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 * * * *

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

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Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is one of those few movies I can describe as being truly exhilarating. It combined amazing martial arts sequences with a great story filled with compelling characters you were eager to follow along with from start to finish. To simply call it a martial arts movie was not fair as Lee gleefully subverted the genre to give us something completely mesmerizing, and it went on to become one of the most successful foreign films ever made.

So it’s a shame to see its eagerly awaited sequel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” doesn’t come even close to recapturing the spirit of the original. Michelle Yeoh returns as Yu Shu Lien and Yuen Woo-ping, who choreographed the action of the original, steps in as director, but those who loved the original are bound to feel like something is missing. While Woo-ping still delivers some amazing action scenes, he lacks Lee’s poetic touch.

“Sword of Destiny’s” greatest strength is definitely Yeoh who looks fantastic at 53 years old and can still kick ass and do her own stunts like nobody else’s business. She is the only cast member from the original to appear in this sequel, and she makes it almost worth a recommendation as her performance is as powerful and heartfelt as it was before.

The movie takes place 18 years after the events of the original and sees Yu Shu Lien coming out of solitude and heading back to Peking where her lover Li Mui Bai’s legendary sword, the Green Destiny, is being held. However, it doesn’t take long for her to encounter resistance as her carriage is attacked by several warriors. In the time she was away, various clans have wreaked havoc in the martial world in an effort to gain control of it, and many have their eye on stealing the Green Destiny which will allow them to rule it with unimpeachable power.

The Green Destiny was a major focal point of the original as Jen Lu (Zhang Ziyi) stole it in an attempt to engage in the warrior lifestyle she had become envious of. That sword is a focal point in the sequel as well to where I began to wonder if perhaps destroying it instead of keeping it safe and locked up would have made more sense. It certainly would have saved the martial world a lot of trouble. Then again, destroying that sword would also have meant destroying the past, so perhaps that’s why the characters are not eager to obliterate it even for their own safety.

We get a lot of characters thrown at us this time around like Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.) and Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), both of whom want the sword for their own purposes. There’s also Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) who faked his own death because he was in love with Yu Shu Lien and preferred a life of solitude as he knew Li Mu Bai was the one she loved more. And then we have Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), the West Lotus warlord who learns he must obtain the Green Destiny as it will allow him to rule the Martial World.

With all these characters and their various plot threads, it’s hard to get involved in their individual dramas and they are nowhere as compelling as the ones from the original. Many of the characters we see here feel like typical kind martial arts movies tend rely on. Snow Vase in particular feels like a generic version of Jen Lu, and the latter only appears a footnote in this sequel. They all fight like the best warriors, but the action feels ordinary and less than thrilling because we don’t care that much for them.

Another thing about “Sword of Destiny” is the actors speak in English instead of Mandarin, and this proves to be a big mistake. While there are many who can’t stand subtitles, seeing the dialogue spoken in English makes it seem all the more clichéd and uninspired. It’s like watching the original “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” dubbed in English; it’s still cool to watch, but everything sounds rather laughable in another language. In Mandarin, there was at least a beauty to the words they otherwise would not have had.

But perhaps “Sword of Destiny’s” biggest sin is its overall look. While the original only used CGI effects to remove the wires which helped the actors to fly all over the place, this movie looks like it bathed in them. As a result, everything looks artificial to where “Sword of Destiny” has the appearance of a video game, and not a very good one at that. In fact, the movie at times looks quite ugly because you can easily tell that what’s on the screen is not at all real. While Lee made collapsing buildings look exciting, Woo-ping is not able to recapture that magic as scenes of warriors crashing through floors of a tower looks inescapably fake and all done on a computer.

Coming out of this sequel, I wondered if “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” even needed one. The stories of both movies connect, but this one looks like it exists on a different planet. Time will only tell if there is to be a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 3,” but “Sword of Destiny” doesn’t make much of a case for one. Yeoh is great as always and Woo-ping does pull off some nice stunts, but this sequel feels uninspired and routine at best. Perhaps it’s time for the Green Destiny to be laid to rest once and for all. Just look at what Harry Potter did with the Elder Wand in the “Deathly Hallows;” problems were solved and the wizarding world was balanced out. It’s that simple.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Josh C. Waller about ‘Raze’

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Filmmaker Josh C. Waller has led a very interesting life so far. Born in 1974 to a cattle rancher/businessman and an actress mother, he spent his youth going to theatre rehearsals and watching movies on the weekends where his interest in filmmaking began to peak. After graduating high school, he joined the Marines and eventually worked for a private educational center which dealt with children afflicted with learning disabilities. This job ended up taking through different parts of the United States before he finally settled down in Los Angeles where his career as a filmmaker started to take off.

