The Karate Kid
Director: John G. Avildsen / Screenplay: Robert Mark Kamen / Editing: JGA + Walt Mulconery + Bud Smith / DP: James Crabe / Music: Bill Conti
Cast: Ralph Macchio / Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita / Elisabeth Shue / Martin Kove / Randee Heller / William Zabka
Things feel a little Rocky to me…
Having seen Stallone’s Rocky formula earn glory & considerable box-office for UA, you’d have thought other studios would be quick to follow it up those courthouse steps. In the event, it took seven years for screenwriter Robert Kamen to make the weight at Columbia…
Beginning in the early Eighties, Kamen’s first pair of produced scripts, took similar tacks in their depiction of contemporary American youth. First-up, was Taps (1981). Noted for being Tom Cruise’s second movie, it depicted students taking over a military college on learning of its imminent closure. Then came Split Image (1982), which charts the struggles of a family to retrieve their jock-of-a-son from the clutches of a youth cult. Both films dealt with teenagers facing sudden responsibilities, in situations largely ungoverned by adults, so it’s unsurprising that Kamen should then go on to write The Karate Kid; a movie which, despite outward appearances to the contrary, is closer than you might think to these earlier films, despite adhering to Stallone’s formula.
Unsurprising too, is the choice of director. John G. Avildsen directed the first Rocky (1976) and, in-tandem with Stallone, redefined the sports-movie template (a well he’d later return to in 1990, with Rocky V). Though often lampooned, Stallone’s genius lay in his ability to invest realism in characters – in their mental anguishes as much as physical training – with the result that the Rocky character in-particular, represented a plausible, blue-collar hero to millions of devoted fans. Kamen’s lumpy – though nuanced – script, must have felt like a homecoming to Avildsen: a chance to bottle lightning a second time.
Avildsen was always a ‘nuts & bolts’ director, with a long history of journeyman contributions to worthless filler (Rocky stands alone as a film worth more than the sum of its hackneyed parts). Yet where some see ‘lack of flair’, others see ‘safe pair of hands’: which is precisely what Kamen’s script would need, to reach its unsophisticated target audience; a demographic on whom directorial ‘flair’ would most likely be lost anyway.
The movie’s budget was a tight $8 million (stingy, even then) but poverty’s the mother of invention so, to cover the opening transition, Avildsen hired a crane from which to shoot the first scene: a knackered station-wagon leaves a Newark street, waved-off by neighbours. Next stop: California. This we learn from a VO, as our (still unseen) lead talks to his Mom. Why? Doing it this way, is cheaper than getting the camera onto Terra Firma and paying a crowd of extras… As I said, Avildsen was all about the nuts & bolts: why invest in a simple transition?
After a title sequence of shots showing this wreck limp across the USA, we finally arrive in sunny California and get our first sight of the lead: Ralph Macchio as Daniel. Macchio’s career to this point, had been the usual mix of TV and bit-parts in low-budget crud, so ‘Kid was to be his first headlining gig of-note (though calling him a ‘kid’ at 22, is pushing it). For better or worse, the role of Danny would come to define Macchio’s career, as he’d go on to star in the next two sequels and co-produce the 2018 TV-series Cobra-Kai. Outside of ‘Kid – and despite his talents as an actor – Macchio would struggle to land grittier roles; forever Danny in the eyes of winsome casting agents.
Randee Heller would play Danny’s mother Lucille, despite being just 14 years older than Macchio. Like her ‘son’, it would be a role she’d reprise through the sequels. Can’t say I’m convinced by her performance here; the role
seems IS an under-written device to relocate Danny – a minor – across country. Danny’s father is conspicuously absent throughout too, so any brittleness Lucille exhibits, is either Heller’s choice as an actor, a directorial instruction or somewhere in the middle. Either way, it’s regrettable.
Soon enough, Danny’s enduring a lame meet-cute with new neighbour Freddy, who’ll be his gateway to the local ‘scene’; just as well, as there isn’t a lot to be seen in the apartment complex, other than the rancid pool or watching the crazed maintenance guy attempt to catch flies with chopsticks…
This’ll be Miyagi-San, played by Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita. A much-loved US-Asian character actor with a career spanning decades, Morita started out as an unlikely stand-up comedian, before sidestepping into character roles for trash TV & movies. Prior to ‘Kid, his highest-profile gig had been an occasional stint as Arnold, a befuddled restaurant-owner in odd episodes of Happy Days, but Miyagi would be the career-highlight, earning Morita an Oscar nod for Best Support here; a role Morita would reprise in every one of the sequels, including the lamentable The Next Karate Kid (1994) starring a young Hilary Swank.
The on-screen chemistry between Danny & Miyagi is clear from the get-go. Forget Danny’s later brush with Valley Princess Ali: this is the beginning of the movie’s true love-story. The script quickly has him balk against the idea of even being in California and of missing Newark, at which point Danny’s path could go in one of two ways. That it doesn’t fall apart, is down to Miyagi. HE is Danny’s surrogate father, as much as Danny is the son he never got to see grow-up and everything the film has to tell us, stems from this unspoken bond.
