Guest contributor Greg R. finds balance with Film Appreciation for The Karate Kid (1984).
During childhood, most cinephiles had one movie which was a gateway for their love of film. It didn't have to be the flashiest, grittiest, funniest, best-acted, or the most action-packed picture to capture their attention. All it had to do was make a connection with their young hearts. For me, as a child of the '80s, one movie made me throw my hands up and cheer for the underdog as he faced overwhelming odds and overcame adversity to triumph with victory. That movie was The Karate Kid.
The film's plot concerned an Italian kid from New Jersey, Daniel LaRusso, who relocated with his single mother, Lucille, to California, only to cross a group of wealthy bullies over the hand of a rich “girl next door”, Ali (with an “i”). With the aid of his apartment building's maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi, Daniel learns to stand up for himself against the bullies while learning about focus, balance, and digging deep into his heart.
Released in 1984 and made on a budget of $8 million by director John Avildsen, the film would go on to gross more than $90 million dollars at the box office over the course of six months during its initial release. Starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel and Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, not many expected the movie to perform as well as it did due to neither star being a box office draw at the time. Morita was mainly known from his days as Arnold on the sitcom Happy Days while Macchio was fresh off a role as Johnny Cade in The Outsiders. Despite this, The Karate Kid found its niche with the audience and performed well beyond expectations. Its popularity has continued to this day, as three sequels and a remake followed in the years to come, with possible sequels to the remake still being considered.
The film begins with Daniel and his mother, Lucille, departing New Jersey for their cross-country move to California. A montage of their trip is shown as the first of Bill Conti's score tracks plays over Lucille and Daniel's bickering in the car. Lucille is obviously excited for the move, but Daniel clearly wants to stay in New Jersey.
Without Bill Conti, a lot of this movie's strengths would be gone. He scored the movie perfectly and isn't given enough credit for it.
They arrive at the South Seas apartment complex, where Daniel, his hands full, kicks open the entrance gate and knocks over neighbor Freddy Fernandez from Apartment 17. Freddy is quick to befriend Daniel and welcomes the new kid by inviting him to come to a beach party. Daniel accepts and then joins his mom in their new apartment, which is not half as great as Lucille promised. The pool is awful and the faucet is leaking. Lucille asks Daniel to find the maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi, so the faucet can be fixed.
Lucille, in my opinion, is an underrated character. She's so chipper and positive despite them being in a tough situation. Although we don't learn until the sequel that Daniel's dad isn't around because he died, I have to admire this woman for having the guts to move her son across the country as a single mom. Plus, she seems to really love her son and it's a shame she wasn’t used more in the sequels.
Daniel goes to Mr. Miyagi's office and finds him trying to catch a fly with chopsticks, a recurring theme throughout the movie. Daniel asks Miyagi to fix their faucet, which seemingly agitates him to have to actually do his job. Miyagi tells him in a roundabout way that he will fix it later (“After, after”) and Daniel leaves, a little confused about Miyagi's gruff demeanor.
Miyagi's behavior here is a little confusing, because knowing everything that happens later, it seems a little out of character for him to be so abrasive. I'm guessing they were trying to create a certain mystique for the character. It worked out, so no real complaints.
Next, Daniel is playing soccer at the beach party with Freddy and his friends. Their game gets a little competitive before they come into contact with some rich girls from Beverly Hills, with Daniel becoming immediately smitten with Ali, the pretty blonde.
Daniel almost seems like a stalker in this scene and it's a little uncomfortable. While Freddy and his friends are playing soccer down the beach, Daniel just stands there by their fire in a Superman pose and stares at Ali like she’s a piece of prime rib. There might have been some drool and lip-licking. Okay, I made that up. But, either way, I think Ali probably decided to go play in the ocean because she felt violated by Daniel's creeper eyes.
Later, Freddy and his friends tease Daniel into talking to Ali, where he starts to teach her how to juggle the soccer ball. However, just as he and Ali are starting to form camaraderie, Johnny Lawrence, played by the ultimate '80s bully William Zabka, and the Cobra Kai, a local group of karate students, show up on motorcycles. Johnny is Ali's ex-boyfriend and is incensed when he sees Ali flirting with Daniel. This doesn't bode well for Daniel.
