‘Creed II’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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When “Rocky Balboa” was released in 2006, many wondered how a sixth “Rocky” film would perform when the last one prior to that was released in 1990.  Sylvester Stallone himself was not all too pleased with how “Rocky V” ended, and he wanted to do right by Rocky Balboa.  Needless to say, he did so as he was the writer and the director behind it.  Because of the good will he had built up from the sixth installment, fans were excited for “Creed,” which was released in 2015 and directed by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler was coming off the success of “Fruitvale Station,” and it was set to star Michael B. Jordan, also from the aforementioned film. It was in good hands, as they were wise to hand the franchise over to Jordan while still keeping Stallone around.  The film was organic, funny, entertaining, and powerful at the same time. When it was time for “Creed II,” they handed it over to Steven Caple Jr.  I’m happy to report he did a terrific job with “Creed II,” and the writers also had a fresh idea to bring to the table: bring back Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and introduce his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).  After all, everyone remembers how things ended up in “Rocky IV” between Drago and Apollo Creed.

When the film gets started, everything seems to be going well for Adonis Creed.  He wins the World Heavyweight Championship, proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he also has a baby on the way.  His world, however, gets turned upside down when Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, challenges him.  This is the same Ivan Drago who killed his father back in 1985.  Rocky tries to tell him to stay away from the fight and that he is fighting for the wrong reasons.

Adonis’ pride, however gets in the way and he ends up taking on the fight, regardless, and without Rocky his corner.  His life only becomes more complicated and painful from that point forward.  Now, he needs to figure out what to do in order to get his career, his health, and his life back on track.  It won’t be easy for Adonis, but everything in his life has always been a fight.  Rocky just wants him to figure out what he’s fighting for and also realize he has other people counting on him as well.

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There is a lot to like about “Creed II.”  I’m not going to say if it is better or worse than 2015’s “Creed.”  It is just as good.  It is just different, and it is dealing with different themes and different messages.   Jordan gives a knockout (I know, easy pun) performance here.  All of his emotions are in his face, and it’s a performance with a lot of nuance and complexity attached to it.  As an audience member, you understand what he’s doing and why, even if you don’t always agree with him.

His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca also brings a big heart to the film.  These two have tremendous chemistry together and it is a joy to watch them on screen.  Stallone has said he is walking away from the franchise after this movie, and it seems like the right move.  Make no mistake about it, Stallone’s the backbone of this franchise and he makes the most of every scene he’s in even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.  He does a lot with a little.  I imagine this was intentionally done, as he was one of the writers on the project.

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The film deals with the complexity of a father/son relationship and how men are trying to carve out their own image and legacy.  There is a lot of meat in this script, as Adonis is becoming a father himself. Phylicia Rashad is back here once again, and she brings such fierce intensity and knowledge to her role as Mary Anne Creed.  There is not a bad performance in the film.  It’s heartwarming, intense, and very, very entertaining.

With that said, it is not a perfect film.  I would argue it is about twenty minutes too long.  As with most boxing movies, the boxing itself and the training montages are not all that interesting compared to the relationships in the film. What transpires throughout the film will not surprise anyone, but when it’s done with such warmth and commitment from the actors, it helps elevate the material into something really, really special.  While I don’t think we need a “Creed III,” I can’t say I would necessarily mind one if the right people are involved in the project.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Creed II” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack, which also includes a digital copy, from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. The film is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.  It has a running time of 130 minutes. It is presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The audio formats are Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, DTS MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1, and Español 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Fathers and Sons (07:16): This special feature talks about how “Creed II” touches on the father/son dynamic and what a big role it plays in the film and also in life.  Interviews with the cast and crew are featured as well as some famous boxers including Sugar Ray Leonard.  They even talk about the Shakespearean aspects of the story.

Casting Viktor Drago (05:43): This special feature is all about the casting of Florian Munteanu who comes from a boxing background.  Stallone wanted him in the film and saw something special in him.  Munteanu talks about how grateful he is to be in the film as he is familiar with all of the “Rocky” films.  He trained for seven months and really committed to the role, which impressed his fellow actors and the director as well.

The Women of “Creed II” (05:51): Sugar Ray Leonard appears once again, and he gives credit to the women that are alongside the boxers through all of the training and the punishment in the ring.  Director Steven Caple Jr. didn’t just want Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad to be in the background of the film.  He wanted them to get their due.  It’s a big reason why the film is as effective as it is because each and every character serves a significant purpose.

