The Karate Kid (1984) Review

There are many films that some consider ‘classics’ that I have never watched, not for any reasons of bias, I just haven’t managed to get around to them, and other things have been competing for my attention. This is what the recent lull in cinema releases is allowing me to correct, with no new releases, I can leisurely check out what people say I’ve been missing.

Of all the films missing from my watchlist, there is a lot from the 80s. I have never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for instance. I believe there was an overabundance of high-school comedies in that era, so much so that a lot of them fuse in my mind.

One such 80s staple that I had never sat down to watch in its entirety up until recently was, as the title of this review suggests, The Karate Kid, the archetypal sports movie of the era, with all the trappings and finery that brings with it, those being that of an underdog and his tormentor.

For those unfamiliar with the film’s plot, here is a summary: Daniel (Ralph Macchio) is uprooted from his life in New Jersey when his mother gets a new job at a computer company in LA. He soon raises the ire of local bully and top karate prospect, Johnny (William Zabka). After catching a beating one night at the hands of Johnny and his friends, Daniel is saved by Mr Miyagi, a handyman at his apartment block, who happens to be a karate master. He soon takes Daniel under his wing to teach him the ways of karate and self-defence.

The Karate Kid is, on the surface, an underdog sports tale. I’m sure you can think of other examples of this particular archetype, but it is hiding a surprising amount of depth below this surface of well-worn cliche.

It’s romantic in parts, it can also be terribly sad, and more importantly, it’s a great character study of people from totally different background, and how they are different, but also similar.

For instance, what we know about Mr Miyagi is eked out over the film’s run-time. We don’t know anything about this mysterious handyman from first impressions, he’s very much secondary in the stories set-up, pushed to the back of the audience’s mind until the time is right for him to come to the forefront, and even then, there’s more to learn about this quiet, unassuming, and yet still defiant Karate master.

His relationship with Daniel is also extremely well-played and organic. They don’t instantly gel, and there’s a culture clash there, but their mutual respect grows as their training commences, and a real fondness between them is evident. They develop an almost father-son-type connection, and it’s well-paced enough to not seem like a huge narrative jump.

I was very impressed from the outset by Ralph Macchio too, he exuded confidence and charisma that is rare in young performers, and this lends itself well to the chemistry he develops with other actors, namely Elisabeth Shue (who plays love interest Ali) and, more importantly, Pat Morita.

Which brings me nicely onto Mr Miyagi, who is, in my opinion, the films true star. A character whose development is so well crafted and finely paced as this is hard to come by, he goes from mysterious handyman to whom the characters pay no mind to a tragic father-figure who is central to the characters lives. He’s a character with a tremendous heart behind him and is ably brought to life by the exceptional Pat Morita.

With that being said, there is a part of me that thinks this character would be a lot different if written today. While his presentation as an Asian-American isn’t played for laughs (and there’s even a memorable scene where he terrifies a few racists) it is still somewhat uncomfortable to think of his characters dialogue and accent being written by a white writer, but this is somewhat unavoidable in this situation, it was a different time, after all.

In my Halloween review last week, I gave it the benefit of the doubt for using certain horror tropes because it was the movie that practically invented half of them, and I’m tempted to extend the same benefit to this film, it wasn’t the film that outright invented the tropes and cliches it uses, but it probably helped define them.

Among the plethora of 80s teen movie bullies, there isn’t much to distinguish Johnny from the rest, he’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not all that memorable either. It can be argued that he is shaped by his ruthless sensei in the Cobra Kai dojo, who we don’t see enough of for my liking, or see much of his motivation as to why he teaches his students as he does, his methods seem to fly in the face of everything karate stands for, but this isn’t explored.

I wasn’t expecting much of this film, my cynical mind tells me to be wary of films that are so universally beloved, as I’ve said before, and although this film can’t be said to occupy the same space as Citizen Kane it belongs to an era that people seem to romanticise and as such I’m always on my guard against overestimating the virtues of such films.

Despite this, however, I enjoyed The Karate Kid. It had great performances, likeable characters, and an enduring and iconic story that manages to never stray too far into cliche. It’s a great example of 80s film-making at its best along with its contemporaries Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club and it just goes to show that some films are well-remembered because of their quality, even if viewed through the red-tinted goggles of nostalgia.

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