The Cobra Kai are almost all entertaining characters. Their '80s version of coolness is on display in this scene, from their dirt bikes to their red leather jackets to their feathered hair. Zabka played a lot of similar roles in his time, but he's probably at his best here as the preppy rich kid with a mean streak. The other main Cobra Kai include Bobby, Tommy, Jimmy, and Dutch, all of whom play their roles to perfection throughout the movie. I might conclude that Bobby was the most complex out all of them, while Tommy is almost an evil cartoon character and Dutch is the cold-hearted one of the bunch. Jimmy doesn’t really do much other than stand around trying to look tough.
Johnny and his friends go to the beach to confront Ali. Johnny and Daniel get into an argument, at which point Johnny attacks. Daniel gets a punch in, but is soon overpowered and easily put down by Johnny’s whirling karate kicks. Johnny posts blame on Ali for Daniel's beatdown and then leaves with his friends. Freddy's friends then bash Daniel and leave him in the sand as Ali tries to help Daniel, which he refuses.
The fight scene isn't very realistic and is probably the weakest in the movie. However, Macchio does a good job of selling it as if Johnny was a monster. He really makes us feel like he got a beatdown here. In fact, like Daniel or not, Macchio plays the character with a distinct voice and consistency throughout the film and even on into the sequels.
The morning after the beatdown, Daniel tries to hide his black eye from his mom with VERY LARGE sunglasses, but Lucille is too smart for that and fawns over his injury, which Daniel lies about and says he had a bike wreck. He then goes to school, where Freddy and his friends mock him before running off during soccer tryouts.
I have to say that the character of Freddy Fernandez is beyond fickle.
Ali approaches Daniel and apologizes, with Daniel finally learning her name while simultaneously being given a spelling lesson.
Elisabeth Shue is adorable as Ali and is almost too perfect in the role. She's good-looking, sweet, yet feisty and able to fend for herself without becoming a victim.
During the soccer tryouts, Johnny and the Cobra Kai plot to mess with Daniel when Bobby trips Daniel during the game, ending in a pull-apart fight in which Daniel decks Bobby before being thrown out.
Back at home, Daniel tries to teach himself karate from a book as Mr. Miyagi comes over to fix the faucet. He notices Daniel's black eye, but makes it clear through expression that he doesn’t believe Daniel fell off his bike.
This is only Miyagi's second scene and he's already got Daniel pegged without saying much of anything.
Back at school, Ali approaches Daniel in the cafeteria, at which point the two of them banter a little before having lunch.
It boggles my mind that Daniel claims to hear voices and Ali wants to eat with him anyway. In fact, the whole Daniel-Ali relationship is kind of a freak of nature and goes against all logic, but the two of them play off of each other well enough to move the story along despite a slight lack of chemistry.
Daniel, while waiting to meet his mom at her new job, goes to check out the Cobra Kai dojo and realizes that Johnny is a student there, quickly exiting upon being spotted. Daniel meets with his mom and gets lost in talk about Ali, not noticing that she's left mid-conversation.
All that's missing here is little floating cartoon hearts around Daniel's head.
On the way home, Daniel is run off the road on his bike by Johnny and the Cobra Kai. He walks home and arrives just as Lucille returns. She worries about his injuries. The two argue, all while banging on Miyagi's wall about needing to take karate. The commotion apparently stirs Miyagi, who listens from his doorway.
The next day, Daniel finds his newly repaired bike and realizes that Miyagi fixed it. He goes to his office, at which point Miyagi teaches him how to clip bonsai trees until Lucille shows up to make him go home.
This is the first time the viewer is really shown Miyagi's soft side and this scene marks a turning point in his and Daniel's relationship. Miyagi, knowing more about Daniel's situation than he lets on, can tell Daniel needs a friend and/or father figure, and actively sets out to fill that role.
