Image Credit: Everett CollectionIf you put your ear to the ground and listen closely, you can, on occasion, hear the grumbly murmur of moviegoers chewing over the fact that Hollywood film culture, more than ever, has become a déjà vu landscape of sequels, remakes, reboots, and rehashes. Pastiches of the past. The complaining never gets all that loud, though, since that would sort of be like griping about the air we breathe. Everyone knows — and more or less accepts — that we now live in Rerun Nation. It is, on some level, the movie culture that we assent to and ask for, week after week, with our ticket purchases. Just look at this weekend, in which The Karate Kid has already set the box office ablaze. A lot of people wanted to see that movie. I’m a fan myself (here’s my review), but the fact that it’s such a known quantity is clearly the essence of its appeal. The same goes for The A-Team, with its more modest but still successful opening. I often wish that we didn’t live in Rerun Nation, but what’s clear is that we choose to live there because it’s a cozy and comfortable place to be.
What strikes me this week is how long we’ve been living there. Our sequel-and-remake culture first kicked into high gear in the 1980s, the era of high concept, when the blockbuster mentality began to colonize the minds of everyone in Hollywood. That’s when the DNA of the audience started to get reprogrammed, too. If you think about the two current 1980s remakes, you’ll realize that they’re both really recyclings of recyclings. Even the originals, in essence, were second-hand goods. That was a major part of their appeal, way back when.
Take The A-Team. As a TV show, it was a pure example of the pop-culture past repackaged into cheesy, chewy, prefab-digestible form. Obviously, you can say that about a lot of things on TV, but The A-Team was a show that wore its cardboard-action derivative thinness proudly. Basically, with its squad of outlaw heroes — commandos as “war criminals” — trying to plot and improvise their way through a weekly tactical mission, it was The Dirty Dozen crossed with Mission: Impossible, and with one additional, almost eerily karmic overlap. The show premiered just two months after the release of the original Rambo movie, First Blood (1982). And either through zeitgeist coincidence or the likely possibility that the series’ creator/producers, Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, were familiar with the 1972 David Morrell novel on which First Blood was based, The A-Team‘s Vietnam backstory — during the war, the team members carried out a violent mission as ordered, and were then hung out to dry by their superiors — totally echoed the fate of the Sylvester Stallone character (a Vietnam vet) in the hit guerrilla action thriller. Like the movie, the show served up suicide-mission macho as “anti-establishment” kicks.
There was, of course, an additional Stallone connection: Mr. T first dive-bombed his way into American culture in Rocky III (1982), where, as the relentless, in-your-face, this-is-white-America’s-worst-nightmare Clubber Lang, he was vicious and cool and — yes — kind of scary. (He had to be; it was Stallone’s way of upping the ante on Apollo Creed.) Since Mr. T, in spirit, was more pro wrestler than actor, he gave the same essential performance on The A-Team, only now, in all his Mohawked warrior finery, he was cuddly: Clubber Lang as gruff good guy. He still had his I-pity-the-fool charisma, but he was a walking emblem of Rerun Nation from the moment he stepped onto the A-Team set.
So what about The Karate Kid? Despite the huge turnout for the new version, there’s been a lot of negative energy in the message-board postings on my review. The anger at Jaden Smith is kind of ugly — it’s got a Tea Party-ish, look at what the Hollywood Man is foisting on us now! vibe, as if the fact that this kid is Will Smith’s son were somehow an outrage. (Yes, that’s how he got the gig; he also happens to be a dynamic little actor.) And there’s all this angry sentiment about messing with a “classic.” Okay, look: I called the 1984 version of The Karate Kid a “classic” in my review, because I didn’t know what else to call it. It’s a hugely popular movie in our culture, and it’s one that I’ve always enjoyed, but let’s get real. It was never a great movie — it was a likable, go-for-it confection, patched together out of bits and pieces from the not-so-distant movie past.
As an underdog fight fable, it was a junior version of Rocky (my God, Stallone again! — I guess he really did rule). But the irresistible power hook of The Karate Kid was the playfully strict basic-training gamesmanship of the Mr. Miyagi wax-the-car-and-master-the-movement fight-study sequences, and what was funny and catchy and appealing about them is that they were Star Wars redux. Ralph Macchio’s Daniel had to submit to practice, discipline, and Zen concentration. He had to learn how to use the force of karate. He was a teenybop-geek Luke Skywalker in judo robes, with Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi as his courtly Asian Obi-Wan.
With the A-Team and Karate Kid remakes released on the same day, everyone took brief, obvious note of the ’80s-nostalgia factor, but I was almost surprised that more media outlets didn’t exploit the opportunity of this double scoop of Age of Reagan popcorn to really go back and taste the flavor of those years. Then again, the 1980s marked the first moment in American life when going back to the future really meant going forward into the past. With films like The Karate Kid and shows like The A-Team, the era was, in a sense, already looking back on itself. And we’ve all been looking back ever since.
So who loves — or doesn’t — the original Karate Kid? The original A-Team? And who’s planning on seeing the new Karate Kid or the new A-Team this weekend? If so, are you going for the sake of nostalgia, or with the expectation that you might actually see something new?