Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Karate Kid is an efficient movie directed by John G. Avildsen, a talented man who turned
some of the worst cultural drek (yes, Rocky and his sequel friends) into a genuine phenomenon.
It's not that both franchises aren't totally without merit, it's that their fairy-tale nonsense
promote bad life lessons, celebrating aggression and physical triumph as the only road to male honor.
Both films take fairly
recognizable situations - slum life in Philadelphia; teen angst in The San Fernando
Valley - and talk one story while spoon-feeding the audience another. Rocky Balboa isn't a moronic
slug, he's a great hero waiting to burst upward from the spiritual confines of his sordid background.
Daniel LaRusso's charm and sweetness isn't enough; he must become a suburban warrior to maintain his
human dignity. This is how America sees itself, as proven by the fact that the city of
Philadelphia erected a real civic monument to a fictional fantasy thug.
New Jersey transplant teen Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) has a tough time adjusting
to life in Southern California. He's delighted to meet dream girl Ali Mills (Elizabeth Shue) but
she comes with ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), a hot-head in a rich-kid motor club with
his buddies from the Cobra Kai karate dojo. Lawrence and his friends are under the bad influence of
Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove), a glowering villain who teaches essential lessons
like, 'no mercy.'
Fortunately, Daniel is 'adopted' by Mr. Kesuge Miyagi (Noriuki "Pat" Morita) a handyman who is also
a self-made karate master. At first pressed into doing backbreaking chores for his friend, Daniel
finds out that they all contribute to his spiritual and physical education, as he learns the way of
karate. Miyagi also negotiates a truce with Kreese and Johnny Lawrence: No more hazing, harrassment
or beatings until
the big karate championship, where Lawrence and the much smaller LaRusso will square off.
Unlike its endless imitators, The Karate Kid is neither cheaply made nor absolute trash, and
for cinematic competence it's far better than the equally limitless number of 'grown up' martial
arts movies from the likes of Jean-Claude DamFoole. While working at Cannon in the late '80s
Savant waded through many of these groaners, all of which made the clumsy Shaw Brothers films of
the late 60s and early 70s look like
classics. In the basic template, an inexperienced youth (or a talented pro with something to learn)
witnesses horrible atrocities to his family or friends and must undergo some kind of 'learning
through pain' - training, torture, what have you - before emerging a triumphant superman. In the
case of bona fide dervishes like Bruce Lee, obvious authentic talent overrode the need for character
growth or even a plot - all that was required was the construction of a martial arts villain who
could pose a credible danger.
With the experience of (and a pile of Academy Oscars from) Rocky under his belt, John Avildsen
writer Robert Mark Kamen fashioned one of the most calculated commercial scripts of the 80s.
Enterprising producers had already mined the fads of computer games, skateboarding and Dungeons &
Dragons with films that are now mostly forgotten; The Karate Kid instead became the legend
that surely launched a thousand martial arts dojos. Encouraging good exercise and building
self-esteem, martial arts was an attractive alternative to varsity-oriented school athletics.
One didn't have to be the biggest or most coordinated to get involved and for the most part
the sport honestly wasn't about winning, but bettering one's self. Family-friendly schools of Karate,
judo and Tae Kwon Do sprang up everywhere.
The Karate Kid constructs a false world that sidesteps the family-unfriendly realities of real
teen problems. Any kid over six can see that Daniel LaRusso's situation is a sanitized fantasy.
Daniel's tormentors deliver relatively harmless 'beatings' (no brain-damaging concussions, no killings)
and Daniel isn't reduced to soul-shattering fear and weeping, as real harassed kids often are. This
teen world exists midway between Never-Never Land and Romper Room: There are no drugs and no
alcohol. The baddest of the bad guys don't smoke dope or even swear, and hang out on the beach just
like Frankie and Annette did. The hot date scene is a safe 'n sane activity park with miniature golf
and water slides! Kids just want a girlfriend to take to the country club dance (!!!?) and
none are into sex.
The girl of LaRusso's dreams is a whitebread princess with a family too stiff for the 1950s, let
alone 1984 ... on the other hand, I take that back, as there's no telling what one might find in an
upscale So Cal suburb. She has a bright personality but no character except as an accessory to the hero.
The Karate Kid is rigidly designed to appeal to insecure boys 12-18.
Writer Kamen therefore invents an Evil Karate Sensei who has given his Cobra Kai gang a bad
attitude that stresses aggression, ruthlessness and cruelty, things which probably aren't the norm
in most street gangs, let alone your neighborhood dojo. Those establishments thrive on mixed-sex
classes (Karate is an all-male activity in Kamen's macho fantasy) and especially classes for
little kids. I can't
see Martin Kove's Kreese character instilling much confidence in mothers if he foams at the mouth
telling 2nd graders to have No Mercy.