From here, Daniel avoids Ali for a while and forms a bond with Miyagi, who encourages Daniel to go to a Halloween party by dressing him in a shower curtain he has hanging on his wall. Daniel and Ali dance for a bit in the shower costume until a guy dressed as a chicken busts an egg over Daniel's head. Daniel, while in the bathroom cleaning it off, realizes Johnny is in a stall rolling a joint. He then puts a hose over the stall and soaks Johnny in water.
Daniel may have asked for this one, but you can hardly blame him after all the trouble Johnny has caused him.
From there, the Cobra Kai, dressed in their legendary skeleton Halloween costumes, give chase to Daniel, chasing him all the way to his complex. The five of them then lay a beating on Daniel. As they are about to pummel Daniel into oblivion, Miyagi shows up and lays out all five of the Cobra Kai before dragging Daniel back to his office.
This was a pretty brutal smackdown and I have to wonder what would have happened had Miyagi not shown up. With Bobby being the only rational one wanting to stop the violence, they were way out of control here and could have possibly killed Daniel had it continued. By the way, all of this happened because Johnny got a little wet and couldn't light his joint.
The next day, Miyagi and Daniel go to the dojo and confront their martial arts instructor, John Kreese, at the Cobra Kai dojo. In one scene, it becomes obvious where those kids get their taste for blood. Kreese is a bigger jerk than Johnny and the others, citing “Mercy is for the weak”. Kreese is less than welcoming to the visiting Miyagi and Daniel. The exchange between Miyagi and Kreese is pretty tense, though Miyagi seems unfazed. They end up making a deal for the Cobra Kai to leave Daniel alone until the All Valley karate tournament, where Daniel and the members of the dojo will settle their differences.
Great scene. Martin Kove, who plays Kreese, really hams it up here, but is menacing as he sends out threats at both Daniel and Miyagi and provides the source of his students' bad attitudes.
There is a goof here, as Johnny has a massive black eye, supposedly from Miyagi, despite never getting punched in the face the night before. That always bugged me.
Miyagi then takes Daniel to his real home, where he has an assortment of old cars, as well as a massive fence surrounding a bunch of decks. This is where the iconic “wax on, wax off” phrase comes from as Miyagi assigns him the task of waxing his cars. In fact, over the next few days, Miyagi has him sand his decks, paint his fences, and eventually paint his house with a variety of different motions for each task.
Daniel, though, finally has enough of Miyagi's unexplained chores when he was promised to be taught karate and confronts him after he returns home. Miyagi then makes Daniel realize he's been teaching him blocking techniques with the chores as he unloads on him with a series of punches and kicks.
The scene was pulled off incredibly well and Macchio pulled off the dumbfounded expression with ease while Miyagi comes off looking like a wise master. “Wax on, wax off” has become an iconic phrase spoken by people, sometimes by people who have never even seen the movie.
In the romantic side of the story, Daniel has started dating Ali and after a fun first date, decide to go on a second one. Daniel arrives to pick up Ali at a country club for the date, but Johnny spots him and takes the opportunity to force a kiss on Ali in front of him, which makes Daniel, for some reason in all-white clothing, turn and run into a waiter, spilling food all over him. Daniel makes a run for it as Ali decks Johnny.
Apparently, everyone in the country club thinks this is the most hilarious thing to ever happen, as the place erupts in laughter, with some even pointing fingers at Daniel's misfortune. Apparently, this is the country club of immaturity. They must not have souls.
Daniel then goes to Mr. Miyagi's house to find him drunk, celebrating the anniversary of him and his wife, who died with their child during labor while Miyagi was serving in World War II. We are shown a different side of Miyagi, one which masks the pain of loss and tragedy. This is a scene that netted Pat Morita an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi.
Miyagi stopped being a wise master for a brief second and showed a lot of vulnerability in this scene. There is a deep sadness within this little man, sadness which he keeps hidden from the world. However, it becomes apparent to me that the relationship between Daniel and Miyagi mirrors the relationship wish they could have had with the ones they lost. Daniel with his father. Miyagi with his son. This scene gives Miyagi an interesting backstory and a sense of sympathy to the character that was, at times, otherwise missing. The studio had apparently wanted to cut this scene from the movie. I am so glad John Avildsen refused, because it was one of the most memorable and poignant scenes in the entire two hours. Too bad Morita didn't win that Oscar.
