When movies that you have no expectations for, come out of no where and sweep you up in a moment, you know you have been blessed with a perfect storm of serendipity. No film from 1984 epitomizes this more that “The Karate Kid”. It had a title that sounded like a kids cartoon show, it starred no one that anyone had heard of except the guy who played Arnold on “Happy Days”. It turned into a smash, making over $90 Million and landing in the number five spot for the year. [By the way, those of you following the blog through the year, this is the ninth film released so far in 1984 to make the top ten. So by mid-June 9 out of 10 of the top financial successes of the year have come out. All that is left is the film that will be number one and it is six months away.]
A lot of people have compared “the Karate Kid” to “Rocky” and that is understandable. Both films feature an underdog, fighting against a superior opponent while at the same time developing a love interest and being mentored by an older father figure. Oh yeah, they were also both directed by John G. Avildsen. Those comparisons are important but they are also superficial. “the Karate Kid” has a love story, but the central love story is the mentor relationship. Both films are about finding who you are and challenging the odds, but I think “The Karate Kid” is a lot more relateable for most people because the issues faced by Daniel LaRusso are the same ones faced by kids everyday. Kids start new schools, they don’t know the culture they are plopped down in, they are bullied and they are humiliated and they all find different ways to cope. “Rocky” is the better picture but The Karate Kid’s lessons are something more people can connect with.
Ralph Macchio plays Daniel, a kid who grew up in New Jersey and is suddenly moved by his single Mother across the country. He has a chip on his shoulders but he also has a winning smile and is self depreciating enough to forget some of his undue sullenness. He spots a girl at the beach, flirts with her and then gets into a fight where he is overmatched by the reigning Valley karate champion, the girls ex. Getting your ass kicked is not going to do wonders for your social status, but it does seem a bit strange that the friendly neighbor kid and the gang he was playing soccer with just a couple of hours earlier, all abandon any pretense of friendship at this point. They are the ones who encouraged him to approach the girl, yet they quickly walk away when he loses a fistfight to someone that everyone knows is a competition class karate expert. It was humiliating, but lucky for Daniel, the cute girl Ali doesn’t see it that way.
Ali is played by Elizabeth Shue. She is a girl from a different social class than Daniel is, so you might start thinking that this is going to be about star crossed lovers who come from opposite sides of the tracks. That is in the story for about ten seconds and then it fades into the background. Daniels biggest problem is not that Ali is from a well off family and his Mother has to struggle, his problem is that sometimes he can be a bit of a prick. When he is humiliated or feels inadequate, he responds defensively and pushes most people away, including the girl who is interested in him and should not be. Some of the best character development for Daniel does come from his sometimes contentious attempts to be with Ali. As we later learn, Daniel is out of balance in many parts of his life and this is one of them.
The heavy in the film is Johnny, Ali’s ex-boyfriend and he has a damaging mentor relationship with the sensi of his karate domo. Johnny and his friends are taught that the purpose of karate is power and that there should be no mercy. The belligerent teacher is a dark figure who influences even the most intelligent of his students to behave in ways that might be acceptable in warfare but certainly are not in High School. Luckily for Daniel and for us, he has stumbled into a counter mentoring relationship that is based on friendship, trust and dedication. Daniels new friend is Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi wears many hats but Daniel meets him as the maintenance guy at the sad apartment building he and his mother have moved into. Pat Morita gives an Oscar nominated performance as the WWII vet of Japanese ancestry, who has always been quiet and happy to remain in the background.
Their early scenes together establish a natural easy going relationship between the older man and the young outsider. It is not until Miyagi rescues Daniel from a near death beating by the guys from the dojo that he becomes the father figure that Daniel needs and who earns our respect for being more than a series of Asian based homilies. He takes a chance and steps out of his comfort zone by taking Daniel on as a karate student. His techniques are not those of a martial artist but of the son of a fisherman, who makes a simple life as a maintenance man. Even people who have not seen the movie know the reference to “Wax on, Wax off.” Miyagi has taken everyday disciplines and instilled them in Daniel through hard work. Daniel learns to endure pain, dedicate himself, and think hard on what it is he really wants from his training by engaging in these tasks. The rest of us wish that we could learn karate by cleaning cars and painting fences but the real lessons are about the dedication it takes. Mr. Miyagi does spout some pretty cliche pieces of fortune cookie wisdom, but that does not mean that the thoughts behind those ideas are not valid. It takes a good actor in a great performance to be believable when uttering some of the dialogue found in this film, for example:
“No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.”
“Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”
“You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity.”
“First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san, not mine.”
“To make honey, young bee need young flower, not old prune.”
If we did not believe that Morita is the character, these lines would have him laughed off the screen. It is because we find the relationship between mentor and student to be real that we can accept that trite advice sometimes is the right advice.
In a great scene we discover Miyagi’s history in an indirect fashion. His drunken words and eternal remorse are the clips that probably got Morita noticed enough to be nominated. It deepens our affection for the character and it imbues Daniel with greater respect. Macchio was cast because of his youthful looks. He is a skinny kid that looks like the sort that bullies would want to kick sand in their face. He does have some great moments of charm. He speaks under his breath at one point, extolling the virtues of the girl he met to his now absent mother. He apologizes well when he does make mistakes and the character makes a lot of personal mistakes. These are other reasons that most of us can identify with Daniel in spite of some of his weaker character points, he is able to acknowledge them. The training sequences are longer than those training montages in the “Rocky” films, and the by play between the two leads continues to be funny and warm hearted. When Miyagi bestows his gifts on Daniel for his birthday, it again feels organic to their relationship, not just manipulative to make us like his character more.
The tournament scenes are interesting and they do manage to build some tension. The longer the sequence goes, the less we hate the Cobra Kai kids and the more we hate their teacher. By the end, all of our antagonism has been transferred to to Martin Kove’s Kreese. When Daniel hobbles up to his last fight, we know what is coming, but like any well assembled film moment, there can still be tension and release and we get it as delivered by the professional that the director is. “The Karate Kid” manages to surprise us, not because the story is new or different, but because the old story is told so well. It is another reason that 1984 was a great year for movies.