By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; C01
"The A-Team" and "The Karate Kid" open on Friday, inviting speculation as to just how much movie audiences love the '80s. But as part of a summer movie season loaded with an unusual number of sequels, reboots, spinoffs and legacy pop media adaptations, they also offer another weekly referendum on Hollywood's version of incumbency and dynastic entitlement.
The metaphor may seem tortured, but, with Super Duper Tuesday giving way to Remake Friday, allow us a moment's indulgence. Because if the summer so far is any indication, voters at the multiplex are feeling as dissatisfied as their counterparts at the polls. Sure, "Iron Man 2," after an initially modest opening, has chugged along to earn nearly $300 million at the box office, making it the Blanche Lincoln of cinematic survivors. But such presumed shoo-ins as "Shrek Forever After," "Sex and the City 2," "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "Marmaduke" -- each of them either a sequel or an adaptation of a proven property -- have all been rejected at the polls.
Perhaps, like the congressional incumbents who will be in the cross hairs come November, Hollywood filmmakers have become a little too comfortable: With the success of the "Spider-Man," "Batman," "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" movies, they've become addicted to sequels. A whopping 11 franchise pictures will have rolled out by September.
The early results suggest that filmgoers are fixing to revolt. Summer box-office receipts are down an estimated 20 percent compared to this time last year. And the studios are nervous. "There very well could be some burnout with moviegoers, who are looking for something new and fresh," one studio executive admitted to the Hollywood Reporter earlier this month. Ya think?
And not only have career pols experienced pushback. Pundits and prognosticators were told to shove it just last weekend. "Splice," the execrable science-fiction horror film starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley that opened June 4, received nearly universally glowing reviews from film critics (with the exception, for the record, of yours truly). Filmgoers were having none of it, giving the alternately gruesome and risible exploitation flick a D during CinemaScore exit polls. "Splice" pulled in a paltry $7.4 million.
Where does that leave this week's cinematic candidates? For all its glib male bonding and preposterous action, "The A-Team" mostly keeps its campaign promises -- to offer a few moments of mindless escapism and fall-down-go-boom fun. A slightly classed-up version of the cheeseball 1980s TV series, the movie features an improbably appealing cast, including Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley, who starred in last summer's out-of-nowhere stunner "District 9."
With its frenetic action, pinball pacing, too-cool wisecracks and utterly outrageous stunts (a guy shooting a machine gun from a tank dangling from a parachute -- really?), "The A-Team" begins to feel an awful lot like "The Losers" (one of the season's first bombs), just as both films' ethos of Guys Blowing Stuff Up With Other Guys bears a distinct resemblance to Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" (due in August).
Although "The A-Team" delivers its ballistic action with playful winks, it too often embodies just the kind of complacent self-satisfaction that makes viewers go "tea party" on a movie. "The Karate Kid," on the other hand, just may be this season's surprise upset. The 1984 movie starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita has been rebooted to star the beloved martial-arts master Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, who, as the son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, has a pedigree of a Kennedy-esque political scion. But if his name opened a door for the 11-year-old Smith, his performance in "The Karate Kid" proves that he's capable of walking through it all by himself.
At times eerily resembling his father, Smith nonetheless possesses a screen persona all his own, conveying a sense of injured soulfulness and somber self-containment supremely well suited to his character. With his mother, played by the wonderful Taraji P. Henson, Smith's Dre Parker has just moved from Detroit to Beijing, where he almost immediately confronts a gang of vicious bullies. Fans of the original movie will recognize the general outlines of the plot, which this version honors without slavishly following. In relocating "The Karate Kid" to China, and making the most of that country's magnificent landscape and evocative locations, director Harald Zwart takes what could have been another baby-boomer nostalgia vehicle into a timely and relevant future.
There's plenty of kung fu action in "The Karate Kid," which in the film's climactic scenes borders on the brutal. But by building on the franchise's sound bones -- which tempered the fight scenes with an affecting story of intergenerational friendship and values of self-discipline, respect and balance -- this handsome production manages to feel familiar and new in just the right measure.
"The Karate Kid" is poised to become a big hit -- especially with tweens and their parents, a notoriously difficult voter bloc to please. If it does manage to overcome filmgoers' willingness to throw the bums out, it will be because the filmmakers understand that, whether they're in Hollywood or Washington, the incumbents who survive are those who know their constituents, cater to them without pandering, and never, ever, take their votes for granted.
(117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence throughout, profanity and smoking.
The Karate Kid
(132 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for bullying, martial-arts action and some mild profanity.