A film review by Craig J. Koban




20th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1984, PG, 105 mins.


Ralph Macchio: Daniel / Noriyuki "Pat" Morita: Mr. Miyagi / Elizabeth Shue: Alli

William Zabka: Johnny / Martin Cove: Creese


Drected by John C. Avildsen / Written by Robert Mark Kamen

THE KARATE KID was a real sleeper surprise of a film when it opened back on June 22, 1984.   It went on to gross a then large $90 million and spawned two sequels (the first being a mixed result, the second being a grave misgiving). 

It also just may go down as one of the best films with the most inane and silly title ever.  I remember hearing that a film called THE KARATE KID was coming out and I had as many conflicting emotions that any 9-year-old kid would have.  Either it would be a adaptation of the DC Comics character (The Karate Kid was a character and member of that company's "Legion Of Superheroes";  DC Comics, which owned the name, gave special permission for the title to be used) or it would be about a teenage vigilante who prowls the city dressed in some sort of pseudo-Kato ninja outfit and fights the underbelly of crime with his cunning martial arts skills. 

Amazingly, the film had nothing to do with any of that (thank God).  Actually, there’s not that much action in the film at all,  It's more of a sincerely touching human drama involving an angst ridden New Jersey teenager and an old and spiritually wise Japanese sensei.  With that was mixed in Zen philosophy and, most importantly, waxing cars…a lot of cars.  THE KARATE KID represents a great piece of nostalgia from the 1980’s and my childhood, and it’s a really good film to boot.

The film opens with the young Daniel LaRusso (played with earnestness, spunk, and energy by Ralph Macchio) as he and his mother move from the relative comfort of their New Jersey home to Los Angeles for bigger employment opportunities.  He does not like to move and has a deep resentment of it.  Upon their arrival they find a home at a somewhat rundown LA apartment complex (you know, the kind where there’s algae infested water in the swimming pool).  Daniel does manage to make a quick acquaintance with another teenager who lives at the apartment upon his first day.  He also meets a most peculiar person in the janitor, a old Japanese man that seems to spend more time in his office trying to catch flies with chopsticks that fixing sinks and toilets.  The janitor is Mr. Miyagi (we never really learn his first name), and is played by the great Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita in one of the more quietly powerful performances of the eighties. 

Daniel is invited to a beach party later that evening (a staple for 1980’s L.A. youth, where they play soccer, stare at girls, and listen to bad eighties music on their ghettos).  Daniel does gaze his yearning eyes on one beach girl named Alli (played by then newcomer Elizabeth Sue).  She’s kind of that embodiment of the good-all-Californian chick with great looks and an earthy, girl next-door smile.  The two hit it off famously, at least until her former boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (played with an appropriate antagonistic intensity by William Zabka) shows up with his fellow cohorts to spoil the party.  Daniel tries to defend both his and Alli’s honor, thinking that his modest karate skills he learned at the YMCA will help.  What he does not know is that Johnny is a black belt in karate, who subsequently mops the floor with Daniel.  Daniel definitely loses the fight, but he gains the girl, which may not be a good thing seeing as that just makes a former boyfriend even more jealous.  This is also complicated by the fact that they all attend the same school.

Daniel continues to try to be accepted at school and by his new friends, but behind every corner is Johnny.  In one particularly vile scene, Johnny and his motorcycle thugs run Daniel and his bicycle off the road, trashing both Daniel and his bike.  Daniel, being so pissed about the whole thing, trashes the remains.  When he comes home the next day, he finds his bike completely repaired.  He then has a hunch and goes to visit that weird old janitor with the penchant for catching bugs.  Turns out that he fixed the bike all right and he invites Daniel in for a night of tea and bonsai tree trimming.  Daniel, interestingly enough, has made his first real, valuable friend in Mr. Miyagi.

The two spend a considerable amount of time together after school.  Daniel seems drawn to the diminutive and astute old man who appears completely harmless.  But things go disastrously for Daniel at a Halloween dance where he (in a gutsy move if I ever saw one) decides to enact some revenge on Johnny by playing a practical joke on them.  The joke works, but infuriates Johnny so bad that he and his goons chase Daniel back to his home and proceed to violently beat him up.  That is, of course, until a mysterious stranger in the night comes to his aid and proceeds to kick the crap out of Johnny and his sidekicks…all by himself.

It’s of no surprise that the hero is Mr. Miyagi.  Daniel, ignorantly, can’t possibly fathom that this tiny man could have possibly trashed Johnny and his fellow martial artists, but it's true, all right.  Daniel, of course, pleads with Mr. Miyagi to train him so he can wipe the floor with Johnny, but Miyagi refuses, seeing as karate is "for defense only.”  Miyagi is also not sure about the naivety and impetuousness of young Daniel.  When Daniel challenges Miyagi’s notions that karate originated in his home country, saying that he thought it came from Buddhist temples, Miyagi deadpans back, “You too much TV.” 

