Tuesday, September 29, 2009

80s Revisited: The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid (1984)
Directed by John G. Avildsen; written by Robert Mark Kamen; produced by Jerry Weintraub

I've always maintained that this is a great film, and seeing it for the first time in over a decade, I have to contend that this is still a great film. Seeing it as an adult, maybe I like it for different reasons than I did when I was a kid, but it's still as involving and enjoyable at 33 as it was when I was 8.

What I loved as a kid--especially a kid who would go on to be bullied by his classmates--was the idea of a teenager who rose to the challenge the bullies laid out for him, and did it in an honorable way. Ralph Macchio, as Daniel Larusso, is a kid who moves from New Jersey to California with his mom. He misses his old life, neighborhood, and friends, and is instantly picked on not just because he's new, but also (I think) because he's small and seems like easy pickings. He's poor and sensitive about it, especially when he falls for Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue), the rich ex-girlfriend of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka as one of the greatest screen bullies of the decade), a karate expert at the Cobra Kai dojo headed by John Kreese, played by Martin Kove with great relish.

Of course, Daniel is taken under the wing of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the kindly maintenance man of his apartment complex, who teaches him karate in very memorably unconventional ways. And instead of getting into some big throwdown--and I always liked this about the movie--Daniel and Mr. Miyagi challenge the members of Cobra Kai to a face off at an upcoming karate tournament. So the message of the movie is not learn to fight back so you can be tough, but become an honorable person. Daniel doesn't learn karate so he can fight or even fight back (I always loved the moment in the movie when he says he's learning karate "so I don't have to fight"), even though that's his original intent. By learning karate, he learns focus, he learns willpower, he even learns patience (eventually), and he learns the value of calm and sportsmanship. And I think those are great things for a kid to see.

But beyond that, as I said above, it's just a very entertaining movie. John G. Avildsen directed Rocky, and The Karate Kid follows an incredibly similar structure, right down to the montages and the final victory (and the movie ending when it's actually over, which is a rare thing these days). It's also very easy to like and get caught up in; it's great storytelling. The characters have depth and nuance, the conflicts are clearly defined and given weight, but the film itself is also comfortable being very obviously a movie. It's not concerned with realism, but conjures an emotional realism and never comments on itself. I think movies like this are taken for granted simply because they're so very effective at being what they are.

I also like, now that I'm older, how much this movie reminds me of the sort of family classic that Disney used to make. It's more realistic about what kids in the eighties were really like than a Disney movie would have been--the kids swear, they use drugs, and when Daniel is bullied it's not in a silly movie way: the Cobra Kai kids really beat the hell out of him, leaving him bruised and bloodied. It's things like this that make the movie just realistic enough for the audience to care about Daniel, his struggles, his relationship with Ali, and his friendship with Mr. Miyagi. Why the hell couldn't Disney have made something this powerful and memorable?

(Incidentally, the movie is produced by Jerry Weintraub, who had previously produced Oh, God!, a movie I didn't care for but which is another indicator of the kind of movies Disney should have been making, but very stubbornly didn't.)

The other performers are all pitch perfect in their roles. I don't think I need to say anything about Pat Morita that hasn't already been said. It's a great performance of an iconic character, and it's instantly memorable. Elisabeth Shue is darling; she's the kind of girl I always thought would be a perfect girlfriend back when I was a kid. She's supportive and sweet, assertive and caring. Her performance especially reminded me of some of the girls I like to watch on the Disney Channel now; I could see Selena Gomez playing the same role much the same way. William Zabka is the penultimate bully, but even he gets some nuance, especially at the very end.

I'm really happy to have seen this movie again. It's a classic movie from an underrated decade of filmmaking.


wiec? said...

pound for pound one of the greatest kids movies ever made. it's a cool time capsule, a perfect look at how a kid movie that has morals and life lessons in it can be made well, not be preachy and not take the audience's intelligence for granted. and even though it's from the early 80's and the story is a timeless one.

what i liked about it you covered thoroughly enough and there really isn't anything to not like about it. you really did a good job "sweeping the leg' on this one.

Matt said...

this is a really good movie, i love the male tenderness displayed.

"C" said...

I just met the "bad guy" Martin Kove on Sunday (pics up on my blog, newest post). IMO I love parts 1 & 3 but for some reason could never watch 2 over and over like 1 & 3. I might one day get bored enough to try and watch part 4. But there are some very valuble lessons (in all seriousness) to be learn from Mr. Miyagi in these films.

Fletch said...

As wiec? alludes to, it would be really easy to fall prey to not taking the flick seriously. I and many, many others would likely go the easy route and fall back on the unintentional comedy and pop culture-dominating memorable lines when discussing this flick (and it's spiritual brother, Teen Wolf - another 80s teen flick where the teens, you know, act like real teens).

But you took it seriously, and reminded me of how good it is for being what it is. Been too long since I've watched it with those lenses on (and been too long, in general).

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

One of my all time favorites. All the great movie 'beats' are there and I don't mean the hits the punks put on Daniel. The relationship is wonderful between him and Mr Miagi and who didn't hold their breath during that lask scene. Great appealing hero, hissable villians and one of THE most satifying endings ever...I can see it now..."FINISH HIM!" and then "WINNER!!!!!!!" If you don't smile at the end of that movie you have no heart. I remember seeing it in the theatre and EVERYONE rose to their feet and cheered. Never have seen that before or since.