Movies that Redeemed My Childhood: The Karate Kid
I sit down with a classic from my youth to wash the bitter taste of The Smurfs out of my mouth. As an added bonus I pretty much review 1976’s Rocky. Two hit combo!
When you review a lot of movies, it’s easy to get in a funk. A string of stinkers can ruin your mood. My current blue streak began with the existential crisis that was The Smurfs and the Magical Flute. Amazon Prime’s Pilot Season piled on. It’s also time for me to get in my car and find another crappy, no good, awful movie to review at RedBox. In the midst of all this drek, Xbox decided to shine a ray of light into my life. The Karate Kid is free to rent from the Microsoft store this weekend. I decided to rewatch this classic from my youth, to see if the castle that was my childhood was indeed made of sand.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Ralph Macchio stars as Daniel LaRusso, a New Jersey teen transplanted into California’s valley culture. Daniel quickly finds a new friend, a new love interest… and a gang of Karate practicing surfer-boy bullies. Not the type to back down, Daniel spends day after day coming home bruised and battered. A showdown/beatdown in front of his apartment complex is interrupted by the resident handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Daniel and Mr. Miyagi form a bond, and the latter takes Daniel as his pupil in the ways of Karate. The two confront the dojo that is supporting the bleach-blonde psychopaths, Cobra Kai. In exchange for an armistice on the assaults, Daniel must compete in the regional Karate tournament where the Cobra Kai’s are the local favorite.
This movie very obviously stands on the shoulders of an Italian Stallion giant. The Karate Kid was directed by John Avildsen, the same man who directed Rocky. Both movies have a soundtrack by Bill Conti (and thank God for that). It would be easy to ding The Karate Kid as just a teen take on the classic underdog tale.
A better framing for this movie would be “everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers did backwards and in heels”. I love Rocky. I love the Rocky franchise. But after rewatching the Karate Kid, I honestly think that it’s the better stand alone film. It does everything that made Rocky great, but with teen actors and the guy from Happy Days.
Raph Macchio is fantastic in a way rarely seen in young actors. His Daniel is real, with all the ups and downs that come with being a teenager. He’s charming and plucky, but petulant and angry. All of it comes across as genuine. Sure, his Karate is weak as all hell, but it took Sylvester Stallone six Rocky movies to learn how to use a goddamn jab. By that standard he’s a prodigy.
Pat Morita gives Burgess Meredith a run for his money as the mentor figure, which sounds like heresy. The quirky Miyagi has depth, and the scenes where he opens up to Daniel about his past are authentic and moving. The scene where Miyagi speaks of his wife dying in a Japanese internment camp is especially powerful.
Elisabeth Shue gives a fantastic performance as Ali, Daniels love interest. She takes most of the initiative in the budding relationship. She handles the class dynamics of being the uptown girl to Daniel’s junkyard dog in an intelligent, confident manner. And for the first three quarters of the movie she lands more hits on Johnny, the main antagonist, than Daniel does. It’s a crying shame that the franchise decided to ditch their relationship, because it was much more interesting than the damsel-in-distress du jour they trot out in the next two movies.
The final character in the film is the location. Both Rocky and The Karate Kid franchise treat their settings as living, breathing elements. The pulse of the city beats in each. Rocky was Philedelphia (can you name another city that built a statue to a fictional character?), but The Karate Kid expands on that sense of place, embracing valley culture, class inequality, racism, and California’s past in regards to how Japanese-Americans were treated during WWII.
My only real gripe with The Karate Kid was the hokey eastern mysticism. Miyagi rubbing his hands together to magically heal Daniel’s leg enough for him to continue was cheesy as all hell. It’s the one time that The Karate Kid showed that it was completely aping the Rocky franchise. It was the alternative medicine version of “Cut me, Mickey!”.
One hit wonderful
The Karate Kid franchise pretty much drove itself off the cliff after the first movie. At least Rocky had two very good outings before it became formulaic and dumb. The Karate Kid also loses when it comes to reboots, as Creed is fabulous, but Jackie Chan teaching Jaden smith Kung Fu was absolute trash. So if it ever came down to a judges decision, Rocky tops The Karate Kid. But if you want a one round KO, I’d give the edge to Daniel-san.
Don’t call it a comeback…
Rediscovering all the fun that was The Karate Kid was an unexpected bonus. This is the dead zone on the movie calendar, and it can be a bit of a slog. It was also nice to reaffirm that my childhood did for the most part rock. Because I loved this movie. I had the soundtrack on vinyl. Neil and I even suffered through the hell that was the LJN Nintendo adaptation of the franchise. That’s dedication bordering on obsession.
If you want to relive Daniel-san’s adventures in crane kicking, The Karate Kid is still free for the rest of today on Xbox.