"The Karate Kid" holds a special spot in the prestigious summer movie Class of 1984. It was the sleeper sensation, free of Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and resistant to the Black Sleep of Kali, becoming a box office bear using a tried and true Hollywood tool that isn't employed much these days: patient characterization. Perhaps a touch on the corny side and undeniably broad, "The Karate Kid" is a ridiculously rewarding drama that puts pure sincerity to marvelous use, inflating a mild underdog story into an inspiring tale of education and developing friendship.
Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is having a difficult time adjusting to life in California after a cross-country relocation from New Jersey with his mother (Randee Heller). Discovering comfort in flirtations with classmate Ali (a wonderfully virginal Elisabeth Shue), Daniel finds his East Coast brashness and geeky body put to the test when bully Johnny (Reagan-era jerkwad extraordinaire, the amusing William Zabka) comes around, beating down the new kid with karate moves gathered from the Cobra Kai dojo and its wicked sensei, John Kreese (a menacing Martin Kove). To Daniel's aid comes apartment handyman Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita), who agrees to teach the battered teen the ways of karate through the repetition of household chores. While concentrating on building himself up for a critical karate tournament, Daniel finds an unexpected friendship with Miyagi that elevates the wounded spirits of both men.
Director John G. Avildsen had already been down this road once before, with 1976's "Rocky." Perhaps the ultimate underdog story, "Rocky" cemented a formula that many films would come to imitate, and while derivative, "The Karate Kid" is perhaps the finest riff on the Sylvester Stallone classic that's come along thus far, with Avildsen expertly working his considerable hindsight, branding a new, unlikely hero in Daniel LaRusso.
Written by Robert Mark Kamen, "The Karate Kid" is primarily fueled by the conflicted heart of the 1980's teen, as Daniel isn't just dodging bullies, but trying to win the approval of a suburban princess, deal with his ambitious mother, and figure out Miyagi's secretive karate instruction. Kamen and Avildsen refuse to burn through the conflicts to please the target demographic; instead, "The Karate Kid" winds leisurely, developing Daniel as a young man struggling to find his center while his whole life has been disrupted. These torrents of emotions and urges are beautifully realized by Macchio, who infuses the character with sensitivity, some Joisey nerve, and hormonal bewilderment while rocking a perfectly pipsqueak frame. Not a centerfold or a dreamboat, Macchio is perfectly cast in the demanding role, creating a relatable character of torment and longing, while still tending to the shrill parts of the teen character that bring the '80s into clear view.
Matching Macchio note for note is Morita, embodying the heart and soul of the film as Miyagi. The Yoda role of the alien sage is fairly easy to coast through, but Kamen doesn't script Miyagi as a one-dimensional life lesson machine. With the help of a crushing drunken confessional scene between Miyagi and Daniel, the character is handed profound psychological weight, with motivations not emerging from a place of cliché, but of heartfelt alliance, as Miyagi finds a human connection with Daniel that his life had been missing for decades. The interplay between Morita and Macchio is seamless, humorous, and playfully abrasive, breathing life into revelations that define the film's sense of partnership and instruction. 26 years later, the "Wax on, wax off" payoff still delivers goosebumps, and not because of pop culture repetition; the moment is pure due to the intimacy of the writing, with the solidification of Miyagi's seemingly mundane domestic busywork as a lightning bolt of realization brought to life by superb performances and immense chemistry.
"The Karate Kid" has garnered a reputation as a slice of '80s cheese, and I suppose the picture does manufacture a few moments of ridiculously flared-nostril combustibility, sold by a small horde of untested teen actors working under a director in his late forties. It's all so silly, but only if cynicism is permitted to swallow the viewing experience. Kamen's writing certainly takes matters seriously, and the film's gradual pace doesn't encourage camp. "The Karate Kid" clicks elegantly because it steps carefully, building characters to believe in. Karate doesn't even enter the film until the hour mark, as Avildsen takes his time observing struggle and forming bonds before its all rewarded with a final act showdown on the tournament floor. But all the cranes, leg sweeps, and magical healing hands aren't worth a damn without an incredible emotional investment, and that's precisely what "Karate Kid" achieves, on a rather impressive scale too.
