogue company Manchurian Global.
Anyway, remakes will always be money earners for studios. By the way, Japanese producers are getting into the act, too. Last year, there was a Japanese version of "Sideways," and a Japanese version of the 1990 weepie "Ghost" is planned for next year, with Nanako Matsushima in the Demi Moore role.
The challenge is to stay faithful to the original while making the story fresh. It can be done successfully -- Christopher Nolan did it with two Batman films, JJ Abrams did it last year with “Star Trek” (but no more please; it won't work a second time) and Guy Richie breathed life into “Sherlock Holmes.” When he was in Japan promoting “Sherlock Holmes,” co-star Jude Law said the film was an attempt to introduce a generation of moviegoers to the famous detective, even though he has been around for more than 100 years in literature, films and TV.
Fair enough, but in some ways, that’s a shame. I know so many people who have seen very few movies made before 2000. They’ve never seen anything made by Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and company. Those who don’t download movies seldom make it past the New Releases shelf when they venture to their neighborhood DVD rental store. So the temptation is there for producers to dig back into the past and do some remakes. But some films shouldn’t be touched. Gus Van Sant learned that when he made a clone of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in 1998.
As Mr Miyagi would say: “Wax off.”
"The Karate Kid" opens in Japan on Aug 14.© Japan Today