1984’s The Karate Kid is an inspirational, thrilling and comedic event, a wholly worthwhile mix of style, music, acting and character development that sets the bar once again for family-friendly drama. The characters are unforgettable, the dialogue is clever and although some of the sequences are predictable, the film never loses heart. It’s also aged incredibly well; outside of the clothing and soundtrack, this is a film that definitely does not need to be remade.
Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) makes the move from Newark, New Jersey to sunny California when his mom gets a promising job opportunity. At first he’s disheartened at leaving his friends, but everything starts going so well – a new neighbor is immediately friendly, he’s invited to a beach party and a cute girl takes an interest in him. The handyman, quirky old Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), who is constantly trying to catch a fly with chopsticks, is the only odd thing about the place, other than the pool and a problematic faucet.Ali (Elisabeth Shue)is the beauty on the beach that catches the eye of Daniel, but her ex-boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka), a kid with a permanent grimace on his face, decides to cause some trouble and Daniel tries to stand up for her. His kung-fu is unfortunately not up to par, and he suffers a bit of humiliation at the hands of Johnny and his pals, who leave him bruised in the sand. His woes aren’t over – the same punks hassle him the next day at a soccer tryout. The solution? Learn better karate. John Kreese’s (Martin Kove) dojo might be the answer – until he realizes his rival is one of the lead fighters. He can’t catch a break as the gang of “Cobra Kai” warriors continue to torment him. He even has to skip hanging out with Ali just to avoid running into the bullies.
Daniel is a great protagonist. He’s easy to like and an all around good kid. He stands up for what is right and he’s not afraid to get a little good-natured revenge when the opportunity arises. Johnny doesn’t quite see it that way, and is content with seriously hurting him. Fortunately, Mr. Miyagi, who has been most generous with fixing things and introducing him to the beauty of bonsai trees, is also a master of karate. He’s knowledgeable when it comes to fish and fighting, and strikes a deal with the merciless Kreese (“This is a karate dojo, not a knitting class!”). His negotiation grants a truce between the students for two months until he can teach Daniel to fight against Johnny in a real karate tournament.
Miyagi offers up tons of funny metaphors and humorous advice. He also sets rules for Daniel: he’ll teach karate if the boy agrees to do everything that’s asked of him, with no questions. “Wax on, wax off,” instructs the old man, as he gets his new apprentice to clean all of his cars – repeatedly. He also trains him by having him sand the wood decks in his backyard and paint his fence and house. He learns that fighting should always be the last resort to a problem and that karate is for self defense only. But even after he’s got things under control with the Cobra Kai, he still has to deal with the embarrassments caused by his mother in front of his gal and the fact that Johnny and his gang are always around to interfere with his fun. It’s a good thing he’s pretty smooth with the ladies. And the classic 80’s soundtrack and montages certainly don’t hurt his cause.
Once the training really starts, the rock ‘n roll is replaced by stirring orchestral music that really hits the spot. Miyagi is a delight, constantly spouting his odd stunted English and unorthodox teaching methods. When we learn of his wife and child and his war hero status, his character becomes just that much more poignant and significant. He’s a teacher and a father figure for his student, the son he never had. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” admits Daniel after Miyagi gives him a birthday gift that outdoes just about everything else. “You’re pretty okay too,” he responds.
The day of the tournament provides more great music and tough competition. Aside from a few rules and regulations that are marginally unclear, the intensity remains high and the conclusion isn’t a misstep. Filmmaker John G. Avildsen, the director of Rocky, really likes the sports-related underdog movies and succeeds once again. Morita garnered an Academy Award nomination for his supporting performance, and Avildsen went on to direct two more Karate Kid sequels.- Mike Massie