Those born in the 90s and beyond have probably seen all manner of 80s parodies and pastiches. The jerk bullies. The put down kid who crushes on the unattainable girl. Some kind of challenge that must be overcome to win the girl, defeat the bullies, and forever be a winner. Whilst 1984’s The Karate Kid didn’t invent these tropes it certainly embodied them, and in wake of the superb series Cobra Kai picking up where the movie characters left off over 30 years later (spoiler: you are NOT forever a winner) let’s have a look back at the original source of all things crane kick.
Whether returning to The Karate Kid like a student to an old sensei or entering the dojo for the first time it is immediately clear that the movie has certainly aged. I’m not talking about all those tropes I listed at the start of this review. I’m talking about the rather jarring pacing, editing, and dialogue delivery that you wouldn’t get in a modern movie. Young high schooler Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother move house from Newark, New Jersey to the poor end of Los Angeles. Daniel’s thick New Jersey accent and attraction to Ali quickly gets him into trouble with her ex-Johnny, a black belt in the local Cobra Kai Karate dojo. Cue sand kicked in face and rivalries set up as the bullying ramps up throughout the opening act. And sorry Daniel, it wasn’t a whole cliff you were pushed off here, just a brief hill.
The Karate Kid is slow to get started. It’s a fumbly and mumbly series of setups that keep reinforcing the same point. Daniel attracted to Ali. Johnny and co beat him down. Etc. etc. To modern eyes, the scenes are often clunky and certainly could have been condensed or slimmed down, and it certainly doesn’t help that Macchio totters around ‘realistic teen mumble’ and ‘incomprehensible dialogue sputter’ at first. It’s past the half-hour point before things really start to click into gear due to the presence of one Okinawan handyman, Mr Nariyoshi Miyagi (Pat Morita).
The real core appeal of Karate Kid is the relationship between Daniel and Mr Miyagi. Morita’s measured performance is one that flits between zen calm and cheeky wit but his teaching techniques have rightly gone down in movie legend. Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence. Sand the floor. Teaching karate by stealth so as to impress into Daniel muscle memory reactions was a far cry from the training montage so prevalent then (and arguably now) and their growing friendship still sparkles in their scenes together all these years later.
Macchio does settle into his hero’s journey path and some stock ‘wrong side of the tracks mis-matched love’ keeps his character ticking over outside of training. Ali (Elizabeth Shue) isn’t given much more creed than ‘girl love interest who helps guy overcome his hang ups’ but her sweet nature is a balm to Daniel’s often irritable class paranoia. As perfectly satisfactory as these elements are, it only goes to show how much Macchio and Morita’s chemistry is the true elevating presence here.
There is no finer acting in the movie than a scene where a drunk Mr Miyagi goes from celebratory to devastated when honouring the anniversary of the death of his wife (who died during childbirth complications whilst he fought in World War II for the US army), and a shocked into silence Daniel simply carries his comatose friend to bed.
It is this relationship between two stars that does the leg work so that by the time Daniel is facing off against Johnny and other Cobra Kai students in the All Valley Karate Championships we are invested in his efforts, successes, and failures. Gloriously nasty villain John Kreese (Martin Kove) ensures that the Cobra Kai’s threat is more than just bullying jocks. And it is a nice touch that his threatening ‘no mercy’ instructions (“sweep the leg!”) is something that Johnny and co reluctantly follow out of fear rather than actual bad blood within themselves.
As things come to an iconic kicking conclusion another symptom of 80s success story movie making is that there is no come down from the high of success. Battle one, girl obtained as prize, end of movie with freeze frame as everyone celebrates. Yet it is telling that despite Daniel being held aloft by the cheering crowd, the final shot is a that of a deeply proud Mr Miyagi watching from the side.
Later movies would continue to explore these relationships with varying degrees of success. Karate Kid II and III remain entertain remixes but the purest feel good comes from right here. Don’t sweep the leg or go home in a body bag, Mr Miyagi’s healing hands are all you need in order to continue.
Words by Michael Record