Tuesday 12 August 2008

'80s RETRO: The Karate Kid (1984)

Tuesday 12 August 2008
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen

Cast: Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso), Pat Morita (Mr. Kesuke Miyagi), Elisabeth Shue (Ali Mills), Martin Kove (John Kreese), Randee Heller (Lucille LaRusso), William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence), Ron Thomas (Bobby), Rob Garrison (Tommy), Chad McQueen (Dutch), Tony O'Dell (Jimmy), Israel Jurabe (Freddy Fernandez), Larry B. Scott (Jerry), William Basett (Mr. Mills) & Pat E. Johnson (Referee)

A 1984 movie that inspired a short-lived obsession with martial arts in me (before Back To The Future pushed me onto skateboarding), The Karate Kid is essentially teen-Rocky. The clues are obvious: it comes from the director (John G. Avildsen) of that '76 boxing classic, features another Italian-American underdog hero, and deals with the same clichés and formulas of every sports movie...

Ralph Macchio plays gangly teen Daniel LaRusso, a new arrival in California having moved from New Jersey with his single mother Lucille (Randee Heller). Immediately standing out from the crowd with his olive skin (and skills at "girly" soccer?), Daniel also draws the attention of blonde baddie Johnny (William Zabka), whose ex-girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue) has taken a shine to this scrawny new kid on the block.

As a film designed to tackle bullying and prejudice, it's not long before Daniel is getting beat-up by Johnny and his gang of karate-loving goons. After deciding to just avoid confrontation (hiding black-eyes behind sunglasses), Daniel meets handyman Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) and learns the Japanese craft of bonsai, before discovering this unassuming old man is a skilled martial artist who can teach him self-defence. A well-timed "All Valley Karate Tournament" becomes the setting for a climactic grudge match between Daniel and Johnny, organized by Miyagi and Johnny's evil "Cobra Kai" sensei Kreese (Martin Kove).

It's easy to snigger at The Karate Kid, or shrug it off as a silly movie from the mid-80s that only seeped into pop-culture because of its Yoda-like Mr. Miyagi and his "wax on, wax off" catchphrase. But reappraisal finds it to be a finely-tuned and emotionally-rewarding story, very well told. While derivative and formulaic, it embraces everything about its genre and (thanks in no small part to great performances) emerges as a triumphant success of real merit.

The anti-bullying message is clear and concise, sitting at the forefront of the script, but there are also issues of absent fathers (Miyagi essentially becomes Daniel's surrogate dad) and slithers of racism. It's no coincidence that evil sensei Kreese is a Vietnam veteran who views Okinawa-born Miyagi as just another "gook" spoiling for a fight. There's even a bravura scene where Miyagi's tragic family history (concerning the death of his wife and child during WWII) is revealed to Daniel, after he discovers his drunken sensei at home one night. As a child, I overlooked the scene entirely. As an adult, it's extremely tender and an emotional highlight.

Ralph Macchio (a 23-year-old playing 15), never escaped "Daniel-san" after this, but there are worse things to be stigmatized by in a movie career. He gives a strong performance throughout, believable through every wave of the script: from nice-guy doormat, through determined protégé, to victorious champ. Also successful is Daniel's blossoming relationship with girlfriend Ali, thanks to Macchio's understated chemistry with cuddly Shue (in her '80s pin-up days), which shows his character grows and matures emotionally, too.

The sadly departed Pat Morita found his career-defining role late in life, aged 52 at the time of Karate Kid's release. What could easily have become a stereotyped and frivolous role was anything but in Morita's hands. The former Happy Days supporting player gives a rounded and textured performance as the inconspicuous karate expert. The aforementioned depths revealed in his character's back-story work well and Morita's connection with Macchio is what makes Karate Kid really kick.

The supporting cast are solid fun, if two-dimensional compared to Daniel and Miyagi. Shue's pleasant, engaging and plausible as Daniel's "dream girl", avoiding the classic SoCal beach babe look. Zabka is all firecracker energy, blonde locks, intense stares and bitterness. Kove is the quietly scowling Sith Lord to Morita's Jedi Master; folded arms and boo-hiss orders ("sweep the leg"). Heller is always disregarded as Daniel's mother, but hers is a nice performance with the right levels of comedy embarrassment, maternal concern and excitement over her son's newfound direction in life.

The Karate Kid is crammed with classic moments, unforgettable quotes and clever situations ingrained in the minds of many: from Johnny's gang wearing skeleton costumes, to catching flies using chopsticks, and the iconic (if inexplicably "unstoppable") Crane Kick. And who can forget the moment Daniel realizes his weeks of painstakingly painting fences and waxing cars have given him the muscle memory to perform fundamental karate moves?

It's a great film with a lot of heart that tackles teenage issues, featuring career-best performances from Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio. The drama and tension all build to that excellent K.O climax, where Daniel and the audience are rewarded by an understated, fatherly nod from Mr. Miyagi. Wonderful.

Columbia Pictures
127 minutes