Man Movie May is a great time to explore old films and to prepare for summer. The 1984 classic “The Karate Kid” fits the bill as a treasure of the past, a man movie, and one of my top 20 all time faves.Since its release in June 33 years ago, there can be no denying the impact the story has had. From sequels to video games, the movie has been the creative genesis for martial arts and the standard coming of age hero vs bully story. The lexicon alone has brought us phrases like “wax on wax off” and the infamous “sweep the leg,” recited by fans and observers to this day.
The movie opens with high school senior Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother departing their home in Newark, New Jersey for new opportunity in sunny Southern California. One of the best aspects of the movie is the relationship and great rapport Daniel has with his single working class mother Lucille (Randee Heller). “Whats the matter, you don’t like my singing?” Lucille asks during the car ride when she begins to croon about the excitement of their new lives in Cali. “I don’t like the song, ma.” Daniel coldly replies, foreshadowing that trouble will soon be afoot.
One can certainly sympathize with both characters; Lucille has struggled financially in New Jersey and has taken a new and promising job that will provide for better life. On the other hand, Daniel is leaving behind his friends for the unknown. Nevertheless, the pair can always lean on one other, and have a unique take on the typical mother/son relationship (as seen performing their standard ritual of pushing their jalopy up the street to get the engine running.)
Daniel quickly draws the ire of a group of bullies at his new school, led by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), a black belt in karate who uses his skills to terrorize the weak. The pair first meet on the beach when Johnny and his gang cruise in on dirt bikes to disrupt Daniel’s flirtations advances on the former’s ex-girlfriend Ali (Elizabeth Shue). “I thought they broke up?” One of Johnny’s goons asks. “She did, he didn’t.” Another replies.
“The Karate Kid” is a story that deals with relationships on a plethora of levels. From the obvious Daniel and his mother, Daniel and Ali, upper and lower class, to the more deeply rooted bond formed when Daniel meets and befriends the local handyman Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) with each serving to fill a father/son void in the others life.
The writing and acting border on abhorrent but for some reason, the movie itself comes off as so great you can’t be tasked with noticing. Each character plays the role they are given and handles the out of place and often cheesy lines in a fluid and enjoyable way. When Daniel finds out that Johnny is Ali’s ex-boyfriend, he playfully starts conversing with a voice in his head advising him he must be crazy for continuing to talk to her. “It’s been over for weeks.” She advises. “One week? Five weeks? How long is weeks?” He asks.
Likewise, the school bullies are easy to hate as they gang up and harass Daniel far beyond what is needed. One of cinemas most classic fight scenes occurs at a Halloween party with the bullies in uniform skeleton costumes chasing Daniel through a darkened woods at night. Its a great moment and unforgettable to anyone that has watched it.
Seeing Mr. Miyagi and Daniel grow together is a thing of beauty. The wise Miyagi teaches Daniel valuable life lessons and Daniel carves a niche into the hardened exterior of the elder man.
We see Miyagi as a man of deep rooted character and honor as he takes on a fatherly role, defending Daniel from his aggressors and eventually taking on Johnny’s sadistic karate teacher (played perfectly by Martin Kove) who lives and teaches by the motto “mercy is for the weak.”
As could only be the case, a perfect early-80s soundtrack featuring hits by Bananarama and Joe Esposito plays throughout.
From the summery school days at the films onset to the climactic final fight scenes at the end, “The Karate Kid” is the type of movie everyone can enjoy.
Fun on all levels, and when its over, you’ll find yourself planning the next time you’re going to watch.
by – Matt Christopher