Audiences might be surprised to attend the multiplex this weekend and not see Soleil Moon Frye, Andrew Dice Clay, or Toni Basil—2010 seems to be a peak in Hollywood's We Love the 80s phase, what with blast-from-the-past comedy Hot Tub Time Machine, McGyver parody MacGruber, and now a Karate Kid remake and A-Team adaptation filling screens (Bill Simmons recently linked this trend to the resurgence of a Lakers-Celtics rivalry—dare I dream of a Mets World Series victory?) Of course, a lot of this is coincidence. For example, MacGruber is the product of SNLers who were of formative age during their target's heyday, while The Karate Kid has been retooled to appeal not for those with fond memories of that decade but for a new generation very likely blissfully unaware of the "classic" (cough) original altogether.
There are also far more cynical reasons this Karate Kid was made. Co-produced by China Film Group, much of the movie concerns 12 year-old Dre's culture shock upon being relocated from Detroit to Beijing—mom (Taraji P. Henson) works in the auto industry—with Come See China! Tourist advert shots of the Burgeoning City and the Beautiful Countryside smoothing the transition. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are also co-producers, which means that Dre is played by son Jaden Smith, who shouldn't have been thrust into the spotlight. Granted, the kid's age accords with the savvy marketing strategy of courting the ever-more-powerful Disney-bred tween demographic, but just because he's the son of Hollywood's most bankable actor doesn't mean he should be anywhere near a camera. Dad's aw-shucks arrogance can be discerned in several of Smith's reactions—and there's one nice moment when he exclaims "Wow!" after discovering the martial arts moves he didn't know he had in him—but otherwise he's just as good guy-dull.
Jackie Chan surprisingly picks up the slack in the Mr. Miyagi role as Mr. Han, kung fu (not karate—brand familiarity trumps all) mentor to Dre after the middle-schooler runs afoul of a bunch of viciously trained bullies who look down on his flirtation with Meiying (Wenwen Han). Achy and downcast, Chan slightly oversells how much he's aged since his own 80s heyday, but his performance is still more moving than Smith's from-mouse-to-man journey (Ralph Macchio's whiney turn in the original is actually missed here). After years of making many stupid films in Hollywood, The Karate Kid could be Chan's chance to pass the martial arts torch with an air of gravitas, but the remake's idea of international exchange is considerably less than sophisticated. The original was an American tale in cornpone style in which the bond between Maccio's Danny and Pat Morita's Miyagi represented a coming together of cultural outsiders—Danny a California transplant and Miyagi a Japanese-American disrespected by the country he once served. Here Dre learns patience, respect, and ass-kicking via Eastern tradition even as the film's aesthetic reprocesses that tradition as American-made excess and ADD, overlong on one hand and hyperactively constructed on the other. The climactic showdown, featuring a lame Dre dispatching his unfair fighting enemies, even employs a tournament scoreboard to instantly replay the very action that transpired just moments before, a further sign that the presentation of professional sports in the late television age has begun to influence how sports are presented in the movies. Young 'uns might not recognize the fill-in-the-blank changes from Karate Kid '84 to '10 ("Wax on, wax off" becomes "Jacket on, jacket off," the crane kick becomes snake-charming hypnosis, etc), but you'd think they'd possess a modicum of short-term memory.
The A-Team features not one but two concluding sequences that needlessly replay what's already been shown, fitting for a film that distills the original television series' eternal return of predictable in-and-out-of-trouble narratives, gung-ho one-liners, and PG-13 violence. The difference between Karate Kid and A-Team is that the latter subscribes to a self-knowing that's become second nature to nostalgic kitsch: this is a film in which Liam Neeson's cigar-chomping group leader Hannibal calls an antagonist "a cartoon character," an obvious (and affectionate) reference to the gleeful unreality of its Mission: Impossible-meets-Boys' Life source material. Of course, looking backward here also means "going old-school," with director and co-writer Joe Carnahan literally breaking the fourth wall in a scene where a 3-D glasses-donning audience of shell-shocked military men watch a dimensionally-enhanced A-Team episode, a truck crashing through the screen as parallel destruction unfolds in the show-within-the-movie. Eff fancy F/X, says The A-Team, let's wreck some shit.
Too bad, then, that in his first blockbuster assignment Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) proves himself a graduate of the Bourne School of shaky-cam over-editing that renders his set-piece missions almost completely illegible (and, considering the abovementioned scene, somewhat hypocritical—for all the film's grit and grime, it repeatedly resorts to woefully inadequate computer animation). Where the action sequences should be as crisp and playful as the Team's clockwork-timed and adrenaline-fueled flare for the ludicrous, everything becomes an incoherent blur, and even the je ne sais quoi that made the silly series so winning, the Team's opposites-attract chemistry—fashioned from the veteran cockiness of Hannibal, the spangled badassness of B.A. Baracus (UFC champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson here, no Mr. T), vain playboy Face (Bradley Cooper), and slightly touched helicopter pilot and master of disguise Murdock (Sharlto Copley)—is too often drowned in an almost Altman-esque cacophony of overlapping, drowned-out, and mumbled dialogue.
And so, despite a left-field performance by villain Patrick Wilson that becomes increasingly and bizarrely hysterical, The A-Team replays virtually every other action-comedy pumped out by a major studio in the past decade. What makes The A-Team unique, then, is the Reagan-era ambivalence toward American militarism it revives. The NBC series that ran from 1983 to 1987 was a comedic version of that decade's Stallone-Schwarzenegger-led trend of muscleheaded recuperation of the Vietnam War as audience-friendly spectacle. But such spectacle was contradicted by the premise of the show itself: the Team wasn't a cog in the U.S. war machine but a loose canon outfit escaped from prison (having been put there for "a crime they didn't commit" in 'Nam) and helping those in need with freelance elite forces service. Like Rambo, The A-Team worships at the altar of military might but does so by celebrating underdog and outcast pluck; in the movie version that paradox is expounded by the convoluted plot, in which the Team has as its nemeses a rogue's gallery ascension up the ladder of organizational nefariousness: a traitorous general (Gerald McRaney), an unscrupulous private contractor (Brian Bloom), and a duplicitous CIA man (Wilson).
Since the Iraq War serves as the backdrop of this A-Team adaptation, one might conclude that its regurgitated plan is to sell an unpopular and unending military occupation as good rough-and-tumble fun for soldiers ruined only by the ideological scheming of its planners. The sad fact, however, is that the Iraq War itself was initially and tragically conceived as a spectacle ("Shock and Awe") with only the most cynical of ideologies to back it up. Unlike the A-Team series' relationship to Vietnam, the film has been awkwardly released at a time when we're still living with the consequences of Iraq; as with The Kingdom, Transformers, and even The Hurt Locker (the unironic metal-scored coda to the Best Picture winner could have worked as a prelude here), its separation of combat from politics feels less like escapism than self-delusion. "I love it when a plan comes together," grunts Hannibal as per his catchphrase; but alas, The A-Team has arrived too early, and thus, too late.