The “Rocky” Legacy (15:01): This is hosted by Dolph Lundgren, and it discusses the impact the “Rocky” franchise has had not only on boxing movies, but also on the sport itself.  They also tie it together with “Rocky IV” and “Creed II.”  The cast and crew of “Creed II” talk about the music, the boxing scenes, and why the franchise has lasted as long as it has going all the way back to 1976.

Deleted Scenes (09:46): One notable deleted scene worth mentioning is one where Rocky performs a eulogy for Spider Rico, the first fighter he ever fought in the “Rocky” films.  It’s a powerful scene and one which should have been in the film despite my issues with its length.  The other three deleted scenes include Rocky training young kids to box, Adonis and Bianca talking about his legacy, and the aftermath of the fight between Adonis and Viktor.

 

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Let’s Call This Run ‘King of the Hill’

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This week, I remembered exactly where I parked my car and arrived at Griffith Park in Burbank 15 minutes before the clock hit 7 a.m. Coaches Kerry and Joaquin were there waiting patiently for the Pablove runners in temperatures which were frigid even by Los Angeles standards (yes, we do get cold temperatures from time to time in Southern California). Coach Kerry brought along his dog and had him (or her, I don’t remember) firmly on a leash as this pup was ready to chase after any bicyclists or squirrels in its radar range. Once the first set of bicyclists went by, the dog was ready to hit warp speed, and I think his barks translated into, “Hey, I want to run with you! Yes! Yes! I want to run! Wait up!”

Once Coach Kerry got his dog under control, he suddenly said, “Maybe we should call this run ‘King of the Hill.’” Little did I know what I meant. We have run up and down hills before, and I have come to welcome them as they are part of the LA Marathon. But this week had us going up a hill like none other before it, and it was definitely not the one Kate Bush sang about back in the 1980’s.

This run would be our first double-digit run of the training season as we were running 10 miles, and the coaches had us going up the hill first on the backside of Griffith Park. Good, I thought, we will get the hard stuff out of the way first. Of course, this particular hill always wipes me out long before I reach the top. Even if I wanted to be like Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky IV” when he reached the top of that mountain and yell out “DRAGO!!!” for all to hear, I never have the energy or enthusiasm to do so.

But here’s where the run took a sharp turn both literally and figuratively speaking. Instead of going down the backside of Griffith Park, we took a right onto a paved road which was shut off to cars but not to runners or bicyclists. The only thing is, this road kept going up instead of down. And once I thought I went as far upward as I possibly could, I found I hadn’t. And then later on, I found this out again, and again, and again. As determined as I was to finish these 10 miles, I realized it would probably be longer than the running time of Lars Von Trier’s latest cinematic opus, “The House That Jack Built.”

Look, I am fine with running up hills, but none of those hills we Pablove runners have ascended previously compared to this one. As my walk breaks increased over my running, I wondered if two maintenance runs during the week was even close to being enough to prepare for this or any other marathon. Just imagine if I had hills like this to run up during my cross-country days in high school. Oak Hill Park has nothing on what Griffith Park has to offer!

Nevertheless, I persisted like all those female politicians running for office during the past midterm elections (many of whom won mind you) and did my best. I tried to keep up with everyone else, but as usual I fell behind the rest of humanity and was more than confident nobody would be waiting for me by the time I got back. On the plus side, there was a nice breeze in the air and, even as the sun rose high into the sky, it was neither too hot nor too cold. On the downside, there were no bathrooms or portable toilets nearby, and at one point I had to drop the kids off in the bushes. That’s probably more information than you need, but I don’t want to leave anything out here.

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Coach Joaquin was on hand throughout to make certain we were all doing as well as could be expected. Of course, before we started this run, he did tell us all that if we became sick or died on this run, it was not his fault.

Upon approaching Coach Joaquin at one point, I saw a sign which, from a distance, appeared to say “HELL SPOT.” This sign seemed more than appropriate as this was road which people will have better luck hiking up than running up. But once I got closer, I realized it actually said “HELI SPOT.” I don’t know, maybe I’m becoming dyslexic.

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One thing this particular course did have going for it was the view it gave us of Burbank and Glendale. Looking at Burbank from a higher elevation, I was reminded of how it is a much bigger city than I ever bother to realize. It’s not at all dwarfed by the IKEA store which, by itself, probably has its own zip code, and the buildings, homes and apartments stretch out for what seem like miles.

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I also thought I could see Pasadena from where we were, but Coach Joaquin informed me were looking at Glendale and that Pasadena was further off into the distance. I knew that. Anyway, at least I could tell it wasn’t Russia.

After making a sharp left turn at one point, I assumed we would not be running uphill anymore, but I was incorrect. Still, Coach Joaquin assured me what goes up must come down. You know, like the Trump Administration.