With his ‘Rising Sun’ bandana and initial indifference to Danny’s reason for bothering him in the first place, Miyagi strikes a bluff, cranky tone here, in contrast to the sweetness & light seen elsewhere to this point. He’s serious, yes, but he also represents a challenge to young Daniel; someone who the young man instinctively knows he should make an effort to befriend…
A new day dawns and we’re at the beach. Under the cheesy weight of a Godawful song from Mike Love (who should’ve known better), we get Danny and his new gang hoofing around a soccer-ball, while exchanging furtive glances with a posse of girls sat conspicuously close-by: yet none of these bozos have the cojones to, you know, talk to any of ‘em…
Night falls and still Avildsen’s content to string this mush out, until the ball ‘accidentally-on-purpose’ gets punted their way and Ali (Elisabeth Shue) brings it back to Danny, as yet another disposable pop-ballad plays, dripping with Fairlight chords and a drum-machine set to ‘last dance at school disco’. In keeping with all the music used here, I expect the Producers paid bobbins for the performance rights…
This is bargain-basement film-making by Avildsen that does Shue no favours. I’ve liked her in a few things over the years, most notably as Sera in Mike Figgis’ powerful Leaving Las Vegas (1995) but she looks uncomfortable here. IMDB reports that Shue interrupted her studies at Harvard to play Ali and watching her, I wonder if she was beginning to regret the decision…
No sooner has Danny begun to explain the finer points of ‘keepy-uppy’, than the local biker gang arrives, right on-cue, to queer his pitch. The leader of the pack is a blonde mook called Johnny; someone who, until recently, counted Ali as ‘his girl’. Whoops… A ‘fight’ duly ensues and Danny-boy has sand kicked in his face. That’s okay, for like a young Charles Atlas, he now has cause to lift himself above Total Humiliation. First, though, a few more go-rounds at-school, suffering the wrath of Johnny’s gang, just to rub things in a little deeper and get Danny to the point of acceptance: which comes when he can’t conceal an impressive shiner from his Mom’s impenetrable gaze.
Talking of Mom, Kamen’s script really isn’t doing her any favours, for she’s now working in a Chinese restaurant! She drove to the far side of the country for this? Yes, I know there’s a throwaway line in there somewhere, about her original choice ‘not working out’, but a restaurant? Couldn’t she have just found a different job ‘in computers’? It speaks of something else that’s going on in Kamen’s script: as if, in order for Danny to ‘become a man’, his mother has to fade from the picture, both literally & metaphorically. After her scene in ‘The Orient Express’, she’s barely seen again, as though her contribution is spent…
It’s taken him long enough, but Avildsen conjures his first noteworthy business at the ‘Express. The scene here comes directly after Danny has turned-up at the ‘Cobra-Kai’ karate school in order to improve his self-defence skills. It’s run by Martin Kove’s Kreese: a borderline psychotic, ex-Vietnam caricature, who’s brainwashing his pupils into believing they should ‘win at all costs’. Naturally, as the pupils are revealed, Danny sees Johnny & Co among them: and they see him. Boy, do they see him…
The Orient Express sits on the opposite corner of the street, to the Dojo. Avildsen places the camera facing out of its biggest window, in which to frame the last substantive exchange between mother & son. Meanwhile, on the street outside, Cobra-Kai members (including Johnny) are spilling out from their session. In the foreground, Danny talks to Mom – his past. On the street beyond, taunting him, stands the obstacle to his future… A complex set-up for any director, Avildsen pulls this off with confidence; in a film lacking much of a directorial imprint thus far, it’s the first sign that he’s got something to say.
This scene proves a turning point in Danny’s story too, as further confrontation with the gang, leads to Miyagi repairing his damaged bicycle, unasked, in an act of selfless generosity. It’s an act compounded, when he gifts carefully manicured Bonsai trees to both mother AND son as a sign of his goodwill and acknowledgment of their joint struggle to ‘fit-in’: something he knew all-about. To Danny, it’s a way in to Miyagi’s philosophy, as when questioned over which of the branches he should prune-back, Miyagi answers: ‘If it comes from inside you, always the right one’. It was fortune-cookie zingers such as this, that cemented the film’s cult status…
It worked on Danny, at least. Coming from New Jersey, his character is unaccustomed to such opaque language and his intrigue moves to its natural conclusion: asking Miyagi to train him in Karate, after the old man proves he still has the chops… It’s a bargain consummated when Miyagi agrees with Kreese, to have all hassle of Danny cease, until a local karate tournament can sort things out ‘once and for all’. The homoerotic under (and over) tones here are almost tangible, as Kreese declares: ‘If you don’t turn up, it’ll be open season on him. And you.’ All chest-beating stuff that Rawson Thurber would draw on, when it came to write Dodgeball (2004) two decades later.
