Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Karate Kid

Grade : A Year : 1984 Director : John G. Avildsen Running Time : 2hr 6min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

My roommate, and fellow Yahoo With a Microphone, Ronnie happened to get up as I was watching 1984’s “The Karate Kid” for this review, and he made the observation that Daniel Larusso, Ralph Macchio’s character, is kind of terrible to Ali, Elisabeth Shue’s character, in this movie. As the movie progresses, it’s hard not to see what he was talking about, and more than that, he’s kind of a dick, in general. But it’s interesting that Ali has as much patience for Daniel, and interest in him, as she does as the film goes along, because, honestly, Daniel doesn’t deserve her. He doesn’t communicate with her and, when he misunderstands a situation at the country club he meets her at for a date, he treats her like shit while trying to communicate with her. For the plot mechanics of Robert Michael Kamen’s screenplay, however, she needs to be by his side for the final fight, because, in this movie, at least, Ali is Adrian to Daniel’s Rocky, but it makes sense things are over between them by the beginning of “Karate Kid Part II” a few years later.

(Before I continue, I have to say that Elisabeth Shue, in this movie, was probably my first movie crush, and that, 34 years later, the character still works beyond her attractiveness. This is the type of “love interest” who is her own character, and I like that she seems to have some brains and personality beyond what that cliche usually means. I’d like to think that appealed to younger me about her, as well; it certainly did a few years later in “Adventures in Babysitting.”)

All of that being said, this film still had me wrapped around its finger by the end, because dammit, John G. Avildsen (who is reworking the formula of his Oscar-winning “Rocky” here) understands the underdog sports genre exceptionally well, and, as I’ve said before, it’s a genre which I have a particular weakness for, as a critic and fan. That weakness started with this movie when I was a kid, and it continues to this day. I was kind of nervous revisiting this, because I included it last year as one of the 40 movies that helped shape my first 40 years, and it’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, so I wasn’t sure if it would hold up to that lofty play in my film life, but it does, because the personal connection I still have with this film remains strong.

Thinking about who I was when this movie (and its underrated first sequel) took hold, I wasn’t one of the more popular kids at my elementary school, but I wasn’t quite the outcast Daniel becomes when he and his mother move from Newark to California at the beginning of this film. But that part would resonate with me strongly a few years later when my family moved from Ohio to Georgia for the same reasons Daniel’s mother moves here, work, and displaces Daniel from his friends. I managed to make some friends thanks to my parents getting me involved in Boy Scouts, but at school, I was still low on the popularity totem pole, and I was bullied for it, although I didn’t have it nearly as bad as Daniel does here with Johnny and the other Cobra Kai when he has eyes of Ali at a beach party he gets invited to at the outset when he meets someone at his mother and he’s new apartment complex. (It’s breathtaking how quickly Daniel goes from “cool new kid” to outcast loner in his “new friend’s” eyes, even by this genre’s standards.) I think a big part of what makes Daniel work as a character, in spite of the attitude with which he approaches Ali, is the way Kamen, Avildsen and Macchio make the bullying scenario we see Daniel very dire for him, and, more importantly, the way they develop the relationship Daniel has with his complex’s handyman, Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, and have built it up by the point when Miyagi intervenes, buying Daniel some time with the Cobra Kai and their sensai, John Kreese (Martin Kove), so that he can train. Miyagi was a breakthrough role for Morita, and he (deservedly) was Oscar-nominated for the way he plays Miyagi. One of the things the movie does so well is make the movie as much about Miyagi as it is about Daniel, and theirs is, probably, my favorite mentor/trainee dynamic in any movie. This is where the film kind of diverges with the “Rocky” formula, and, probably because of the nature of the training (and the character of Miyagi) adds a spiritual component to their training, as well, that reminds me of Yoda training Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back.” As I’ve grown older, and had my own spiritual transformation I had to go through, Miyagi’s teachings about balance have really resonated with me, and helped make this film a beloved favorite of mine. (And Bill Conti’s score for their training is wonderful, although the score, in general, is an all-timer on par with his “Rocky” work.)

Here’s how I know “The Karate Kid” still works for me, and not just because of nostalgic feelings I might have. In the semifinal fight where Daniel is suckerpunched (kicked, actually) by one of the Cobra Kai to try and disqualify him, I immediately teared up. I know what happens, that Miyagi fixes him and he ends up winning, but in that moment, I was right with Daniel in feeling like all the work he had put in was for nothing, that they still got the best of him. Miyagi has a point when they are alone in the training room, but Daniel is right that how far he got, only to have the rug swept under him through cheating, would never be enough for him to find balance. He needed to be in that ring, at the end, and stand toe-to-toe with Johnny, win or lose. You know what happens at the end, as well as I do, and I’ll always cheer because it was more than just winning the match for Daniel, who finally got everything Miyagi had been trying to teach him, and he made it count. This film doesn’t age well entirely, but it doesn’t age at all with how it makes me feel.

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