The Karate Kid (1984)

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26 years before the amazing film that starred Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan as a bullied student and maintenance man/martial arts teacher, this classic film that focused on the friendship between bullied student and maintenance man/martial arts teacher is one that will never wear out its welcome.

Daniel Larusso and his mother Lucille have moved from Newark to California after Lucille gets a job offer. Daniel is not happy with the change of his surroundings. He meets the apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi, who is asked to fix their faucet. A few days later, Daniel goes to a local party and meets Ali, a young rich girl from the Valley. However, he also finds himself an enemy in Ali’s ex-boyfriend Johnny, a karate expert who beats Daniel up.

When Daniel goes to school, he is harassed by Johnny and his buddies, known as the Cobra Kai, named after their dojo. When Daniel takes a look at the class, he learns Johnny is the star student and has no intentions of taking karate there. After two more incidents with the Cobra Kai boys, Daniel finds help in the form of Miyagi, who reveals himself to be a karate expert. He makes a deal with Cobra Kai sensei Kreese where the bullies will leave Daniel alone until the upcoming martial arts tournament.

Miyagi agrees to train Daniel in karate. However, his methods are not exactly the most orthodox of techniques. Using simple house chores from waxing cars to painting fences, Daniel soon learns that the chores transform into karate techniques. As Daniel and Miyagi continue their training, they form a bond and ultimately become more than teacher-student, but best friends as well. As Daniel and Miyagi face personal obstacles, they soon find themselves mentally ready for the tournament.

This is truly one of the defining American martial arts films of the 1980’s. Aside from Cannon Films’ non-stop Ninja films, The Karate Kid proved its worth of being more than just another martial arts film. One can think of The Karate Kid as the Rocky of martial arts films. Where Rocky, a film director John G. Avildsen directed, focused not only on the sport of boxing, with help from writer/actor Sylvester Stallone, made it a truly exciting drama that focused on the dream of the titular character. Avildsen and writer Robert Mark Kamen do the same exact thing here, focusing on the ultimate friendship between teacher and student.

Playing the titular “Karate Kid” is Ralph Macchio, a child actor whose credits included Up the Academy and The Outsiders. He does well in the role of Daniel, a new kid in California who is truly a “fish out of water”. Macchio plays Daniel as someone who has mixed feelings about his surroundings and ultimately through the help of the people who cares for him, feels more comfortable about his new life in California.

In the role of maintenance man and karate expert Miyagi is the late Pat Morita, who before this film was best known for his role of hangout owner Arnold on the television series Happy Days. Morita gives it his all as Miyagi, a simple man who is from Okinawa and learned karate there. He would use simple things such as waxing cars to translate into blocking punches in karate. It would be later in the film where Daniel learns more offensive techniques from punching to kicking.

Of course, with these types of films, there has to be a love interest. Elisabeth Shue does well as Ali, a young girl raised by rich parents. She doesn’t care about Daniel’s financial status. She likes him for the simple reason that he seems likable and funny. However, she does have a dislike for her ex-boyfriend, resident bully Johnny, played well by William Zabka. Johnny is like Ali, a guy from a rich background, yet he acts more like a complete bully whose sensei influences him as a fighter with no mercy.

The film has some interesting fight scenes, notably the tournament sequences. In charge of the film’s action is former Chuck Norris protégé Pat E. Johnson. Prior to filming, Johnson trained the film’s cast in martial arts, which explains why former high school wrestler Zabka looks impressive. Fellow Cobra Kai actors Ron Thomas and Chad McQueen already had backgrounds in martial arts prior to the film yet they still showcased their nice skills. While Thomas would go on to become an instructor, McQueen unleashed his martial arts skills again six years later in the straight-to-video film Martial Law opposite Cynthia Rothrock. The “crane kick” trademark of the film is actually a technique made up just for this film and has been referenced in numerous films since.

The Karate Kid is truly a timeless classic. The chemistry between Ralph Macchio’s Daniel and Pat Morita’s Miyagi is truly one of greatest student-teacher bonds in martial arts film history, even as good as Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen’s bonds in the films Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. The film spawned three sequels in 1986, 1989, and 1994, where the final film featured Miyagi training a young woman as well as a remake in 2010.

A Columbia Pictures production. Director: John G. Avildsen. Producer: Jerry Weintraub. Writer: Robert Mark Kamen. Cinematography: James Crabe. Editing: John G. Avildsen, Walt Mulconery, and Bud S. Smith.

Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Randee Heller, William Zabka, Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison, Chad McQueen, Martin Kove, Tony O’Dell, Israel Juarbe, William Bassett.


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