Review: Avatar
The Karate Kid (2010)
[PGP-13] Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson
Directed by: Harald Zwart
Written by:
Christopher Murphey (screenplay), Robert Mark Kamen (story)

Movies and television have had a profound effect on our attitude toward fighting, often for the worse. For example, the TV show Power Rangers, featuring martial-artist-like characters that engage in  mindless nonstop violence with a total lack of consequences.  And how do these rangers acquire their super hero abilities? Certainly not through hard work and practice. In the real world, even when totally justified, violent acts leave scars. There's a reason why soldiers, police officers, or ordinary citizens who have experienced such situations often find the memory too painful to discuss.

When one of the younger members of our clan (age 4) started fantasizing about being a Power Ranger we responded by renting the first 3 Karate Kid installments and had a weekend Karate Kid marathon along with a few lessons of our own to demonstrate what it really takes to learn a martial art. Okay, the Karate Kid movies are fantasies, but sometimes one has to fight fiction with fiction. Besides, even with its flaws, the original Karate Kid  (from 1984) had heart and a message.

So how does the remake of The Karate Kid stack up? It could have been worst, but in our opinion they should have left the original alone. Let's start with inappropriateness of the title. Karate is an Okinawa martial art that was eventually imported to Japan when they invaded and occupied Okinawa.  Considering the more recent invasion of China by Japan during WWII and the hard feelings that followed, not to mention that Karate was not the martial art taught in the movie, the title is, at best, like calling a movie about little league baseball, The Cricket Boy.

The Kung Fu Kid would have been better, although properly speaking, kung fu is not a martial art. Kung fu is actually a high level of achievement in any skill obtained through hard work and practice. The term could apply to a calligrapher, dancer, or physics student as well as a martial artist. The correct term in Mandarin for Chinese martial arts is wushu. The Wushu Wonder? …well maybe not, it sounds like a laundry product.

We love Jackie Chan (Mr. Han, the new version of Mr. Miyagi). His martial art moves are amazing, yet, seeing them used against 12-year-olds was a little unsettling. The comparable scene in the original movie worked because the attackers were high school hooligans. As anyone who has survived high school knows, thanks to raging hormones, the hooligan group suddenly finds itself with a huge boost in both strength and emotional intensity, all without the benefit of adult restraint. One of us had a high school classmate--the senior class president--who was beaten to death by two such hooligans after he foolishly insulted one of their girl friends. Even without misguided martial arts training—sure to make them worse--these type people can be thugs, but 12-year-olds with raging hormones? Well, maybe.

Was there a real kid who learned kung fu from a neighbor who just happened to be a martial arts master?

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The tournament finale also doesn't quite work. The full-contact fighting in it seems incredibly brutal for 12-year-olds. Don't they have mothers? Given their mothers' apparent absence of protest or worry about the level of contact, one can easily imagine the young fighters with canes and neck braces as they hobble off to college, that is if they still have enough brain cells left to go to college.

Of course, there's a difference between movie magic and full contact, for instance, the dramatic final kick. We'll have to wait until the movie comes out on video and watch the scene in slow motion to fully analyze its physics but we don't expect to be blown away by its realism. To understand why, consider western boxing.

A western style boxer must move to within an arm's length of his opponent in order to land a punch. The punch's time of travel to its target will be less than 0.1 second--barely enough for an opponent to see it coming let alone respond. Needless to say, if  the opponent's arms are even slightly out of blocking position or he fails to realize that a punch is about to be thrown, he's going to be hit.

Likewise, if the person throwing the punch misjudges the location of his target or it unexpectedly moves, he's going to miss. Mid-course corrections of a punch are next to impossible to make. If the puncher develops the bad habit of preceding his punch with any type of unnecessary motion, such as slightly pulling his hand back before striking, he warns his opponent that a punch is coming. It's going to be blocked. Although punching looks simple, it takes countless hours to perfect.

Properly throwing the punch is only part of the requirement for winning. Boxers bob and weave in seemingly random ways to confuse their opponents but also because moving targets are harder to hit. It takes a considerable amount of strategy involving jabs, feigns, and footwork to set up the openings required to land a powerful punch. If the the punch fails, the boxer is now in range for a counterattack.

Some martial art styles completely avoid high kicks for just such reasons. To reach an opponent's face, a foot has further to go than a punch, thus taking more time, which a defender can use to detect and counter it.

For the final dramatic kick in the movie, the current karate kid (Jaden Smith) stood perfectly still then jumped upward, rotated his body, hit his opponent in the face, and ended with a  perfect landing after a 360º flip all using only one leg. Like the boxer, before making his move, the current karate kid would  have needed to accurately estimate the final position of his moving opponent to actually hit him. His ability to alter his trajectory in the middle of the kick would have been limited. Likewise, his timing would have needed to be perfect. If the kick were executed a little too soon or late it would have missed. Compared to a punch, his opponent would have had lots of time to see the kick coming and respond.

When the foot found its target some of the kicker's rotational momentum would have been transferred to the opponent. The more forceful the kick the greater the loss of rotational momentum, the more momentum lost, the greater the chances that the rotation and landing could not be completed. Of course, choreography, dramatic music, sound effects, camera and editing tricks along with wire work can make even non-martial artists look like power rangers.

