The Karate Kid (2010)

2018 #72
Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

The Karate Kid

For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

4 out of 5

The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)

2018 #167
Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher & Bob Logan | 101 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Denmark / English | U / PG

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

After the somewhat surprising success of The LEGO Movie, both critically (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercially ($469.2 million worldwide), Warner Bros and LEGO realised they were on to a good thing and so did what any movie studio does in such circumstances: plowed ahead not only with a sequel (out next February), but also spin-offs. The first one, The LEGO Batman Movie, continued the trend (90% Tomatometer; $312 million gross); the next one — this one — …didn’t. With a rotten 55% on the Tomatometer and a worldwide box office take of just $123.1 million (less than either previous film’s domestic gross alone), what went wrong? Did they flood the market with LEGO movies too quickly? Was Ninjago just not as attractive or familiar a brand as Batman or LEGO generally? Or is it just not a very good movie? Well, I’ll come to that.

The film sets its scene in Ninjago City, which is constantly terrorised by villain Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his armies. Fortunately for the good folk of Ninjago, they have a team of mech-driving colour-coded super-ninjas to protect them. In real life, those ninjas are just high school kids, and not particular popular ones — especially Lloyd (Dave Franco), aka the Green Ninja, who everyone knows is Garmadon’s son. When Lloyd’s daddy issues lead him to slip up, the ninjas have to save the city — and, in the process, Lloyd and Garmadon have to sort out their differences.

The Garmadons

The LEGO Ninjago Movie is quite clear that the focus of its story is the relationship between Lloyd and Garmadon, but it’s perhaps a little too focused on that. There are a bunch of other characters thrown into the mix — Lloyd’s five teammates; their master, Wu (Jackie Chan); Lloyd’s mother (Olivia Munn) — but the film doesn’t afford the screen time to do any of them justice. In fact, the film probably would’ve been a lot better if it had cut back on the number of beats in the Lloyd/Garmadon story and devoted a bit more time to giving everyone a little subplot. If it kept busy doing that it might’ve picked up the pace a bit as well, because although Ninjago is more or less the same length as the two previous LEGO movies, it feels much longer.

Partly this is because it just doesn’t feel as inspired as the other movies — it lacks the spark of ingenuity that ignited their characters, humour, and stories. At times it feels entirely half-hearted. For example, Lloyd’s big mistake makes his teammates all hate him, but they immediately go on a journey with him anyway; Master Wu says the length of that journey will give them time to come back round to Lloyd, but the film never bothers to suggest that’s happening — as soon as they need to all get along again, they do. Clearly this was meant to have some emotional effect on Lloyd (even the handful of people who used to like him don’t anymore), but that’s never really given the emphasis to be felt either — so what was the point of them falling out with him in the first place?

Even in LEGO, Jackie Chan kicks ass

That said, it does muster suitable amusement in places, though not as regularly as the other two films. And if you’re a fan of Eastern genre movies — kung fu, giant monsters/mechs, samurai, etc — the whole shape and style of the film is a broad reference to that kind of cinema, which is fun for those in the know. Unfortunately, it comes up somewhat short in the action stakes — the mech sequences seem to be inspired by the Michael Bay school of throw tonnes of visual information at the screen and whizz through it at lightning speed, making some of it hard to distinguish, even with the separation benefits of 3D.

Despite all these negatives, I didn’t actively dislike The LEGO Ninjago Movie. It’s good in places, most of it ticking along at a level of passable entertainment — but it ticks along for too long, it’s not funny enough, and it can’t bring it all together in the way the other two films did. It suffers most of all from those comparisons, because it’s simply not a patch on the other two LEGO movies.

