The Karate Kid

When I was in college, I had trouble convincing my cinephile pals that Rocky is a good movie. When they thought of Rocky, they thought of the pumped-up, greasy Sylvester Stallone of the ’80s, not the doughy palooka of the original. They thought of underdog sports-movie clichés, and often didn’t even know that Rocky lost the fight in the first film. I tried to tell them that Stallone and director John G. Avildsen made a movie that savored the humor and drama of simple, everyday interactions; my friends countered with their memories of training montages and “Yo, Adrian!”

Well gang, I’m here to confess that I’ve been guilty of the same shortsightedness vis-à-vis The Karate Kid. I missed The Karate Kid when it played in theaters in the summer of ’84 because I was 13 years old and more into music than movies. What little money I had, I spent on records. By the time The Karate Kid came out on VHS, I was getting interested in movies, but I was more into the Coen brothers and David Lynch. I’m not saying that to boast about what an awesome kid I was; I’m just being honest. (In fact, I will readily cop to being something of a pretentious ass when I was a teenager. And probably now, too.) As I mentioned when I wrote about another mid-’80s classic, Top Gun, I went through a few years in high school when I just wasn’t interested in blockbusters, and not until Die Hard came out in the summer of ’88 did I rediscover my love for spectacle. 

Still, I’d never been tempted to watch Karate Kid. (What, the movie with the cutesy old Japanese guy from Happy Days, and Ralph Macchio imitating a crane? How could that be any good?) Then when the remake came out earlier this year, I mentioned to my pal Scott Tobias that the new one was much better than I’d expected, with some rich local color and winningly down-to-earth interactions between the characters. And Scott—who’s a little younger than me, and spent his pre-teen years watching The Karate Kid on a loop—told me that everything I liked about the remake is present in the original. 

Having now seen The Karate Kid for the first time, I have to concede that Scott is right. Sure, there’s not much to the movie in the abstract. Ralph Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso, a Jersey kid who moves with his mom to a low-rent neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, where he crosses a gang of karate-loving bullies from “the Hills” and has to call on an elderly martial-arts expert to help him train for a tournament where he’ll face off against his nemeses and win the heart of his true love. And that’s about it. There are cans of Niblets that aren’t this corny.

But as always, it’s the teller that makes the tale. The Karate Kid was written by Robert Mark Kamen and directed by John G. Avildsen, and though it’s not as winningly ramshackle as Rocky, there’s a low-key vibe to Macchio’s performance that gives the movie a lot of personality. It’s there in the scene where Daniel buys lunch for his love interest Ali (played by Elisabeth Shue), exuding a combination of nervous energy and delight while cracking little jokes like “Have some pie, I made it myself.”

The personality also comes through when Daniel talks to his mom (played by Randee Heller, looking very different than she did this season on Mad Men as Miss Blankenship). 

The scene is smartly staged on multiple levels, from the background action—where the movie’s villains, the Cobra Kai, emerge from their dojo and see Daniel in the restaurant—to the way the hero keeps waxing rhapsodic about Ali long after his mother has walked away.

As someone whose best and worst childhood memories are rooted in the ’80s, I also appreciated the nostalgia trip of Karate Kid, even when it’s unintentional, as in this E.T.-ish shot of Daniel riding his bike through an undeveloped stretch of the suburbs…

…or the way the logo for the Cobra Kai dojo resembles the emblem for punk band Black Flag.

And then there are the moments that are more overtly ’80s-ish, like the use of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” while Daniel’s getting his ass kicked on the soccer field by the Cobra Kai at the behest of their ringleader, Johnny Lawrence (played by William Zabka), or the look of the videogames in the arcade where Daniel and Ali fall in and out of love, then back in again.

Because I wasn’t in the target audience for The Karate Kid when it was released, I’m not sure how the ultimate message of the movie was received back then. This was the Reagan/Rambo era, when The Karate Kid’s “the best offense is a good defense” lessons—like the “anger leads to hate” vibe of the original Star Wars trilogy—had given way to “Do we get to win this time?” Clearly the Cobra Kai are meant to be seen as big jerks, with their sensei drilling them to shout, “Defeat! Does not exist! In this dojo!” and “Strike first! Strike hard! No mercy!” But they’re kind of bad-asses too, and the rhythm and energy of the ’80s movie—as exemplified in The Karate Kid’s big tournament montage—can’t help but stir up the viewers’ bloodlust.

I’m also not entirely sure what to make of the relationship between Daniel and his sensei Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita. There’s a strong appeal to Miyagi’s Zen approach to training, which eschews vanity—when Miyagi is asked whether he has a black belt, he says his belt is “canvas… J.C. Penney, $3.98”—and has Daniel learning defensive moves by painting houses and waxing cars for days on end. (Repeat after me: “Wax on. Wax off.” Ad infinitum.) It’s also welcome that the movie acknowledges Miyagi’s struggles with racism in this country, from the loss of his wife and child in an internment camp during World War II—while he was serving in Europe, no less—to the California rednecks who call the old man Daniel’s “pet Nip.” (Fun fact: One of those rednecks is played by Larry Drake, better known for playing the mentally handicapped Benny on L.A. Law and the psychopath in Dr. Giggles.)

I can’t deny that there’s an element of “magical Asian” to Miyagi. He heals Daniel with his warming touch. He gives the kid a bitchin’ car. He tosses out funny catchphrases like “Buddha provide!” while he steals to keep Daniel’s tournament chances on track. And what does he get in return? Well, he gets a warm-hearted companion who pledges to carry his ideals out into a sometimes-hostile world. Not a bad trade-off, honestly.

What did I take away from all this? The Karate Kid is richer than its reputation as a simplified “be the best you” self-actualization drama. Maybe not Rocky-rich, but rich enough. And like Rocky, The Karate Kid ends with a profound win-through-losing moment. After Daniel is sabotaged in the semi-finals by those lousy, cheating Cobra Kai, he limps back out for the final against Johnny. At first, Johnny kicks Daniel’s ass all over the mat—and follows his sensei’s orders to “sweep the leg” and fell the already-hobbled Daniel—but then our hero gets off one clean blow, using Miyagi’s one-legged crane stance. Then, unlike in Rocky, Daniel is declared the winner. (Hey, this was the ’80s, after all. None of that Bad News Bears shit allowed.)

At first, I thought the final scene of The Karate Kid was comically rushed, as the crowd mobs Daniel and a weeping Johnny hurriedly passes the trophy on to Daniel, all in about 20 seconds…

But really, the movie ends a few minutes earlier, before the match begins. As soon as Daniel steps on the mat, he wins. Even the arena’s announcer feels it. And if you watched The Karate Kid over and over back in the ’80s, you probably know by heart the line I just learned last week:

“Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight? Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight! This is what it’s all about folks. You know it.”