Sunday, May 23, 2010
Survival of the Fittest: The Karate Dad
It was an experience that every creaky-jointed, middle-aged parent who takes up a martial art should have. Over the summer I had read that the 1984 "Karate Kid" (movie debut of South Orange's own Elisabeth Shue!) was going to be remade with Jackie Chan playing the role of self-defense mentor to the boy who finds himself in over his head at what must be the School for Insane Bullies and their Victims. The original, starring Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, the elderly sage with an awesome back kick and a unique method for combining karate training with automobile upkeep ("Wax on! Wax off! Daniel-san!"), was one of my youngest son's and my favorite movies, and I wanted to be the first to tell him the news.
"Guess what? 'The Karate Kid' is being remade. And guess who's playing the Mr. Miyagi character?" I burst out when I picked him up at Marshall School.
He looked up at me and in all seriousness asked, "You?"
Now I am not claiming that at this point in my own training I could dispatch a group of attackers (at least reasonably alert ones) with quite the smooth precision of Mr. Miyagi. Nor have I figured out a way to disguise basic household chores as martial arts training, though I am working as hard on this as learning how to defend myself. "Load dishwasher! Unload dishwasher!" These moves, I have been trying to convince all three of my kids for some time, are really powerful blocks.
But I'd like to think that my first-grader wasn't entirely off the mark either. Since taking up Tae Kwon Do five years ago and becoming a black belt this year, I have felt a marked improvement in my chances of fulfilling a lifelong dream: a role in a martial arts flick that would allow me to participate in at least one group fight scene.
Now this may seem a stretch for a mature martial artist who does not happen to be Jackie Chan. But unlike other youth-obsessed action genres, where we are all too often relegated to trying to blow up the hero via remote control, martial arts movies do have non-sedentary roles for members of the older generation. There are not many of these roles, and so competition is fierce. But the opportunities for an actor to expand his range are tremendous. Look for the upcoming remake of "The Sound of Music" with Steven Seagal as Captain Von Trapp, high-kicking nuns and Nazis who literally fly through the air while the kids sing "Edelweiss."
We can't of course all be Captain Von Trapp or Mr. Miyagi. I would settle for the role of an airborne Nazi, and those who know me well would probably call it typecasting. Or perhaps, should "The Karate Kid" be remade for a third time, I could play an aging bully, one who, after 30 years of failed algebra tutorials, is still around in 10th grade to torment each year's crop of new students. That is, I could unless it takes so long for this third "Karate Kid" to come about that the filmmakers have to resurrect the character of Mr. Miyagi's father for me. Still, this would only be further proof that the ability to spin on one foot while knocking an enemy senseless with the other knows no age.
When I watch martial arts flicks, I am always on the alert for the white-haired, thoughtful gentleman who has gone unnoticed until a melee breaks out. He is not the brash guy who, already before anything much has even happened in the plot, is to be found snapping tire irons in half with his front teeth. Rather, this gentleman is likely to be minding his own business in some quiet cafe, perhaps in this day and age checking his e-mail for a communication from one of this great-grandchildren. In my case, should the screenwriters go with my actual day job, he would be in the middle of teaching a college seminar on 17th-century poetry. But once the kicks start flying, down goes the laptop and out the window go the notes on John Donne and metaphysical wit. He is soon shaking it up with the best of them.
So though I haven't had much luck thus far, I live in the hope that Hollywood will someday return my own e-mails and calls. In the meantime, I study the classics (Bruce Lee, not Shakespeare) and train hard, not only with kicks and punches but zinger lines like "You have offended my family, and you have offended a Shaolin temple!" or "Time will tell whose fist speaks loudest: yours or mine." There is also paternal wisdom to be dispensed at crucial moments, and I have been working on what I will say when one of the younger, less wise characters in the film seeks my counsel.
"You have lived many more years than I have. What should I do?"
Drawing on my experience as a dad, I would probably advise him to leave his brother's stuff alone and not tell his sister that her outfit looks like something "you'd feed animals at the zoo."
"I mean about the vicious warlord/gangster trying to kill me."
My advice would remain unchanged. Vicious warlords/gangsters come and go—are indeed sometimes interchangeable—but I have yet to see a feud over legos ever really end.
Then comes the inevitable question: "Can you train me?"
"Ah, Daniel-San, can Miyagi train wind to blow when it forget? Can Miyagi train tree to grow when too busy thinking other things to do what supposed to do?"
"Is this," I can see my young Jedi struggling to crack my code, "about the dishwasher?"
Miyagi have hope for him.
I hear that makeup can do wonders to hide a receding hairline and alter other features that might detract from my cinematic appeal. I've also been told that stunt coordinators can make even the most worn-out dad look as if he's able to leap over furniture, fences, and perhaps several parked cars to eliminate villains in a series of fluid, dance-like motions. But with this kind of dialogue, "You?" is a question none of my kids will have to ask when they see me on the big screen. It should be pretty obvious that it's me.