THE KARATE KID
The opening scenes in director Harald Zwart's The Karate Kid remake, with the preternaturally confident and magnetic Jaden Smith taking over the Ralph Macchio role, are really good. But your first indication that the movie might wind up being really great - or, at the very least, a really great time - comes with its introduction of Mr. Han, the Pat Morita substitute played here by Jackie Chan.
Until the performer's arrival some 20 minutes in, Zwart's movie effectively replicates and updates its inspiration, with Smith's 12-year-old Dre and his mom (the marvelous Taraji P. Henson) leaving their home in Detroit for the unfamiliar surroundings of urban Beijing. Sent to locate their apartment building's head of maintenance, Dre finds the stoic handyman Mr. Han in his ramshackle dwelling, silently eating noodles with a pair of chopsticks. Then a fly begins to buzz around Mr. Han's head, and for anyone with fond memories of the original Karate Kid, the moment creates its own kind of buzz; Chan eyeballs the circling insect with his chopsticks parted, and we wait, with giggly anticipation, for the inevitable demonstration of Morita's beloved, fortune-cookie mantra: "Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything." And what happens? Chan, quick as lightning, splatters the winged annoyance with a fly swatter.
It's a beauty of a throwaway bit - one that simultaneously pays homage to and winks at director John G. Avildsen's triumph-of-the-underdog hit of 1984 - and in a wonderful surprise, it's not an aberration. Like last summer's sensational Star Trek reboot, this Karate Kid treats its source material with both reverence and delightful irreverence, honorably doffing its cap to the original's winning (if admittedly shameless) blend of comedy, sentiment, and emotional uplift, and emerging as a wholly effective crowd-pleaser in its own right. Zwart's film isn't perfect; there's no getting around the formulaic patness of its revenge-of-the-pretty-hip-nerd narrative, and at 140 minutes, there are plenty of sequences that could've been trimmed, or excised completely, with no noticeable loss. (Smith's puppy-love flirtations with a Chinese violin player, while charming, feel like awkward attempts to turn the prepubescent star into a bona fide romantic lead.) But scene for scene, the movie is enormously satisfying: The bullies are sufficiently hateful, the repartee between Smith and Chan is flinty, funny, and touching, and damned if Smith's climactic, kung-fu face-off against his sneering rival - complete with a thrillingly welcome reenactment of Macchio's legendary "crane pose" - doesn't make you feel like cheering. (At the screening I attended, more than a dozen adults actually did cheer.) Against all expectation, The Karate Kid is exactly the sort-of-cheesy, sort-of-freaking-wonderful entertainment you want it to be, but didn't dare imagine it actually would be.
For more '80s nostalgia, there's director Joe Carnahan's big-screen revamp of TV's The A-Team, and judging by the audience's whoops of delight and raucous cackles, it, too, is bound to make a sizable portion of its demographic very, very happy. As a fortysomething viewer who has never seen a full episode of the campy action series, I am decidedly not that demographic, so I can't offer an opinion as to whether the film's incoherently staged cartoon violence, senseless plotting, and lame gags are representative of the show's appeal; to me, it was just typical dumb noise and blather in the Hollywood-blockbuster mold, like a slightly more professional take on last summer's G.I. Joe debacle. Still, as dreck goes, it's not without small pleasures. There's an impressive, vertigo-inducing sequence with our heroes rappelling down, and occasionally free-falling alongside, a skyscraper, and while their characters have slightly less dimension than Snow White's dwarfs, Bradley Cooper (Happy), Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (Grumpy), Sharlto Copley (Dopey), and Liam Neeson (Doc) manage to convince you that they, at least, are having fun. Plus, Patrick Wilson shows up as an untrustworthy CIA agent, and delivers a snaky comic turn akin to Jason Patric's in The Losers, the recent action-comedy that The A-Team strongly resembles and pales in comparison to. The blond-haired, blue-eyed, generally blander-than-bland Wilson lends the proceedings a jolt of joyously unbridled eccentricity here, and his witty portrayal made me wish Carnahan's movie had provided more subversive thrills like it, and fewer dunderheaded explosions and ridiculously garish set pieces. At one point, Neeson's commander barks, "Overkill is underrated!" Is it now?
There's probably no point in going into depth about the comic-strip-based family flick Marmaduke being unfunny, uninspired, and almost criminally stupid; the continually, understandably mortified expressions of human actors Lee Pace, Judy Greer, and William H. Macy pretty much say it all. But can I take a moment to rail about how unfailingly creepy this movie is? Marmaduke, as you no doubt know, is a big-hearted, thick-headed Great Dane, and as you probably also know, director Tom Dey's movie employs CGI to give the impression of the canine and his four-legged companions speaking to one another. (The title character also speaks directly to the camera, in addition to providing voice-over narration, and it'll now be a long time before I can again hear the anesthetized-surfer cadences of Owen Wilson without wanting to smack him with a newspaper.) But there's a horrible disconnect built into this visual trickery. The animals' "mouths" may be moving, but their eyes, naturally, don't register that any words are being said, and the effect is distracting in the extreme; you stare at these poor, unaware creatures, vacantly nattering away like furry recipients of frontal lobotomies, and don't know whether your first phone call of complaint should be to Dey, 20th Century Fox, or PETA. I didn't sit through the staggeringly witless and downright offensive Marmaduke all the way through the end credits, but I'd bet my life that they included some semblance of the mandatory tag "No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture." I'd beg to differ.
The romantic-action-comedy Killers features Catherine O'Hara doing one of her patented, sloshed, blowsy Catherine O'Hara routines, and the movie is still a worthless piece of crap. Its badness certainly isn't a surprise, considering director Robert Luketic (of Monster-in-Law, 21, and The Ugly Truth) has never helmed a good film, and leading man Ashton Kutcher has never appeared in a good film. Yet from the introductory scenes, in which nearly every line of Kutcher's and co-star Katherine Heigl's dialogue sounds looped, to the climactic reel, in which the filmmakers seemingly throw up their hands and shout to the audience, "You end the damned thing!", Killers is almost astonishingly ill-conceived. Rabid fans of Kutcher's chest and butt, however, might easily have a swell time, and the co-star/co-producer himself obviously falls into that category, at least based on the Heigl character's appraisal of his "physical god-like perfection" and the number of times we're forced to stare at his derrière as he stashes a gun in his back pocket. Kutcher has a devoted (if sweetly misguided) fan base and, from what I understand, a loyal following on Twitter; was it really necessary, in Killers, for the camera to also kiss the guy's ass?