This, then, is Reagan’s America in-Action. Militaristic. Jingoistic. Unwittingly camp and puffed up with its own self-importance. Kreese’s mob even have a pupil in attendance with a broken arm: now THAT’S how to Make America Great Again!
Daniel’s initiation begins with the much-parodied car-washing scene (‘Wax on, wax off!’) after which, Miyagi will get him to sand-down his decking, paint the fence and more. Why? On the face of it, Daniel’s unwittingly learning rote Karate moves, but he’s also at the outset of the Hero’s Journey, in-receipt of wisdom from an initiate. This is the purpose his life’s been without, since leaving Newark and, probably, earlier.
As things come together, we see him master ‘the Crane’: a difficult pose learnt whilst balanced atop a groyne at the beach; not only will this prove vital when it counts, but I also think it’s an unconscious admission by Avildsen, that he loves using cranes. I counted no fewer than FOUR instances where vehicles are tracked in overhead shots with overdubbed VO, as shorthand replacements for ‘normal’ dramatic setups. It’s as though Avildsen was so pleased with the title sequence, he decided to roll it-out ad nauseam. Either that, or he had shares in the crane rental business…
The truest – and corniest – sequence in the picture comes when Miyagi, low in his cups, confesses the story of how he came to lose his wife & son, whilst fighting in Europe during WW2. It’s a bittersweet tale because, although Miyagi’s revealing his inner pain for the first time, it allows him to move on: each character heals the other. Miyagi’s emotional journey culminates at the point when he gifts one of those newly-waxed cars to Danny, in a ritualistic rite of passage long-denied by cruel fate.
Come the tournament, come the man, obviously. If you’ve seen one of these movies, you’ll know how this one ends-up: the formula’s tried and tested by this point and with Rocky already under his belt, Avildsen doesn’t disappoint. The film’s Third Act plays-out like a cart horse plodding its way back to the stable. For the record? Yes, he does, no she doesn’t and along the way, Miyagi gets to polish off his models and a bottle of liquor in one evening…
Beyond superficial gripes over its construction, the solid-teak performances in-support, or the Hollywood approach to mundanities such as ‘work’ (Miyagi never seems to DO anything) there’s a lack of any real threat to proceedings.
In Johnny’s gang, we’ve got a bunch of over-privileged white boys all with fancy-schmancy MTX bikes & Corvettes, who’s idea of rebellious aggravation is tearing-up a beach party. The likely reason they’re members of Cobra-kai in the first place, is that it’s somewhere to put them, while Dad’s at the golf course and Mom’s at aerobics! Taking the film at face-value, is to see 1984 California as a long-lost white-man’s ghetto; a fantasia, where Deely-Bobbers were worn without irony, by kids who’d one day be nominated for the Supreme Court or, even President…
For all that, the film retains a modicum of charm.
Its well-crafted middle act is given time to breathe here, with character revealed through (intentionally) monotonous action; these two unlikely friends have a credible bond that’s hard to deny. For that, we have to thank Avildsen’s awareness of Kamen’s subtleties as a writer, that such bon-mots made it through. For instance, the scene where a drunken Miyagi talks of his past was under pressure of being cut by a nervous studio, but Avildsen fought for its retention. My guess, is that he knew Miyagi could never claim credibility as Danny’s guru, without evidence of him having been tempered in the same emotional fire he was asking the pupil to suffer! Lesser writers – and directors – would’ve let such nuance go…
So why has the film endured? Aside from a few memorable images and snatches of quotable dialogue, I think it spoke to a generation of teens throughout the West, angst-ridden from thoughts of nuclear war, as much as their emergence into an uncertain world. The old expectations enjoyed by their parents, were falling away. It was exciting: MTV! Space Shuttle! Computers!
Miyagi’s calm wisdom reached these young people in ways their own parents and mentors never could. The character might’ve been providing reassurance – and directed guidance – to a fictional character, but this was analogous to the gaps in their own lives. They could see, perhaps for the first time, how applied effort could overcome deeper problems, just as the generation before them, had found such answers in Rocky.
While ‘Kid can be lambasted for its clichés and dated clunkiness, that’s to miss the point: how many other movies released in 1984, have transcended the baked-in cynicism of its makers?
Ghostbusters? Oh, yes.
Beverley Hills Cop? Uh-Huh.
Gremlins? Forgot that one, too.
Okay. How about this: The Karate Kid was the best version of Rocky to appear in 1984?
To make honey, young bee need young flower. Not old prune!
Andrew MarshmanNovember 8, 2018 at 20:02
Although it ‘cranes’ me to say it, another great review! It’s like I was there watching it with you….which I wasn’t…or was I?!
I could never watch it again since it would ruin my childhood memories. Glad to see it wasn’t a total disaster though.
By the way, have you seen the recent-ish remake with Will Smith’s son?
Mister GNovember 8, 2018 at 23:07
Not seen the Re-Make; somehow I think Jaden Smith’s doing very well without my support…
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