At this point, author Kamen adds some wisdom to his concoction; either that or actor Pat Morita lent
a solid hand to flesh out his character. Mr. Miyagi is cute without being a
clown and dignified without being a conduit for a lot of pseudo-philosophical junk. In fact, Obi-Wan
Kenobi could take lessons from Miyagi, as the diminuitive Japanese-American does almost no preaching
and offers no nuggets of 'oriental' wisdom. He doesn't tell Luke, I mean Daniel, about any invisible
force permeating the universe, and in fact rather humorously belittles his own talents. Some
compared the Miyagi character to Yoda, which applies only in that Miyagi is a typical Anglo conceit:
Yet another ethnic minority character who finds fulfillment helping out a little Anglo kid. It's just
one step away from Song of the South. But Yoda would never minimize karate 'tricks' like
breaking the necks from beer bottles without knocking them over, and
we can't see Yoda walking away miffed when the kid can do what he can't, catch flies with chopsticks
(not recommended unless one already eats with a flyswatter).
Until the very end Miyagi does little but build Daniel's self-confidence. Then Kamen has no choice
but to resort to plain Black Magic to 'heal' Daniel, a scene Avildsen has to soft-sell with an ellipsis
that says "I couldn't make this work." The final tournament is laughable (or insulting) nonsense that
proves that if
you lead an audience to a conclusion with even a minimum of taste and good humor, they'll accept
whatever pitiful fantasy is offered. It's pretty funny to see Daniel's chirpy mom
(an undersung Randee Heller) watch with minimal concern as her son is apparently being maimed and
crippled before very eyes. "You can do it, Daniel! Don't be concerned about living the rest of your
life with a ruined knee!"
The Karate Kid ends even faster than did Rocky, indicating real smarts from its makers
(Ace editor Bud Smith was a veteran of several William Friedkin hits). Daniel is barely tasting victory
before we go to one close-up of Pat Morita and then to black. Why cloud the audience's feel-good
rush with a problematic aftermath? Will the humbled bully Johnny Lawrence walk naked into the
desert, seeking a new master and enlightenment like David Carradine in Kung-Fu? Will evil
Sensei Kreese put a bomb in Danny's car? Will Mr. Miyagi fix the apartment-house sprinkers first, or
will he refill the rotting pool, which is spreading malaria throughout the West
Valley? Unfortunately, The Karate Kid II didn't address any of these pressing issues.
Sony Pictures' Special Edition DVD of The Karate Kid fronts a sparkling enhanced transfer
of this handsomely shot boxoffice winner.
The extras will please Kid fans who want to see what Ralph Macchio looks like twenty years
later (still pretty damn young). We also get to meet the writer, director, a couple of ex- kid actors and
Pat Morita, who clearly has hung a lifetime of pride on his achievement after earning a
nomination for Best Supporting actor. A two-part making-of docu is the focus of the extras.
Everybody takes the film far too seriously, an unavoidable trap when a commercially ambitious
picture makes movie history. With so little of substance
to talk about, the lengthy interviews lay it on so thick we need to walk on tiptoes while
holding our noses. Author Kamen (writer of The Fifth Element, a movie Savant greatly admires)
thinks Kid is a masterpiece and has the cockeyed notion that his phrase 'Wax on Wax off'
is now part of the national experience.
Mr. Avildsen is less prone to hyperbole but the producers let actors Macchio, Kove and Zabka go
on far too long. Commercially that's probably a
good choice, as the future performance of The Karate Kid will surely be aided by the notion
that it's a classic. The enormously talented Elizabeth Shue is not involved. Either it's
because she doesn't remember the movie fondly, or perhaps
the family-oriented special ed. shied away from an actress later nominated for
an Oscar for a grim adult role in Leaving Las Vegas. That's reality
in the big city, folks - maybe the punk rapists in that show were ex-members of the Cobra Kai
The special edition has a commentary with Avildsen, Macchio, Morita and Kamen, all of whom try to
talk at the same time and continually interrupt one another in mid-phrase. Perhaps the voices
should be spread around the channels of a 5.1 array -? There are three more interview featurettes.
Martial arts choreographer
Pat E. Johnson hosts one, a master of Bonsai is the focus of another and Avildsen's strongest
collaborator Bill Conti finishes with an informative and enthusiastic piece on film composing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Karate Kid rates:
Movie: Fair ++
Supplements: Commentary, Two making-of docus, featurettes on Karate, Bonsai, and
composing for films.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 9, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson