Karate Kid, The (1984)
Release Date: June 22nd, 1984 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: John G. Avildsen Actors: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka, Chad McQueen
984’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 sensationally high 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 soon 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 swimming pool and a problematic faucet.
Ali (Elisabeth Shue) is the beauty on the beach who 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. Daniel tries to stand up for her, but his kung-fu is not up to par, so 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 Daniel realizes his rival is one of the lead fighters. He can’t catch a break as the gang of “Cobra Kai” warriors continues 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 sportsmanlike revenge when the opportunity arises. Johnny doesn’t quite see it that way, and is content with seriously hurting the boy. Fortunately, Mr. Miyagi, who has been most generous with fixing things and introducing Larusso to the wonders 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 contentious 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 him karate if the boy agrees to do everything that’s ordered of him, with no questions asked. “Wax on, wax off,” instructs the old man, as he gets his new apprentice to clean all of his cars – over and over again. He also trains Daniel 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 ‘80s soundtrack and montages certainly don’t hurt his cause.
Once the tutelage truly begins, 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 schooling methods. When viewers 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,” the elderly sage 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 pulse-pounding and the conclusion isn’t a misstep. Filmmaker John G. Avildsen, the director of “Rocky,” “The Power of One,” and “8 Seconds,” genuinely enjoys sports-related underdog topics and succeeds yet again in orchestrating triumphant entertainment. Morita garnered an Academy Award nomination for his supporting performance, the film was met with critical and commercial success, and Avildsen went on to direct two sequels, winningly reteaming Morita and Macchio in 1986 and 1989.
– Mike Massie