I did catch up with my fellow Pablove runners who encouraged me to keep on going as they made their way back. One of them told me, “I’d tell you the turnaround is right around the corner, but…” Believe me, I appreciated the honesty.

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The turnaround point was at this enormous puddle of water which was truly impossible to miss. Looking at it reminded me of a scene from “Stand by Me” in which the four boys come to what looks like a shallow pond they think they can walk across with no problem. River Pheonix even checks to see how deep it is with a stick. Once he convinces everyone it is safe to cross, they walk straight ahead and realize just how deep the water really is. But that’s not all, remember? LEECHES!!!

It was a huge relief to finally reach the turnaround and head back, but there were still some hills to shuffle up and down, and I spent what felt like an obscene amount of time desperately trying to catch my breath. Once I got back to the main road, I knew it was all downhill from there, and in a good way. It’s nice to see “downhill from here” has a couple different meanings and is more than just something adults tell kids when they turn 18.

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The coaches were still around when I returned, and this of course meant they could finally pack their things up and go home. I told Coach Joaquin how the maintenance runs I was doing didn’t seem to be enough, and he encouraged me to get in 30 minutes of exercise each day whether it be running or something else. He also made me see that I did good today and pointed out I did complete all 10 miles. I came, I ran and I finished, and this is something I should be proud of. So what if I came in last? I went through all 10 miles with a sheer determination to make it across the finish line.

Coach Joaquin assured me next week’s course will be completely flat and be only six miles. Still, I need to kick up the workouts during the week. I am now past the point of no return.

Click here to see the Pablove runners in action on this 10-mile run.

The end of the year is rapidly approaching, and I encourage you to make one of your last tax-deductible donations to The Pablove Foundation which is dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric cancer. It’s an amazing organization I encourage you all to support, and I still have a way to go with my fundraising. Click here to learn more.

‘Winnie the Pooh’ Has Eeyore Stealing the Show

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was back in 2011 when the movie was released.

You know what? I was looking forward to this one more than “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Granted, I saw the latter first, but anyone who knows me best will more than understand why I was in a hurry to watch this Disney animated film: I am a die-hard Eeyore fan! I got my first Eeyore plush toy before the start of the 5th grade, and I’ve lost track of how many I have collected since. My extraordinary niece told her friends I have over 3,000, but I beg to differ. To see him play such a pivotal part in “Winnie the Pooh” was a huge delight for me after seeing him get reduced to a mere supporting role in “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.”

Oh yeah, I should talk about the rest of the film as well. That “silly old bear” once again headlines the proceedings as his grumbling tummy develops a mind of its own due to his endless addiction to honey. Sure enough, there are beehives nearby with a wealth of honey, but the bees are understandably protective of their export. Then there’s the case of Eeyore’s missing tail that has everyone giving him another which, to put it mildly, doesn’t exactly compare to the original. To cap it all off, this classic gang mistakenly believes Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by an evil monster known as the Backson (see the movie and you’ll understand).

For some reason, watching Pooh hurriedly pursuing the delicious and sticky substance known as honey kept reminding me of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” with its characters becoming increasingly desperate for whatever their minds craved more than their bodies, but that’s just me. I somehow doubt the animators at Walt Disney had any intention of making a G-rated movie to remind you of one of the most seriously disturbing films ever made.

“Winnie the Pooh” brings the 100 Acre Wood back to the traditional realm of hand drawn animation which is something of a rarity these days. While the characters might have looked fantastic with computer animation a la Pixar, doing things the old-fashioned way was the right choice. The “Winnie the Pooh” films and shorts have been long since relegated to the Disney channel and direct to DVD realm, and this brought about a drop in quality its most devoted films could not ignore. But seeing Pooh and company on the big screen is a terrific reminder of why we grew up loving these characters in the first place.

Jim Cummings once again provides the voice for Pooh and Tigger, and he captures the distinctive voices of each character perfectly. Travis Oates gets the innocent stuttering of Piglet down to perfection, and Craig Ferguson makes Owl as jolly as he is oblivious to his own pomposity. Rabbit, on the other hand, has always been the most anal of A.A. Milne’s characters, so I thank Tom Kenny for making him more likable and bearable than he typically is. As for Christopher Robin, Jack Boulter gives him a strong British accent even if he still sounds like a girl at times, much like the actor who voiced him in “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore.”

