By Drew Morton | | August 19, 2010 |
By Drew Morton | | August 19, 2010 |
Director John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984), like The Goonies (1985), was one of those movies that was released around the time of my childhood that I never ended up seeing. Growing up, I was drawn to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Spaceballs (1987), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and Mac & Me (1988). The earliest I can recall hearing anything about The Karate Kid was roughly ten years after it came out. I had just gotten into one of my first fights and I had the coordination of bull in a china shop. My father suggested I take up karate, which he had at one time practiced, and my parents tried to track down a VHS copy of the film to inspire me in between punching bag sessions. Well, it turns out the library (or perhaps the local video store) was out of stock that week and shortly thereafter my interest in self-defense was trumped by film, television, and video games. I completed my childhood, my young adulthood, and made it into my mid-20s (is that still young adulthood?) before this became an issue worthy of an intervention. My best friend, Neal Long, threatened to demote me from “best man” status in his wedding if I did not watch the film, which had been sitting on my shelf after he sent me a the DVD box set as a gift.
I begin my review of The Karate Kid with a personal anecdote because I feel like whenever we revisit those films that defined our youth, we are blinded by nostalgia when it comes to their true quality. Sure, some of them are pretty damn good movies (Pee-Wee, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit still stand up for me) while others are not nearly as good as our fond memories would lead us to believe (Mac & Me). That haze of love and nostalgia never existed towards The Karate Kid for myself, unlike many of you. Was I robbed of something in my childhood? Perhaps, but even when you’re in kindergarten, you can’t see every movie that is released during the short-span of your life.
The set-up for the film is rather standard fish out of water story: Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother (Randee Heller) are forced to move from Newark, New Jersey to Southern California. Despite the palm trees, warm weather, and lush beaches, Daniel has a hard time adjusting to his new high school. Essentially, his attraction to Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue), a beautiful cheerleader, ignites the ire of her karate-literate ex-boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka). Soon, Daniel finds himself the bullied target of Johnny and his brothers at the Cobra Kai dojo. The sensei at the dojo, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam vet (Martin Kove), instructs his students to throw battlefield compassion to the wind. As he notes, “We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition: A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.”
Given the lessons of the sensei, it is of no surprise that the attacks on Daniel grow especially mean-spirited. In one sequence, he is forced down a steep hill on his bicycle, slicing his forehead open in the process. During one especially brutal attack, where Daniel faces six to one odds, he is rescued by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the handyman at his apartment. Initially, Miyagi intends to visit the Cobra Kai sensei and to appeal to him via the philosophy that karate is a defensive tool. When the sensei shrugs off Miyagi’s request, Miyagi states that Daniel will challenge Cobra Kai’s best in the upcoming “All Valley Karate Tournament.” The sensei agrees and Miyagi and Daniel begin their training. Wax on, wax off.
By the time Daniel reached the training phrase of The Karate Kid, I started to worry about the direction the film was going in. First off, the population of the San Fernando Valley seemed to have the largest settlement of dickheads and douchebags outside of Tool Academy. Not only are the kids especially brutal in their bullying of Daniel (and this is coming from the perspective of a man who was also bullied as a kid), but I was shocked when the adults joined in. Daniel is blamed by his teachers for the increase in fighting, Ali is forbidden to see him due to what appears to be a rift in social class, and he is mocked by a country club full of people when he not only finds Johnny kissing Ali but a plateful of spaghetti across his chest. With the exceptions of Daniel, his mother, Miyagi, and Ali, the “So.” in So. Cal stands for sociopath. Essentially, it felt like Avildsen and screenwriter Robert Kamen had unnaturally stacked the deck against Daniel in order to elicit further solicit our sympathies. Well, like Precious (2009) and many Lars von Trier films, it just isn’t necessary. We’re already on Daniel’s side, so quit wasting time by spinning the wheels against him.
Secondly, I felt uncomfortable with the character of Mr. Miyagi. Pat Morita really plays the hell out of the role and was worthy of the Academy Award nomination he was given, but essentially the character is the Asian equivalent to the “magical negro.” He exists to help the white guy get out of trouble by teaching him how to become a man. Admittedly, I’m short changing the film a bit: Miyagi’s character is sketched out at times (such as his relationship with his wife, which raises the ghosts of the Manzanar internment camp) and he seems to enjoy his role as Daniel’s surrogate father. However, I found a lot of potential in his character that was sadly given few moments to shine beyond the stereotype. I think if Avildsen would have devoted less screen time to the assholes of Reseda and more on Miyagi, The Karate Kid could have been something really great.
This leads me to my final criticism of the film: the structure is incredibly lopsided. At 126 minutes, The Karate Kid has a lot of breathing room. Despite this, however, we feel surprisingly unfulfilled at the end of the film. The first hour and a half consists almost entirely of Daniel getting bullied and performing home maintenance for Miyagi. That’s a lot of screen time devoted to two rather obvious plot points: Daniel needs to learn to defend himself and Miyagi is going to teach him how. There’s a problem with the film when we don’t actually see Daniel practice karate until the climax of the movie, which is choreographed and shot really well but leaves us at an odd point. Essentially, Daniel reigns supreme at the tournament and just as we’re taking a celebratory breath and enjoying the beginning of emotional closure, Avildsen fades up the credits. You chose to abridge a major plot moment now? Why not cut ten minutes of Daniel getting trampled or painting a fence instead? It’s all foreplay with little, climactic sustain. Essentially, the film gives us seven days of Miyagi making Daniel a man (to quote the Rocky Horror Picture Show number) and seven seconds of actual manhood. Nostalgia probably makes it seem like an eternity.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.