After a brief birthday celebration which sees Miyagi give Daniel a car, Daniel goes out to find Ali, who is perturbed with him for doubting her loyalty. They bicker a little before making up and sharing their first kiss before taking a ride in Daniel's birthday present.
Ali is probably right to be mad at his distrust of her. To be fair, she didn't really hold the grudge too long. Daniel and Ali kissing is awkward. Daniel, I think, sucked out her soul. Or at least tried.
The day of the tournament arrives. Miyagi lies about Daniel's belt status, steals a black belt from the referee, and pretends to not know English just to get into the tournament and have Ali with them on the floor.
Miyagi can do all of these things and still be a loveable guy. In fact, it endears him even more to me.
Cobra Kai member Dutch, played by Steve McQueen's son Chad, confronts Daniel in the locker room and tries to intimidate him, telling him he's dead meat, the '80s jargon for imminent death. Tommy cackles like a hyena in the background as usual as Daniel and Dutch almost get into a pre-tournament fight before being separated.
Chad McQueen as Dutch is genuinely intimidating in this scene, despite his platinum blonde dye job.
After Daniel wins his first match, we're treated to a tournament montage to the tune of “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito, in which we see Daniel, Bobby, Johnny, and Darryl Vidal as Darryl Vidal defeat their opponents in the tournament to get to the semi-finals of the tournament. Daniel mows through the Cobra Kai members, including cackling Tommy, Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds, and Dutch.
The song was originally to be used for Rocky III, but Sylvester Stallone dumped it for “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. Personally, I think he made the right choice, because the Esposito song fit this movie better and it worked out better for both movies.
In the semi-finals, Johnny easily defeats Vidal. However, Kreese tells Bobby to take Daniel out of commission, which he reluctantly does with a kick to the knee. Kreese arrogantly glares at Miyagi across the gym after Daniel goes down while all members of the Cobra Kai seem to be starting to doubt their teacher's methods.
Kreese just gets more and more despicable as the movie goes along. I actually felt bad for Bobby, who clearly didn't want to do it, but felt pressured by his teacher. His constant apologizing to Daniel after kicking out his knee was a nice touch to show that the students aren't your typical black hat-wearing bad guys.
After a talk with Miyagi, who “fixes” Daniel's leg with his Japanese hand tricks, Daniel makes his way back out to the tournament to fight Johnny, handily winning the first two points. Daniel is basically fighting on one leg, so Kreese orders Johnny to use the injury to his advantage.
You can tell by Zabka's expressions that Johnny’s reservations about Kreese's methods are deepening.
After an intense few exchanges, Johnny manages to hurt Daniel's leg again with a massive elbow to the knee. The fight seems over, but Daniel won't quit. He sets up for the final point and mimics Miyagi's crane stance from the beach. Bill Conti's score plays. Everyone is on edge. The referee calls for the fight. Johnny charges. Daniel leaps. He lands the kick just under Johnny's chin and wins the All Valley Tournament to an eruption of cheers. Ali charges onto the mat and gives Daniel a big bear hug. Everyone celebrates. Even Johnny congratulates Daniel. Miyagi watches on with the smile of a proud father as the closing credits roll.
The celebrators include “Fair Weather” Freddy Fernandez, who's back to being Daniel's friend now that he's suddenly a tournament winner, as well Ali's two snobby friends, Susan and Barbara, who have been bad-mouthing Daniel all movie long, one of them having referred to him as a “fungus” earlier in the movie. Oh, well. Daniel's a forgiving guy. He's earned his respect from his naysayers and they’re now holding him up in victory.
Watching this movie 30+ years after its release is just as fun as watching it back then. I loved the sets, the story, the actors, the direction, the music. All of it. There are cheesy moments, but that's part of the charm of any '80s film and shouldn't be held against it. This film has truly stood the test of time as an all-time classic and will forever be ingrained in my heart.