A significant number of youngsters do take up martial arts as a response to being bullied. Some actually stick it out and become proficient. However, this usually takes years of dedicated practice. By the time they become competent, they've usually moved well beyond the need to defeat their tormentors in tournaments. By contrast, deadly serious self-defense situations are not decided by contests with rules and referees.

One of us recently attended a week-long martial arts training course in Jiulong Baguazhang conducted by John Painter and talked to a variety of martial artists from the United States, Canada, and England.  Baguazhang (sometimes spelled Pa-Kua Chang) is one of the three major types of internal martial arts from China and was originally designed for bodyguards who had to rapidly assess and neutralize threats from multiple opponents as they moved their clients out of danger.

The internal martial arts place a greater emphasis on the mind-body interaction than external styles. The best known internal art, Tai Chi Chuan, for example features slow moving forms often referred to as moving meditation. Similarly, some branches of Baguazhang tend to emphasize impressive systems of dance-like forms, standardized for competitions and performances.

On the other hand, Jiulong Baguazhang contains no standardized forms. It's strictly practical, having been refined over numerous generations by the Li family for use in life and death situations. Originally the Li family worked as caravan guards and eventually became body guards and martial arts teachers under Chiang Kai-shek before emigrating to America.

Once in America, the younger Li family generation lost interest in continuing their martial art, so it ended up being passed on by Mr. Frank Li to a then sickly neighbor boy named John Painter—a little like The Karate Kid story, only without all the Hollywood fantasies about revenge against bullies, winning tournaments, or attaining mastery in 6 weeks. (By the way, as far as we know John Painter was not the inspiration for The Karate Kid, although his life story would certainly make a good movie.)

Today Jiulong Baguazhang seems to attract mostly adults who have already studied one or more other martial arts. They're attracted because Jiulong Baguazhang offers benefits—including health, self defense, and spiritual—they've not found in their other martial arts training.

The group at the session included a surprisingly large proportion of people with health or scientific backgrounds including a physician, chiropractor, PhD chemistry student, physical therapist, psychologist, and physics teacher, but also a second group of professionals, people with backgrounds as body guards, bouncers, and law officers. In fact, John Painter himself has been involved in all three positions at one time or another. 

This “professional” group—some of the friendliest people we've ever met—collectively has had numerous experiences where they'd used martial arts in deadly situations. Some had suffered serious injuries including skull fractures, stab and bullet wounds, yet, here they were in good health. Although they were generally not inclined to talk about what happened to the other guys, one can only imagine how their opponents ended up.

Mention real self-defense situations and the professionals will immediately tell you they are far different from either movies or tournaments. They don't have flashy techniques or safety rules. In fact, the professionals will go on to say that many of the techniques commonly taught in martial arts schools, especially the more complicated ones don't work in real self-defense situations or at best are rarely useful. For example, almost all types of martial arts have one or more frequently practiced defenses for a wrist grab, yet, real attacks rarely begin with one. Grab your wrist or smash you in the face without warning? Guess which one a crazed attacker is going to choose.

The effective techniques of Jiulong Baguazhang are often so subtle and uncomplicated they look like nothing is happening. A strike or projection may involve almost imperceptible motions. These can be done with nearly any body part not just the usual ones like feet and hands. In practice sessions  (speaking from personal experience) a projection of this type can knock a person off his feet and send him flying several feet backwards into the nearest wall before he realizes what's happened. In real conflicts, the techniques, with some modifications, can incapacitate.

As for knife attacks, the professionals quickly point out that a serious attacker won't show you his blade; he'll make you feel it as fast and often as possible. If a person lets you see his blade, he's not attacking; he's either a rank amateur or telling you to back off.

On the other hand, while flashy, easy-to-see martial art techniques are less effective in real fights, they're often helpful in movies. Movies are, after all, a visual media. Movie-makers have to edit and exaggerate their fight scenes in order to engage their viewers. A typical moviegoer is not going to have enough martial arts background to comprehend subtle fighting techniques, but let's face it, movie-makers have to spice up just about everything. Real conversations , for example, are filled with stammering, repetition, and fragmented expressions. They rarely contain the scintillating dialog of a well crafted movie script. Reality is often bland.

A well-crafted fight scene in which a hero boldly defeats multiple assailants using acrobatics and spinning back kicks is jolly fun to watch, but does have a downside. As one's only source of information it doesn't lead to clear thinking and sensible decisions.


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It would be far better to gain such information directly from that special neighbor willing to teach his family's ancient martial art and provide enlightenment about the ways of wude (the Chinese code of conduct for martial artists). Although few of us will ever have such neighbors, we  do have access to the lessons of Mr. Miyagi, Mr. Han, and Mr. Li (through John Painter). For us, it's going to be first and foremost Mr. Li. Fictional characters have their place, but unlike movies, real life doesn't get a second take. Real life deserves real information.

At those times when it's best to fight fiction with fiction we're still going to select Mr. Miyagi--played by an actor with little martial arts background (Pat Morita). For all his martial arts skill, Jackie Chan still couldn't make his character, Mr. Han an improvement.


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