80s Revival: A Team and Karate Kid

The prophet Bono once said ‘You glorify the past when the future dries up’. I know what he means. How many times have you heard it said in an organization – be it political party, family, church, sports club – that ‘…it was so much better when….’? We look back to a previous time and think – give me that over the uncertain and empty future any time. It would be easy to say that of a time when we see new releases like The A Team and Karate Kid within days or weeks or each other. I’m sure that’s what the marketing men are banking on – parents and dating couples alike raising eyebrows wearily at how modern films are just no fun, remember how good these were back in the day….let’s see how the new one is. We like to glorify the past – nostalgia sells, and sells well.

That, though, would be a little simplistic. There’s a theory that in fact there exists only a small limited number of plots, with variations on the different themes – a big book published not so long ago lays its bets at the number seven. Every book, play, film or series sticks to one of these templates. If that’s true – and to be honest, looking at the evidence closely, it’s unarguable – then all the makers of these two films are doing is being more honest. Why draw wool over the viewers’ eyes? Make it easier for everybody, and tell them which of the basic plots they are selling.

These are two very different films. The A Team has none of the charm of the series, little of the wit and even less of the plot. It’s lazy and flung together with a cheap Iraq backdrop as a vague attempt at contextualization. It’s hopelessly miscast for just about everybody – and I really have yet to see an action film in which Liam Neeson really carries it off (don’t even start me on Taken). Using the title it does it no more than cynical manipulation, a desperate attempt to piggy-back on misremembered childhood Saturdays.

Karate Kid is, though, somewhat better. It just works. There’s nothing that different to the original – what needs to be updated has been, and the old film is gven loving nods in cute references which will be picked up by adults accompanying children to the cinema. It is, though, the film’s central relationship that carries it so well – Jackie Chan is in fine form as the mentor. Jaden Smith in the title role is very, very good. He carries the physical transformation from insolent sulking child abroad to young man in the making with conviction. He has an easy screen presence who is not far away from overshadowing his off-screen father’s. There’s nothing new in this, but if the seven plots theory is right then for storytellers there really is nothing new under the sun anyway. I’m not sure why it needed to be set in China (other than the odd shot of the Birds’ Nest stadium), unless it’s short hand for ‘far-off’ these days. Which is fine, unless of course you live there. Or nearby. If you’re being literal, it should be called Kung-Fu Kid – but then no one would see it. It might have been better off set within American borders, and then used as a metaphor for pluralism, multi-culturalism or something else. Then it would just have been a bit odd.

Mostly, though, this is just good fun – with a young boy who is good enough to make you forget just how bad a performance his screen mother puts in. Nothing new under the sun? Maybe. The challenge then, is to reinvent well enough to make us forget that. Not easy – but true creativity is found where there are limits as opposed to endless open spaces of resources and ideas. On that basis, the new Karate Kid is a creative piece of mass-marketing to be applauded and enjoyed, especially at the expense of The A Team.

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