The Karate Kid (1984)

Posted: September 24, 2013 in Favorite Films
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14. The Karate Kid (1984)

Director: John G. Avildsen

Starring: Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Elisabeth Shue, William Zabka, Martin Kove

With such a deceptively innocuous title, you wouldn’t think there’d be much to expect from a movie called “The Karate Kid.” At first glance, it seems like it would be just another teenage movie about a boy learning how to overcome the bullies who torment him. It’s about that, too, but there’s more going on here. The kid, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), has been ripped away from the home that he loves in Newark, New Jersey to have it replaced by the harsh and unforgiving environment of California, where his mother observes it seems like “the whole world turned blonde.” So you have the fish-out-of-water scenario.

Daniel makes both friends and foes fast. His tormentors are the Cobra Kai, a group of karate students from the dojo of the same name. Their ringleader, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is none too pleased when he sees Daniel flirting with his ex-girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue). The actor playing Dutch, one of the other Cobra Kai students, is a second-generation Hollywood actor. He may not have his father’s blue eyes, but that’s Steve McQueen’s son, Chad. Despite their behavior, the only person in the movie who can be considered “evil” is their teacher, former U.S. marine John Kreese (Martin Kove). This is a man who has blurred the lines between his military training and whatever formal martial arts training he received, corrupting the lessons of the latter and poisoning the minds of his students as a result. Though he never personally lays so much as a finger on Daniel, Kreese’s teachings make him responsible for what happens to our hero. I’ve never met the man in person, but from what I’ve heard, Martin Kove is a pretty nice guy in person. Based on that, it makes his performance that much more impressive.

The movie’s centerpiece, though, is the bond formed between Daniel and his apartment complex’s maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). In the middle of the last of three beatings that Daniel receives from the Cobra Kai, during which actor Ralph Macchio sustained an injury when he was legitimately kicked in the face, Miyagi steps in to put a stop to it. Yet, Miyagi is more to Daniel than someone who comes to his rescue. Each person fills a void in the other’s life; Daniel lost a father, while Miyagi lost his only wife and son in childbirth. Daniel and Mr. Miyagi’s friendship led to the creation of the movie’s two greatest scenes, one of which was almost certainly the basis for Pat Morita’s Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor:

Daniel realizes he’s actually learning karate. For several days straight, Daniel has been expecting for Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate, but his senses have been telling him that manual labor is all he’s learning: painting fences and houses, sanding decks and washing cars. Then Mr. Miyagi asks him to demonstrate the specific motions he was asked to use in performing these tasks. It suddenly dawns on him that he’s been learning karate the whole time. I love the look of surprise on Ralph Macchio’s face during this scene. It’s a lot like the look on Mark Hamill’s face in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Yoda demonstrates his power to Luke for the first time.

Miyagi gets drunk and reveals a past tragedy. After a rather humiliating incident at a country club, Daniel returns, spaghetti-stained clothes and all, to Mr. Miyagi’s home to find the man dressed in a military uniform and quite drunk, insisting that Daniel join him. Miyagi is celebrating his wedding anniversary, unfortunately to a wife he lost while he was in Germany during World War II and she was in the Manzanar relocation center, pregnant with a son. Miyagi’s wife died during childbirth, as we find out when Miyagi re-enacts a phone call he received from his superior officer. This scene lets both Daniel and the audience know that, whatever current grievances Daniel is experiencing, they are infinitesimal in scale compared to the sadness Miyagi has been living with for the better part of forty years.

In watching this movie again, I made a few new observations. For one thing, the soundtrack seems to be different depending on the person with whom Daniel is spending his time. Of the pop songs that appear in the movie, which include “Cruel Summer,” “Can You Feel the Night,” and “You’re the Best,” all of them only play in scenes where Ali is with him. Though not entirely a new observation, the comparisons and contrasts between “The Karate Kid” and “Rocky” are more clear now than ever. Both feature a young, irrational and impulsive man of Italian descent who look to an elderly mentor for the guidance they need to achieve their own goals. However, whereas Rocky Balboa was only looking to be good enough to “go the distance,” this would never be satisfactory enough for Daniel LaRusso. And while Rocky’s trainer Mickey was a broken down old man well past the glory days of his own boxing career, Mr. Miyagi is vibrant and spry for a man his age, and carries a generally good outlook on life. The comparison to “Rocky” becomes a lot easier to make when you consider that both movies share the same director (John G. Avildsen) and composer (Bill Conti). The track “Training Hard” contains a few bars that sound reminiscent of “Gonna Fly Now.”

I’ve softened on my opinion of Ali’s two “rich girl” friends. For years, I simply regarded them as cruel and mean-spirited, but that was because I’d never chosen to look at things from their perspective. They don’t understand why Ali is interested in Daniel. I had always assumed this was based merely on the class system, and maybe that does have something to do with it. What I hadn’t considered was the fact that they’re not following him around like we are. All they see is this immature kid who speaks and reacts before he thinks, and I can’t blame their characters for finding this off-putting. I also feel differently about the ending than I used to. Daniel’s efforts in the karate tournament earn him respect, though it’s the source of that respect that bugs me more now than it used to. It just seems to come out of left field, and before you know it the credits are rolling. It all seems so abrupt. A satisfying journey, yes, but over too quickly.

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