John G. Avildsen’s ‘The Karate Kid’ is Still the Infinite Crowd Pleaser

The Karate Kid 1984 poster

I wanted to write about “The Karate Kid” because it’s one of those movies which stays with me to where I know every piece of dialogue in it. I got to see it at the long-gone Melody Theater back in Thousand Oaks where I saw many classic 1980’s movies. I still vividly remember seeing it with my older brother and mom, and it was one of the few movies she would ever take us to see in a theater back then.

It has now been more than 30 years since the original it came out, so I guess it’s safe to say you all know the story by now. Ralph Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso, a high school teenager who moves with his mom from New Jersey to California. Having moved a lot as a kid, I can appreciate his frustration at having to adapt to new surroundings which are not prepared to welcome you with open arms. He runs afoul of a tough gang known as the Cobra Kais, and they are led by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). When he sees Daniel flirting with his girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue), Johnny lays down the law and kicks Daniel’s ass without any pity.

“The Karate Kid” had a strong impact on me. I got picked on a bit when I was a kid, and seeing him get messed around with filled me with a sadness and anger in how unfairly people get treated. You want to see him get his revenge against these guys even though it will likely bring the same vicious reaction from the Cobra Kai. When you see him get beat up again, I remember how angrier and angrier I got. But that’s when this movie gave us one of its best moments as Mr. Miyagi came to the rescue and kicked ass. Seeing Miyagi coming from behind in the shadows got my heart and excitement up, and it was a pleasure to see him give those bullies the beating they deserved.

Mr. Miyagi is one of the best characters to come out of the 1980’s, and he remains one of my favorites from that decade. He is basically an Okinawan Yoda, and he is brought to life by the late Pat Morita in a performance I was so hoping would snag him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he was nominated for. Although this character became a cliché for many other movies, the guy who does a low profile and lonely job but who is actually a war hero with the greatest of skills and training, Morita is brilliant in how he shows the seriousness of Miyagi as well as his joyous and humorous side as well. I did not realize Morita was a stand-up comedian before he did this movie. Then again, he was on “Happy Days” for a while.

After all these years, “The Karate Kid” still proves to be one of the few movies which really shows us the truth about karate. Karate is a spiritual thing more than anything else, and it was not about being trained to attack the way John Kreese (Martin Kove) taught others to do. It was about defense more than anything else. Moreover, it was about making yourself a better person on the inside as opposed to just the outside. I have heard from my closest friends about how studying karate helped raise their self-esteem to where they felt better about themselves. I even studied karate for a bit to experience it for myself, and it’s something I hope to continue in the near future.

The friendship between Daniel and Miyagi is one of the best I have ever seen portrayed onscreen. You are pretty much in Daniel’s shoes as he tries to figure out what the heck is going on when Miyagi has him washing his cars, painting his fence, sanding his floor and painting his house instead of teaching him karate. This leads to one of my favorite moments where Daniel realizes Miyagi has trained him in karate without him even knowing it. All these chores give him reflexes which have become ingrained in his consciousness to where they are practically automatic, and it is then that he realizes he has long since learned how to defend himself.

As Daniel LaRusso, Macchio gave us his quintessential performance from the 80’s. In the first two “Karate Kid” movies, he found a balance between being obnoxious and sincere, and he makes LaRusso a likable guy to where his transformation into a true karate student feels real and authentic.

Shue was so beautiful in this movie, and I liked how she embodied her character to where she practically spits at the clichés of the typical spoiled rich girl we have seen in far too many movies. Shue and Macchio might seem like a highly unlikely couple, but these two convince you they could be together. I always hated how Shue’s character got dumped in “The Karate Kid Part II.” I never really bought how that all came about, and I thought it was really shitty to not include her in the sequel. Shue was a wonderful and vivacious presence here, and she went on to give an unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas.”

Morita’s career went downhill after appearing in “The Karate Kid.” Seeing him doing local car center commercials was frustrating, but what he does here with Miyagi is amazing. It’s one of those performances where the actor becomes the character to where you never really see him acting, and that’s great film acting.

John G. Avildsen, best known for directing “Rocky,” helmed this movie with the same level of confidence as he did with the one he won a Best Director Oscar for, and he gives us a rousingly good time at the movies in the process. Since he has two great actors in the lead roles, he doesn’t waste time trying to manipulate our emotions because he makes everything in “The Karate Kid” feel very real. You’re not just watching this movie, you’re experiencing it along with the characters.

I also want to mention Kove’s performance as John Kreese as he proves to be the real villain of “The Karate Kid.” He trains his students viciously as if they are in a constant state of military basic training you would rather see end sooner than later. Kreese has programmed these kids to hurt and inflict punishment, any they look up to him for all the wrong reasons. But towards the end, they come to see Kreese is not all he is cracked up to be. There’s a great moment where he looks at Zabka as he is taking a break in the climatic fight with Daniel LaRusso and tells him to “sweep the leg.” Zabka’s character of Johnny Lawrence looks at Kreese like he is out of his mind, and it adds another to where it keeps the characters from becoming a pair of one-dimensional jerks we have seen too often.

“The Karate Kid” is a well written movie directed to near perfection and acted with supreme skill. After all these years, I never get sick of watching it, and I don’t think I ever will.

* * * * out of * * * *

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