The AVC encoded image (1.85:1 aspect ratio) for "Karate Kid" employs a fine grain to preserve the integrity of the original cinematography -- it offers the picture a pleasing filmic quality, while also upholding the textures in clothes and hair. Being a film of a certain age, facial detail is better than expected, with fresh appearances from Macchio and Shue retaining their adolescent glow. Colors are concrete, with a good push of reds and greens, while shadow detail remains expressive -- a vital concern for a few of the interior evening scenes. I was rather impressed by the BD presentation, which preserves the '80s impression of the production, though the clarity of the image does amusingly give away a few tricks (Miyagi and Daniel's fly-catching routine with chopsticks reveals an obvious monofilament assist).
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is expectedly frontal for the majority of the listening experience, holding to the original design of the film, which favors intimate moments over profoundly sonic ones. Still, dimensionality plays an important role, filling out crowd sequences with plenty of surround action for ADR additions. Soundtrack cuts are superbly pronounced, creating the period feel while also goosing excitement levels, found specifically when "You're the Best" by Joe Esposito comes into play for the grand finale. Scoring sounds crisp and eager. Dialogue is always accessible, if a bit artificial, but everything registers nice and clear. There's little to no bottom end here outside of a few collisions, but the euphoric dramatic points are sharply represented, leaving the BD in good condition. French, Spanish, and Portuguese tracks are also available.
English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are included.
Exclusive to Blu-Ray...
"Blu-Pop" is an informational track that mixes new PIP interviews with stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka with pop-up trivia tidbits on various subjects, most centered on karate and filmographies. It's a neat little feature that's easily controlled by your remote, made downright invaluable by the inclusion of Zabka, who has much to share about the formation of Johnny.
Ported over from the 2004 DVD release...
The feature-length audio commentary with director John G. Avildsen, writer Robert Mark Kamen, and actors Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita is a pure joy for any fan of the feature, with the group heartily reminiscing about the making of the movie, showing heavy concentration on their screen appearances. The track rarely lets up, with the guys delving into shooting conditions, bouts of poor continuity, on-set relationships, stunt work, and generally basking in the glow of their little film that could. Recorded six years ago, the conversation is a little bittersweet now that Morita has passed away, but his slightly bewildered, loving spirit is a treat to hear again.
"The Way of the Karate Kid: Part 1" (24:00) and "The Way of the Karate Kid: Part II" (21:25) is a rather in-depth and communicative pair of making-of featurettes. Interviewing cast (sans Shue) and crew, the journey goes from origin to release, hoping to impart the creativity and familial attitude of the production, while also exploring the film's lasting impact. It's a superb document of feelings and anecdotes (some solid B-roll footage too), expressing the love and respect that helped to shape the picture.
"Beyond the Form" (13:03) talks with martial arts choreographer Pat E. Johnson, who highlights the discipline and innate beauty of karate, while chatting up his experience making the movie. It's a more philosophical discussion, but Johnson is a wonderfully passionate speaker.
"East Meets West: A Composer's Notebook" (8:17) sits down with Bill Conti, who explores the diversity of his work on the film (with assistance from Zamfir), and how his music fits into the larger scope of the sound mix.
"Life of Bonsai" (10:00) delves into the green art with Ben Oki, bonsai master and eager educator, helping viewers understand the effort that goes into creating these specialized plants.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included (it was included in the earlier DVD set)
"The Karate Kid" has endured throughout the years, spawned a number of sequels, and even returns to screen this summer in a remake that looks, from preliminary footage only, to be an utter travesty. Finding the picture appealing in a retro fashion is one thing, but the filmmaking is genuinely splendid and timeless, taking a flat concept and filling it with unexpected purpose, charisma, and kindness. Its natural wave of genuineness is irresistible, and after all these years, there's something exceptional about the way the film leaps obvious dramatic pitfalls to develop a beating heart.
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