Now back to the good part! Eeyore has been a great source of dry humor, and his brand of it is fully on display here. Watching him try on the tails others have given him should at the very least put a smile on your face even if it doesn’t on Eeyore’s. One of the movie’s most hilarious moments comes when Tigger trains him to be the second Tigger, leading to a montage I would love to say, but can’t quite get myself to believe, would put the one in “Rocky” to shame. Bud Luckey, who delighted us all with his great animated shorts on ” Sesame Street,” memorably voices Eeyore with all his gloominess and reduced expectations in life.

One great addition to this particular version of “Winnie the Pooh” is Zooey Deschanel. While she doesn’t appear in this movie, she does sing many of its songs including the classic opening track which introduces Christopher Robin’s friends. Her voice is lovely and it also has a whimsical quality which makes her contributions to this soundtrack all the more wonderful. While the songs by Robert and Kristin Anderson-Lopez aren’t as memorable as anything we have heard in “Beauty and the Beast” or “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” they fit the material nicely without indulging in any cringe-inducing cheesiness.

By bringing Pooh and his friends back to basics, “Winnie the Pooh” really proves to be a wonderfully innocent and nostalgic stroll back to the stories our parents read to us at one time or another. It’s the perfect family movie to see this summer even over the more popular, and unfairly maligned, “Cars 2.” Not once does it boil things down to the lowest common denominator for any audience prepared to pay tickets to see it, and it is a rare piece of cinematic innocence in a world filled with loud explosions and seriously crappy 3D effects. While it is a mere 69 minutes long, there is more story to this than its running time suggests. For proof of this, be sure to sit through the end credits.

Now let’s get Eeyore’s name in the title of the next A.A. Milne cinematic extravaganza! Tigger and Piglet both had enough charisma to get a headliner’s status above Winnie the Pooh, so you can’t convince me Eeyore does not deserve the same respect. It’s not like Owl, Kanga or Roo could upstage him anyway. And regardless of what Tina Fey and Seth Meyers said on “Saturday Night Live,” Eeyore did not commit suicide. As to whether auto-erotic asphyxiation was involved, I have no comment.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

First Trailer for ‘Creed II’ Enters the Ring

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“Creed” may not have reinvented the “Rocky” franchise, but Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan succeeded in making it feel fresh and reinvigorated to where a sequel was not only inevitable, but more than welcome. Now we have the first trailer for “Creed II” which promises a powerful follow-up as Adonis Creed faces the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV,” Viktor Drago.

In some ways this trailer is a bit anti-climatic as we have known for a while already how the son of Ivan Drago was going to Adonis’ next big opponent, and the trailer keeps building up to a reveal we can see coming from miles away. Viktor is played by Florian Munteanu who previously appeared in “Bogat.” Now we never get a clear look at his face, but when he turns around we see “DRAGO” stenciled on the back of his robe. Personally, I was hoping for a little more than just this reveal, but then again, this is a teaser trailer.

I also kept waiting for Dolph Lundgren to reappear as Ivan Drago as he is slated to be co-starring in “Creed II,” but no such luck. One of the things I am really looking forward to is seeing him come face to face with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as I wonder how each character feels about the other following their bloody bout in Russia 30 years ago. I’m guessing Brigette Nielsen will not be back as Ivan’s wife and official spokesperson, so Lundgren will obviously have more dialogue to work with than he did back in 1985.

The trailer does have a lot of cool shots of Adonis training and throwing brutal punches, and the moment where we see him practicing punches underwater is especially cool to where I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene like this in the previous “Rocky” films. Using Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” to score the trailer was a great move as it has a powerful beat which will stay with you to where downloading the song off of iTunes is a must unless you own it or the album it is on already.

But what I really liked about this “Creed II” trailer is how it reflects the challenges Adonis and Rocky face outside of the ring as opposed to in it. Both characters are still stuck in a past which will not let them be. Whether it is the guilt Rocky feels over letting Apollo die in the ring or the feeling of inadequacy which gnaws constantly at Adonis, their struggles are never limited to a boxing match. Seeing this quickly reminded me of when Rocky and Adonis were looking at themselves in a mirror in “Creed” and of Rocky telling him how he will always be his own biggest opponent. And as Rocky talks about the “cheap shots” life is constantly giving him, I was taken back to his great speech in “Rocky Balboa” in which he said the following:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Taking this into account, I believe “Creed II” looks to focus on the characters even over the intense fight sequences we can expect to see. Besides, what’s a fight like without the psychological depth? You can have great choreography, but it won’t mean as much if you are not fully invested in the characters’ plights and of what they stand to win or lose.

Directing “Creed II” is Steven Caple Jr., and the returning cast includes Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad who proves she is still a badass with her brief appearance here. The sequel is set to be released on November 21, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

 

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 * * * *