Combined Rating: 4/5
My brother quoted this one growing up, but somehow I managed to live my entire life up until this point without seeing it. Frank told me that it was exactly the kind of feel-good underdog hero film that I’d love, so it’s been at the top of my list for some time. Perhaps that meant the build-up outweighed the film’s actual merits, but I did temper it with the expectation that an early 80s film was likely to have more than its fair share of cheese. I wasn’t disappointed. All the standard archetypes were there, but I don’t know that I could call it “proverbial,” as this was one of the very first films of its kind. It probably was the standard.
Fifteen year old Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother move across the country to California, where Daniel quickly falls for pretty blonde Ali (Elisabeth Shue) who has a jealous ex-boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka). Johnny just happens to be a karate expert, and Daniel gets the crap beaten out of him repeatedly anytime he crosses paths with Johnny or his gang. In one of these instances, the elderly Okinawan maintenance man at his apartment named Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) steps in to save him, single-handedly vanquishing all of Daniel’s foes. Daniel begs Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate. At first, Mr, Miyagi attempts to reason with the boys’ karate instructor (Martin Kove), but only succeeds in obtaining a temporary truce until Daniel can fight Johnny properly in a karate tournament, unfortunately only two months away. Mr. Miyagi begins Daniel’s training after this, but in such a way that it looks like he’s just using Daniel for manual labor. Of course there’s a purpose, though Mr. Miyagi doesn’t explain himself until Daniel explodes in anger after he’s seemingly wasted one of his precious training months. Only then does he realize he’s actually learned a great deal. Over the time of their training, the two grow close, and despite some misunderstandings, so do Daniel and Ali. Of course the competition presents unanticipated challenges, mostly due to Daniel’s nefarious and underhanded opponents… but it can’t be too easy for him. In a good story, things always have to appear impossible so that the triumph is that much sweeter.
I find it refreshing that older films like this one don’t take themselves too seriously, and that there’s a clear delineation between good and evil. Perhaps this tends to mean the characters err on the side of caricature, but there’s a certain wholesome innocence about that. There may be more intrigue in the hero of dubious moral character from time to time, or the complex villain whose back story renders him sympathetic. But I also think these kinds of characters have so permeated the culture because there is such confusion about what constitutes right and wrong, or if there even is such a thing. Films like “Karate Kid” are a throwback to simpler time.
The Karate Kid is basically Rocky for teenagers, profiling that persevering underdog spirit Americans in the ’80’s were still claiming as a “defining characteristic.” They feel in many ways like the same movie, and not only because they had the same director (John G. Avildsen). Kid, however, substitutes the gritty, post-industrial grays of Philly for the sun-kissed, post-industrial decay of sprawling LA., to which “Daniel-sahn” moves with his single, yet upbeat mom, adding an extra layer of “fish out of water” hardship for our skinny Italian boy. Rocky, largely, stuck to his own hood and could defend himself, but Daniel (Ralph Macchio), pitifully, cannot, despite a budding interest in Karate. It certainly appears he has an almost insurmountable road of challenges ahead, but he’s tough. Despite moments of self-doubt, he pushes forward to better his lot, and fortune responds.
Daniel is a talker, and he’s got wit and charm. Armed with these traits, he manages to entice the interest of super-cute Ali (Elizabeth Shue, who was pretty much my first fantasy girlfriend), pissing off her ex-boyfriend Johnny and his cadre of pre-Lost Boys biker gang goons, all of whom seem to have anger management problems. We find out Johnny’s juvenile tendencies are being encouraged by local dojo master Kreese (Martin Kove), a man-boy still basking in his post-Vietnam era machismo. Thankfully, a wise and humble maintenance man named Mr. Myagi (Pat Morita) has already taken Daniel under his wing and set him on a course for growth and honor, amidst a sea of high school distractions, if Daniel is only able to retain his focus.
As it usually did in the 80’s, the climax unfolds, post training montage, at the “All-Valley” tournament du jour” where Daniel must prove his worth. Much suspension of disbelief is required to accept that Daniel is fight-ready, but to dwell on that minor detail is missing the point, I guess. Never mind that Myagi could have literally gotten Daniel killed by inserting him prematurely in the ring with these animals. But still, we know somehow Daniel will triumph and emerge atop a crowd, freeze-framed in a final shot with his trophy. Despite the inevitable, the climax is actually the weakest part of the film, as many technical details are eschewed for emotional impact. For example: there is a pivotal moment when Johnny is denied points for kicking Daniel in the head, but when Daniel returns the favor, he is awarded his final point to win the whole damn thing. It must have been that the yocal refs were mesmerized by the aesthetically zen-like crane maneuver, but no matter. The point is that like Rocky, Daniel-sahn keeps coming back, fulfilling one of the Italian Stallion’s greatest quotes: “Going one more round when you don’t think you can…that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” And with that, the Karate Kid get his respect, and the girl, even if the war is not yet over. Seminal viewing for anybody with a awkward teenage son, especially if their mom drives a slime green station wagon to pick them up from school. At least ours had faux-wood paneling.
Meal Pairing: Large Pepperoni Pizza from Upper Crust, chocolate milk shakes and some candy from the “claw cage.” Add a big bowl of pineapple chunks for an appetizer.