I wanted to write about "The Karate Kid" because it's one of those movies that got stuck in my head to where I know every piece of dialogue in it. It’s one of the many movies that I got to see at the long gone Melody Theater back in Thousand Oaks where I saw a lot of classic 80’s movies. I still vividly remember seeing this one with my older brother and mom, and it was one of the few movies that she would ever take us to see in a movie theater back then (that or "The Right Stuff" and any “Star Trek” movie).
It's now been 30 years (!) since the original “Karate Kid” came out, so I guess it’s safe to say that you all know the story by now. Ralph Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso, a high school teenager who moves with his mom from New Jersey to California. Having moved a bit as a kid, I can appreciate his frustration at having to adapt to new surroundings that are not exactly prepared to welcome you with open arms. He runs afoul of a tough gang of karate kids known as the Cobra Kais, and they are led by Johnny Lawrence (played by William Zabaka in one of his many roles as the school bully). When he sees Daniel flirting with his girlfriend (played by the eternally beautiful Elisabeth Shue), Johnny lays down the law and kicks Daniel’s ass whenever he's around.
This movie had a strong impact on me. I got picked on a bit when I was a kid, although never as bad as Mr. LaRusso. Seeing him getting messed around with filled me with a sadness and anger in how unfairly people can get treated. You want to see him get his revenge against these guys even though it will likely bring the same vicious reaction from the Cobra Kai. When you see him get beat up again by the Kobra Kai after the Halloween dance, I remember how angrier and angrier I got. But that's when “The Karate Kid” gave us one of its best moments when Mr. Miyagi came to the rescue and kicked some Cobra Kai ass! Seeing Miyagi coming from behind in the shadows got my heart and excitement up, and it was a pleasure to see him give those high school bullies the beating they deserved.
Mr. Miyagi is one of the best characters that came out of movies in the 80’s, and he remains one of my favorites from that decade. He is basically an Okinawan Yoda, and he is brought to life by the late Pat Morita in a performance that I was so hoping would snag him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he was nominated for. Although this kind of character became a cliché for many other movies, the guy who does a low profile and lonely job but who is actually a war hero with the greatest of skills and training, Morita is brilliant in the way he shows the seriousness of Miyagi as well as the joyous and humorous side of the character as well. I did not realize that Morita was a stand-up comedian before he did this movie. Then again he was on "Happy Days" for a while.
After all these years, “The Karate Kid” still proves to be one of the few karate movies that really tells the truth about karate. Now I don’t mean just in getting more people interested in this martial art, but also in making them see that it was a spiritual thing more than anything else. It was not about being trained to attack the way John Kreese taught the Kobra Kais; it was about defense more than anything else. Moreover, it was about making yourself a better person on the inside as opposed to just the outside. I have heard from my closest friends about how studying karate helped raise their self-esteem to where they felt better about themselves. I even studied karate for a bit to experience it for myself, and it's something I hope to come back to in the near future.
So "The Karate Kid" is not about Daniel getting revenge on the bad guys, but in finding balance in his life by making a stand with the help of Miyagi.
The friendship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi is one of the best friendships I have ever seen portrayed onscreen. You are pretty much in Daniel's shoes as he tries to figure out what the heck is going on when Miyagi has him washing his cars, painting his fence, sanding his floor and painting his house instead of teaching him karate. That leads to one of my favorite moments where Daniel comes to realize that Miyagi has trained him in karate without him even knowing it. All these chores give him reflexes that have become ingrained in his consciousness to where they are practically automatic, and it is then that he realizes that he has learned how to defend himself.
As Daniel LaRusso, Macchio gave us his quintessential performance back in the 80’s with this role. In the first two “Karate Kid” movies, Macchio manages to find a balance between being obnoxious and sincere, and he makes LaRusso a likable guy to where his transformation into a true karate student feels real and authentic.
Elisabeth Shue was so damn beautiful in this movie, and I liked how she embodied this character where she practically spit at the clichés of the typical spoiled rich girl we have seen in far too many movies. Shue and Macchio may seem like a highly unlikely couple, but these two convince you that they could be together. I always hated how Shue’s character got dumped out after the start of "Karate Kid Part II." I never really bought how that all came about, and I thought it was really shitty to do that to her. Elisabeth Shue was a wonderful and vivacious presence here, and she went on to give us a lot of great performances in movies like "Leaving Las Vegas."
Morita's career went downhill after he made Mr. Miyagi one of the most unforgettable characters in movies. Seeing him doing local car center commercials was frustrating, and why was he doing crap like "King Cobra" which was clearly a cheap ass knockoff of "Anaconda?” Still, what he does here with Miyagi is amazing, and it's one of those performances where the actor becomes the character to where you never really see him acting. Now that's great film acting.
John G. Avildsen, who is best known for directing “Rocky,” helmed this movie with the same level of confidence as he did with the Sylvester Stallone classic, and he ends up giving us a rousingly good time at the movies. Since he has two great actors in the lead roles, he doesn’t have to waste his time trying to manipulate our emotions because he makes everything in “The Karate Kid” feel so real. You’re not just watching this movie, you’re experiencing it along with the characters.
I also want to mention Martin Kove's performance as John Kreese who proves to be the real villain of “The Karate Kid.” He trains his students viciously as if they are in a constant state of military basic training that you would like to see end sooner than later. Kreese has programmed these kids to hurt and inflict punishment, any they look up to him for all the wrong reasons. But towards the end they come to see that Kreese is not all he is cracked up to be. There's a great moment where he looks at Zabaka as he is taking a break in the climatic fight with Daniel LaRusso and tells him to “sweep the leg.”
Zabaka’s character of Johnny Lawrence looks at Kreese like he is out of his mind, and it adds another dimension to his performance to where it keeps his character from becoming another one-dimensional jerk we have seen in way too many movies.
“The Karate Kid” is a well written movie directed to near perfection and acted with supreme skill. After all these years I can never get sick of watching it, and I don’t think I ever will get sick of watching it.