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The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid
Sony DVD
1984 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 127 min. / Street Date June 7, 2005 / 19.94
Starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka
Cinematography James Crabe
Martial Arts Choreographer William J. Cassidy
Art Direction Pat E. Johnson
Film Editors Bud Smith, Walt Mulconery, John G. Avildsen
Original Music Bill Conti
Written by Robert Mark Kamen
Produced by R.J. Louis, Jerry Weintraub
Directed by John G. Avildsen

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 and 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 dojo.

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 ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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