3 out of 5

The LEGO Ninjago Movie is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)

aka Se ying diu sau

2014 #98
Yuen Woo-ping | 92 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese | 18 / PG*

Snake in the Eagle's ShadowJackie Chan’s breakout hit sees him as Chien Fu, the floor-scrubber-cum-punch-bag at a martial arts school where he bumps into Pai Cheng Tien (Yuen Siu Tien), one of the last two proponents of the Snake Fist style after its other students were murdered by their old enemies, the Eagle Claw clan. The old man trains Chan so he can overcome his bullying schoolmasters, while the Eagle Claw grand master (Hwang Jang Lee) hunts for his last remaining rival…

The first film from director Yuen Woo-ping (he went on to helm Jackie Chan’s other defining film, Drunken Master, later the same year, and is best known to us Westerners for his action choreography work on The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, and Kill Bill) presents quite a slight story, but that’s OK: we’re here for the action, and it delivers that in droves. There are more fights than you can shake a stick at; and not just minor skirmishes littered between two or three headline bouts: regular highly-choreographed duels make up the bulk of the running time. The skill on display is as high as you’d expect, and while I know nothing of the technicalities of martial arts, the speed and dexterity of the performers has to be admired.

There’s some of the comedy Chan would become known for, but it’s not outright comedic most of the time; more straight kung fu with a regularly-displayed wry edge. Those who prefer their action po-faced may still find it palatable, though the campiness of the era that has been much parodied since is present and correct.

Snake Fist styleAlso striking is the music score, a strange mix of weird, cheap, dated, electronic stuff… and yet, it’s so odd I kind of warmed to it. It’s all poached from elsewhere, which was apparently the way things were done in Hong Kong at the time. Stand-out tracks are Magic Fly by Space and Oxygene Part II by Jean Michel Jarre, though bits of famous scores are in there too, most recognisably (for me) You Only Live Twice. I don’t really know what this bizarre juke-box-esque system adds for the viewer, other than some spot-the-tune fun and an appreciable level of bizarreness.

Not the most “Jackie Chan” of Jackie Chan films, and dated in a way that will put some off, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is nonetheless good fun for those who like their action movies to be properly action-centric.

4 out of 5

* Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But that’s what IMDb and filmRatings.com say. I suppose the US do have silly-lax views on violence in film… ^

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

2014 #72
Rob Minkoff | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

The Forbidden KingdomJackie Chan and Jet Li co-star for the first time (with shared billing, thanks to the J — on screen as it is on the poster) in this US-produced martial arts epic.

Despite slick modern filming and CGI, it all feels kinda ’80s — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. But there’s something about the setup — which sees teen Michael Angarano find a magic staff in a Chinatown shop and escape a group of thugs by accidentally transporting back to Ancient China, just in time for a Quest — that rings of ’80s US kids/teenage movies to me, though I’m not exactly sure which ones.

Anyway, it’s once he’s in the past that the fun begins. The staff belongs to the immortal Monkey King, imprisoned as a statue by some nastier fellow immortals, and it’s up to our teenage hero and his newly-found companions to return it. Cue trekking across countryside and fighting lots of enemies. It’s a straightforward and well-trodden story, but it’s serviceable enough to link up the action sequences. Those are well-handled by director Rob Minkoff, which you might not expect from a man whose previous experience was mostly limited to The Lion King and Stuart Little.

The big one everyone wants to see, of course, is Chan vs. Li. Rather than engineer it to form part of the climax, they duel halfway through, in an encounter that settles on a victor just as much as that opening credit does. Nonetheless, it’s an epic bout in terms of both scope and length. It’s clearly been lavished with the appropriate attention, and focuses on the pair’s physical skills rather than being cobbled together with editing or brushed over with lashings of CGI.

The forbidden educationWe do get the latter during the climax, which is fine; the former never rears its ugly head. Minkoff knows to hold his camera back, eschewing the fast-cut close-up style of most modern Hollywood action for a more traditional use of long shots and longer takes. It’s a natural fit for the extensive, impressive choreography that’s performed by expert professionals.