Waller’s film “Raze” stars Zoë Bell (“Death Proof”) as Sabrina, an abducted woman who wakes up to find herself imprisoned in a bunker where she and other imprisoned women are forced to fight one another to the death. On the surface it looks like another exploitation movie, but it soon becomes clear Waller had a lot more on his mind than that as he takes the characters and their story more seriously than you might expect.

I got to talk with Waller about “Raze” and what it was like to make the movie. Considering it was done on a very low budget, I was curious to see how he managed to pull off all he did with the little he had to work with. We also talked about what fighting styles were used in the movie, how his time in the Marines has influenced his work as a filmmaker, and he told a great story about how he managed to get all the sets for “Raze” built in just one day.

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Ben Kenber: From the poster “Raze” looks like a typical exploitation movie, but it ends up going a lot deeper than that. What inspired you to make this film?

Josh C. Waller: To be honest, I had been working for years on another film completely different that I directed called “McCanick” with David Morse and Cory Montieth. That was something that I had been developing for about nine years with my producing partner who also wrote it, Daniel Noah, and it’s a tough project. It’s a drama with some very heavy subject matter and it was a bit of a bitch to get made, but it finally got green lit. But about the same time my friend Kenny Gage, he wrote a little short film called “Raze” which was like maybe seven or eight pages, I can’t remember exactly. He just asked me if I would take it home and he was just like, “Hey man, take a look at this thing and I’d love to hear your thoughts.” It wasn’t like, hey take this home, I think you should produce it, I think you should direct it. He was just like, hey take a look at this, I’d love to hear what you think, and I did. So I took it home that night and checked it out, and I thought there was something there. It was essentially the first fight between Jamie (Rachel Nichols) and Sabrina (Zoë Bell), then that was the short. It was a tad more exploitative of what the film ended up eventually being. Women were wearing a bit more revealing clothes and I think it mentioned something about it being particularly busty, and I brought it back to Kenny the next day and I was like, “Dude, there’s something here. I don’t know if I’m down with all the exploitative stuff, but there’s something here.” It got my mind going, so Kenny and I just started like bouncing things back and forth immediately, and the way that he and I were working together was so organic. The ideas just kept flowing and flowing and flowing, and I think that I really was interested in being a part of it and directing it because it’s not the kind of film that I would normally gravitate to nor is it the type of film that I would normally direct. I didn’t really watch the women-in-prison exploitations films from the 70’s and 80’s stuff, not at all. In fact, I was never really a fan of any of the exploitation films like “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” It just wasn’t my thing, the Roger Corman films. So I was like okay, if I am going to do a film that kind of fits within that world, I’m going to have to take it as seriously as I would take “McCanick” or any other film, you know? I think that that was in my mind, then and still now, the only way we could possibly deal with something like this. And also it was incredibly exciting for Kenny and I. Kenny, before he got in the industry, was an undefeated professional boxer, and it was important for him and I and Zoë to try to show the most visceral, intense female fights that we had ever seen on the screen. And because every time you see women in a movie in some kind of fight, it seems to be all over the place in the trades and everything like that. That fight scene from “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (between Paula Patton and Léa Seydoux), people were like, “There’s the biggest catfight of all time in it!” And I saw it and I was like, “They what?! Man, you guys could have gone like so much further on this!” So we were like let’s see how far we can push this, and trust me when I say that we have so much more footage that we could’ve put in the movie.

BK: Regarding the fight scenes, Zoë said there were different fighting styles used in the movie. Were you looking to employ any particular fighting style or were you just open to whatever worked?

JCW: No, in fact we wanted to avoid looking for fighting styles. But what was interesting to me was to try to use the action… It was a little bit of like an experiment to see how much we could use the action to propel the narrative forward as opposed to dialogue or like emotional sequences. That said, the fight sequences themselves are pretty damn emotional, so being able to use those fights to like propel the movie forward emotionally and the narrative, that was something that was super interesting. So it wasn’t so much about looking for specific fighting styles in terms of like, this girl does Muay Thai and then this girl does Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That didn’t really work. We just needed to make sure that their fighting styles, however their fighting styles were, were a physical representation of who they were as women and what they were going through because they’re supposed to be normal women plucked from society. So occasionally you’ll have like one of the characters that knows how to fight. In the case of Sabrina, she has a military background and is well versed in hand to hand combat, so that’s the way that she fights. She fights very efficiently and she fights like a soldier. But if you start putting different martial arts styles on it… We didn’t want it to be like the female edition of “Best of the Best” or something like that like “Bloodsport” or “Mortal Kombat.”

