Two worthwhile movies open here this weekend:
La Mission—Benjamin Bratt, or “Benjy Bratt” as my late mother-in-law used to refer to him for some reason, has been around movies & TV for more than 20 years now. He had a good run as the younger detective on Law and Order, & he’s pulled bland, space-filling hunky-leading-man duty in chickflicks like Miss Congeniality, Catwoman & The Next Best Thing. He’s a strapping fellow, but I never thought he was an actor of any great range or power.
He rocks his starring role in La Mission, however.
Written & directed by his brother Peter Bratt, & set in the title district in San Francisco, this movie is onto a great subject: machismo, & the bondage in which its inflexible standards can hold families. Benjy plays Che Rivera, a bus driver, single father & gearhead who spends his evenings customizing pimped-out lowriders.
He’s a big, tatted-up tough guy with both prison & alcoholism in his past, but he’s clearly not a bad sort at heart—he’s serious about leading a sober life, & he’s devoted to his teenage son Jesse (movingly played by Jeremy Ray Valdez).
He’s devoted, that is, until he learns that Jesse is gay, & has a secret boyfriend—a rich Anglo kid, no less. Che’s fury is serious—he not only throws the kid out of the house, he beats him up on the street outside the building, in front of their friends & family. Later, he calms down enough to let Jesse come home, but he can’t deal with what he now knows about his son. He can’t even look at him. He cites religious objections, but this is obviously a pretext; his revulsion stems from his idea of masculinity.
Peter Bratt takes his time from here on out, developing the story & exploring the neighborhood & its cultures & subcultures at a leisurely pace. The dialogue has a slightly stiff, didactic functionality at times—it rings a bit like ‘50s-era, Golden Age of Television dialogue—but the vibrancy of the actors & the setting makes it breathe. Jesse Borrego stands out in the strong ensemble cast as Che’s less intense brother, who takes Jesse in, & Erika Alexander (she played the luscious shape-shifting Rakshasa Hidimbi in Peter Brook’s film of The Mahabharata) is touching as the social worker who lives upstairs & who stands up for herself both against Che’s anger & against his almost equally formidable charm.
But the heart of the film is Benjamin Bratt’s performance. Without histrionics, with restraint & subtlety, he makes us feel how unshakable Che’s programming is, despite the agony it causes him. Che’s genuinely scary, precisely because you can see how much he’s suffering. Within the limits of its conventional drama-of-uplift form, & without resorting to cheap melodrama or easy resolutions, La Mission is satisfying drama.
The Karate Kid—The title character of 1984’s The Karate Kid, played by Ralph Macchio, was the son of a single mother who moves from Newark, New Jersey to Reseda, California. Picked on by local bullies from a karate dojo, he is trained in karate by an elderly Okinawan handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), beats the bullies fair & square in an area tournament, & gets the girl.
Directed by John G. Avildsen with the same scrappy naturalistic touch he brought to Rocky, the original Karate Kid was a small movie, little more than a feature-length Afterschool Special, really, but its combination triumph-of-the-underdog & finding-a-father-figure structure made it a box office hit & an enduring favorite of its generation.
Now it’s been remade, on a big budget, with Will Smith’s kid Jaden Smith in the title role, & with the legendary Jackie Chan as the old guy. The story now has our young hero moving with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) from Detroit to Beijing, where he goes through the same basic plot template: he meets a nice girl & gets picked on by local bullies until Chan, as the taciturn handyman in his apartment building, agrees to train him to take them on in a tournament.
Since Chan isn’t Japanese & his martial art is kung fu, not karate, the movie probably should have been called by the perfectly good title The Kung Fu Kid. But aside from that bit of western cultural myopia & a few other minor grumbles, I was very pleasantly surprised by what an agreeable two hours & twenty minutes this movie turned out to be.
Yes, you read right. Two hours & twenty minutes, & that’s one of the other grumbles. This film, presumably aimed at children, is about 20 minutes longer than Citizen Kane. This seems outrageous, but I must admit that I saw The Karate Kid at a screening full of kids, & it seemed to hold them just fine for its entire length. It held me, too.
My last grumble is more irksome: Once again, an American production starring Chan shows that Yank directors don’t understand how to present martial arts. A fight or stunt scene with Jackie Chan should be shot the same way that a dance number with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire or Cyd Charisse was shot back at MGM in the ‘50s: Park the camera on its haunches & let it stare in unblinking wonder, & we’ll do the same. The director here, Harald Zwart, uses the same feverish fast cutting that has taken over American action movies, & the eye-popping astonishment one gets at the best of Chan’s Hong Kong films is muted by the flashy technique.
All is outweighed, though, by the movie’s pleasures. One of these is the starring role given to China. The extensive location work takes the film to the edge of travelogue at times, but director Zwart’s eye on the country serves him well here; & the setting is so unfamiliar that you may find yourself scanning the backgrounds of shots for local detail.
But the best reason to see the film is the rapport between young Smith, who seems to have inherited a freakish amount of his dad’s sly ease & facile access to our empathy, & Chan, who gives his best performance yet in one of his American vehicles. Perhaps because his character is crusty & melancholy & carries a dark secret, Chan doesn’t seem as overeager to please as he has in some of his other Yank productions, & he comes across like what he is, namely one of the world’s great movie stars.
He’s quietly commanding in the training sequences, & he and Smith really engage, neither of them milking the emotion in their scenes, but both of them committing to it. When the old man gives the kid wisdom on getting up when you’re knocked down, or the kid tells the old man that he’s the best friend he ever had, it should be too schmaltzy to work, but between Chan’s wise, soulful face & Smith’s prodigal openness, even these scenes can get to you.
It’s also amusing to see Chan, now in his 50s, starting to slip into a new archetypical role: In innumerable Hong Kong films, the young Chan played the student struggling to master impossible physical challenges while being tormented by an irascible old master. Now he gets to be the old master.