Received wisdom seems to be that The Forbidden Kingdom is not very good, but I really enjoyed it. It’s undeniably hokey in places, but no more so than your average genuine martial arts flick (this being a “semi-genuine” affair, with its Hollywood lead actor, writer and director, and primarily English dialogue). Best of all, the fight scenes are uniformly great — the highlight may be midway, but the others didn’t disappoint. Not the best work that either Li or Chan has appeared in, I suppose, but an entertaining martial arts flick all the same.

4 out of 5

Rush Hour 3 (2007)

2012 #6
Brett Ratner | 84 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | Germany & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rush Hour 3Belated sequels are often the worst kind, an actor/director/studio returning to past glories in the hope of creating new success. Even when they work, they’re not a patch on the original. (I’m sure there must be exceptions, but nothing comes to mind.) The third entry in the Rush Hour series was moderately belated (it was released six years after Rush Hour 2), but, perhaps more significantly for this review, it’s the best part of a decade since I watched the other two. I enjoyed them back then, but after a significant period of growing up, I have no idea if I’d be so fond now. The other point of that is, I don’t think I can accurately say if Rush Hour 3 matches, surpasses or falls short of the quality of the other two.

Judged in its own right, then, it’s a film of variable quality. The plot jumps around tenuously, an excuse to string together acrobatic action sequences and stale comedy routines — one involves two Chinese characters named Yu and Me. Imagine the hilarity. It does manage a few good gags, now and then, but it’s not one to watch for consistent laughs.

Gratuitous photoIt’s ostensibly a thriller (albeit a comedy-action-thriller) and so there are plot twists, but they’re wholly predictable. It also lacks clarity in its villain, I felt — who it is, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and so on. It weakens the film, especially the ending: there’s the usual big action climax, followed by a little bit of business that dilutes the impact of the ending. It’s just badly structured.

Ratner’s direction lacks total competency. Never mind allowing unfunny routines to run too long — or meritless ideas to even be included — his framing is off at times, making his 2.35:1 frame sometimes look cropped from something taller, sometimes something even wider. It’s kind of impressive, in a bad way. Jackie Chan’s fights are mostly well shot though, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the man himself had a hand in that.

Those fights aren’t amongst Chan’s best action sequences, but they’re still quite entertaining. I love sword fights and I love Chan’s acrobatic choreography, so a climax combining the two — Fight!plus some sparing atop the Eiffel Tower (or, I presume, a surprisingly good set thereof) — is occasionally spectacular and single-handedly almost justifies the entire film’s existence. A car chase/fight through the streets of Paris is the other best bit, buoyed by both unusual choreography and Yvan Attal’s French taxi driver George, who’s probably the film’s best character.

Rush Hour 3 isn’t a good film — it’s too inconsistent, too indulgent, too unfocussed in its storytelling — but it has some fun bits, mainly thanks to Jackie Chan. If only for some of his bits, I’m glad I bothered with it.

2 out of 5

Rush Hour 3 is on Channel 4 tonight at 9:45. Which is a coincidence because I was going to post this review anyway.

Miracles (1989)

aka Qi ji / Mr. Canton and Lady Rose / Black Dragon / The Canton Godfather

2007 #104
Jackie Chan | 122 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

MiraclesI’ve always been a bit wary of Chan’s films: he’s renowned for using comedy in his action (to help break away from the frequently-applied “new Bruce Lee” label), which isn’t really to my taste; but after we were shown an impressive clip from this in a lecture I felt I had to give it a go.

It’s 1930s Hong Kong and Chan accidentally becomes the head of a mafia-like gang. The film follows a “gang war” plot for about 40 minutes before abruptly changing tack to become an identity-based farce! It’s all a bit messy and most of the genuinely funny bits are still in Chan’s excellent action sequences, which are mind-bogglingly impressive feats of acrobatics and choreography. Of course, it’s these that we’ve come for, and the film would benefit from less pointless farcing about, a shorter running time, and more evenly distributed action sequences.

Enjoyable, but flawed.

3 out of 5