BK: I read that you served in the Marines for a time, and thank you for your service by the way.

JCW: You’re welcome.

BK: Did any of what you learned in the Marines influence the making of this movie for you?

JCW: The guards down below I definitely fashioned after Marines. They’re most obvious trait are their Marine haircuts. All of those haircuts I maintained. I was the one who was like, “No, no, no,” and then I’d run outside with clippers and be like, “Sit down, sit down while I cut your hair!” Their uniforms, making sure their boots were polished, making sure that their haircuts were clean and not like all nappy and plain looking. Bruce Thomas who plays Kurtz, he and I had a lot of talks about his performance and how he could mimic the sound and the essence of a Marine drill instructor, so we would talk about a lot of stuff like that. I would put all the guards through a little closed quarter drill or boot camp over in a parking lot outside the set. In terms of fighting styles, not really; the military thing didn’t inform too much of that stuff. I can definitely say that, in terms of being a filmmaker, I would not be the filmmaker that I am today without it. Whether people think that’s good or bad, I would not be who I am as a man without the Marines. Almost every day, so many aspects of my life are informed because of my choice to join the corp.

BK: Absolutely. I bring that up because I have a family friend who was in the marines, and it has definitely influenced him in how he lives life today, and I think in a very good way.

JCW: It becomes one of those things because the Marine Corps is so daunting, and you end up graduating from boot camp and when you earn that title, you are filled with such an immense sense of price and accomplishment for earning that title. You feel a little bit like, “Well if I can do this, I can do anything.” So when you look at other tasks throughout your life, you’re kind of like, “This is lame. This is easy!”

BK: Zoë said that the total budget on “Raze” was less than a million dollars, but it looks like it cost more than that. The thing I continually find fascinating about low budget filmmaking is how it forces you to be more creative as a result. Would you say that was the case on this film?

JCW: Absolutely. I mean a perfect example of like how you’re forced to be creative is that like… Zoë was right, the budget was below a million, and if we had 19 action sequences, the shooting ratio on action to straight drama is like 10 to 1. It’s so drastically different. So to say that the shoot was an ambitious shoot is like stating something stupidly obvious. I think in terms of getting creative, there was one time where I was trying to figure out how the hell we were going to be able to afford… Because all of our sets were built, we shot everything on a soundstage, everything. We didn’t know how we were going to be able to pull that off with the money that we had, and I went home one night and I was sitting with my younger brother, and the flipside is as a youth I was the product of a divorce. On the father’s side, I was raised by a Marine cowboy father, and on the other side my mom and stepdad were into theater and dance and jazz and all of that stuff. I would go with my mom to movies on the weekend and I would watch movies like “Arthur” and “Zorro the Gay Blade” and stuff like that. I went home and I was hanging out with my little brother, and we were watching “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and there’s a big musical number in the movie where all the brothers get together and with people in the neighborhood, and like an Amish community they have a big barn raising, dance and a big party, and I was like, “Holy shit man! That’s it! We’ll basically do a barn raising for all of our sets!” So I told the guys, “Look, all we have to do is throw a party, we’ll invite our friends, we’ll make teams of four people each and our production designer will be our foreman. And we’ll give a cash prize to whoever finishes their part of the build the fastest.” We had a DJ, we had food and beer and all that kind of stuff, and we built all of the flats for all of the sets in three hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We all drank beer and barbecued. We never would have been able to do it (the regular way). It would have cost us 2 to 3 weeks of labor costs, so that was one of the creative ways. It was fun.

BK: That’s amazing! IFC Midnight is promoting this movie. How does it feel to have them promoting it, and what can you tell us about IFC Midnight?

JCW: IFC has been amazing. The person that I’ve been particularly involved with at IFC Midnight has been Mike Winton, and I have to say that it’s been an absolute pleasure. IFC Midnight also put up “Maniac” which my producing partner Elijah Wood was in, and they function within the same world that I function and we function in. Working with them is like working with our friends. It’s been a pleasure. I love it and I can’t wait to work with them again.

I thank Josh C. Waller for taking the time to talk with me, and I again want to thank him for his service to our country.