The Karate Kid (1984)

8 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Any subject matter can be done well. In the case for “The Karate Kid,” it’s an underdog story that is done very well. This movie could be considered as a “younger Rocky,” since it’s from the same director—John G. Alvidsen—and has the same basic premise of a character—younger this time—preparing for a big fight at the end. But it’s not fair to make that comparison because this movie stands out on its own. This is a much better film than you’d expect when you hear the title of the film—it’s touching, fun, well-acted, and well-made.

Ralph Macchio plays the protagonist—sixteen-year-old Daniel Larusso. He and his mother (Randee Heller) move from Newark, New Jersey to Reseda, California and Daniel isn’t as excited as his mother. (“This is the end of the line,” the mother says as they arrive at their new home. “You’re tellin’ me,” Daniel sullenly says under his breath.) Then he meets a beautiful blonde girl named Ali (Elisabeth Shue) and they hit it off nicely. But that angers her ex-boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka), a blond hunky jerk with a black belt in karate. He beats the stuffing out of Daniel, who tries to fight back but he’s only studied karate at the YMCA in Jersey; this kid is from Southern California and takes karate at the dojo near the drug store.

Daniel is menaced and beaten more and more as days go by—he considers checking out the karate place, but the problem is the instructor is a sadistic Army vet who believes in “no mercy.” Daniel is amazed to discover that Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the Japanese handyman at the apartment building he lives in, knows a great deal about karate as he takes down Johnny and the bullies one night. Mr. Miyagi offers to teach Daniel karate in preparation for a karate tournament, in which Daniel must beat Johnny and the other Cobra Kai students in order to gain respect. His methods are not promising—Miyagi has Daniel wash his car, paint the fence, paint the house, and sand the deck. Daniel thinks he’s doing manual labor, but it turns out there’s a method here.

This is great—it’s smart writing here. And while Miyagi still teaches Daniel karate, there’s a nice friendship between the two. It seems fresh and original—this is a wonderful student/teacher relationship. They understand each other and feel like they’re each other’s best friends in quite a while. Actually, there are more relationships within characters and they all work fine. The romance between Daniel and Ali is nicely handled and then there’s the relationship between Daniel and his mother. All of these relationships are credibly handled and acted. There hardly seems to be a moment of acting. It all seems natural.

And that’s a wonderful thing about this movie—the filmmakers know what to do to make a movie with martial arts as a central theme. They think of the story and characters before they think of the martial arts. Too many kung-fu or karate movies would care less—not “The Karate Kid.”

Ralph Macchio is a natural actor and extremely likable as Daniel. He has a wit, but knows when to shut up and pay attention. He’s nervous, but good at hiding it. That makes him a likable main character to follow. Pat Morita is wonderful as Mr. Miyagi. In reality, Morita is a Japanese-American, but in the movie, he plays a different person (of course, that’s acting) by playing a Japanese import with a struggle for English. On top of that, the character is a true original—a breath of fresh air for the “wise old man” character. He has a sense of humor and knows a convincing lot about karate, but he also has his tragic past to try and forget. Morita is great here. The supporting cast is strong as well. Elisabeth Shue is beautiful, sweet, and likable. Randee Heller portrays a tough mom character, enthusiastic and with a street-smart personality. William Zabka is suitably slimy. And then there’s Martin Kove as the psycho karate instructor—“ruthless” is an understatement description of his character. He makes this character so villainous that it’s so over-the-top…but it’s so darn memorable and fun to watch.

Just like “Rocky,” “The Karate Kid” ends with a fight climax, in which Daniel must finally fight the bullies after learning everything he was taught by Mr. Miyagi and putting it to use. These fight climaxes seem almost obligatory, but this one is well-handled and it actually means something because we feel like we know the characters and buy into their relationships with each other. The heart is with “The Karate Kid’s” story and characters, and unlike most underdog stories, it’s about something.

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