Nevertheless, Miyagi does decide to go with him and plead his case to Johnny and his karate sensei, John Creese (played in a wonderful performance of pure, salivating evil by Martin Cove).  Creese, of course, is the complete antithesis to Miyagi, teaching Johnny and his students to use karate for attack and destroy purposes.  He tells the old Miyagi to “Drop a challenge, or leave.”  Miyagi, to Daniel’s absolute astonishment, tells Creese that Daniel will challenge his dojo in the upcoming Karate Tournament.  Creese gleefully agrees, but he also puts a gag order on Johnny and his boys to stop beating on Daniel before the tournament.

Daniel can’t believe Miyagi’s actions, feeling that his frail and thin frame will be no match against the dojo.  Miyagi has unbridled faith and decides to train the boy.   Miyagi’s training methods are beyond normal, as Daniel’s first day is spent waxing all of Miyagi’s cars.  The second day Daniel sands Miyagi’s hardwood floors.  On the third day Daniel is told to paint Miyagi’s fences.  Yet another day Daniel is told to paint the house.  Miyagi has to be one of the strangest karate trainers ever in film, and Daniel grows tired of doing what he sees as stupid manual labor.  He confronts Miyagi ("You’re karate training,” says Miyagi and Daniel yells back, “Training?  I’m being your goddamn slave!")  In a great scene of revelation, Miyagi proceeds to show the young student that there was a purpose behind all of the labor, and before Daniel even realizes it, he's able to block his masters punches and attacks.  Hmmm...maybe there is something to this “wax on, wax” off business?  Daniel continues to train and bond with his master and eventually makes his way to the tournament, with inevitable results.

Okay, this all sounds like another retread into that predictable cinematic dead zone of the underdeveloped hero that rises above it all, overcomes the odds, and wins his respect and the girl at the end.  Well, yeah, it is all of that!  It was no surprise that the film was directed by John Avildsen, who won an Academy award eight years earlier for his work on the first ROCKY.  The films have an eerily similar story and tone.  Both are about realizing one’s potential.  Both are about young students and wise, old, and unorthodox masters training the impetuous student.  Both are about defying the odds…and so on.

What THE KARATE KID (and first ROCKY) never seem to get credit for is that, at their core, they are really more human dramas than action films, populated by real characters we empathize with and relate to.  The heroes in both films are not giants in their respective worlds.  Sure, Rocky goes on to become heavyweight champion, but in the first film he’s a down-on-his-luck bum that seems mismatched for his opponent.  Daniel is the same way.  Physically unimposing and lacking a raw, physical strength and presence, it’s truly impossible to see how he could match up against the athletic and strong Johnny.  Daniel is a real guy, with faults and issues, and is not the charming, handsome, and chiseled teenager that we see in so many other would-be-similar movies.  Macchio proved to be an interesting an inspired choice, in hindsight, to play the hero. 

Yet, as we all know, this film absolutely belongs to Pat Morita.  It’s amazing to consider that he did not initially get hired for the film.  He was turned-down at first for the role of Mr. Miyagi because there was a "no comedian" policy when looking for an actor.  He was later given the role because he seemed the best for it.  It's one of the more surprising performances to emerge from the eighties, seeing as Morita was probably most notably known as his wise-cracking drive-in owner from HAPPY DAYS.  That humor is still there, to a degree.  In a funny scene where Daniel asks what kind of belt class he has, Miyagi deadpans, “JC Penny, $3.98.”  

Yet, at his core Miyagi is a textbook model of restraint and inner fortitude, a man that rarely needs to use karate or physical force when his carefully chosen and quiet words do more.  His character is such a classic example of serenity: he’s wise, self-reflective, and honorable at his core.  Sure, he can completely kick ass Yoda-style, but he demonstrates more strength in character by what he physically does not do.  I especially like the way the writer Robert Mark Kamen really fleshed out his character’s back-story, especially in a painful and sad scene where a drunken Miyagi reflects on his service days and dead wife.  You won’t think of the burger flipping Arnold the same way after this scene, and Morita’s Oscar nomination for his performance was completely justified and deserved.  He’s the emotional anchor of THE KARATE KID.

The rest of the actors are essentially window-dressing and plot points, but they all are respectively good with what they are given.  Sue has a nice, easy-going presence as the girlfriend (think a blonder, more assertive Adrian from ROCKY) and Zabka (who amazingly never knew karate before filming) is an effective foil to Daniel who, surprisingly, has a touching moment near the end of the film with Daniel (it lasts but a second, but it's there).  And Creese is just so malevolently vile and despicable in so many juicy and hammy one-dimensional ways.  He too, like Johnny, works as an effective foil to the passive approach of Miyagi.  But these characters are really beside the point.  The film is about friendship and learning to trust your new friends and instincts.

So, twenty years later, what are we left with?  THE KARATE KID is a film that has dated considerably (the music alone is a hint), but it still works fantastically despite its predictability.  The final fight is still tense, even with its preordained outcome.  Yet, the action does not matter very much in this film.  Funny, for a movie with “karate” in the title, there’s not that much action in it.  Instead, it turned out to be one of the more sensitive, introspective, and heart-warming stories of 1984, permeated all the way through by a most unusually friendship.  That’s what the film is all about, and it remains, years later, to be a  refreshing slice-of-life treat from the eighties. 

Plus, you'll never look at pelicans at the beach the same way again!

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