We enter the second half our Great Year Long 80s Movie Challenge (#80sMC) this week so let’s all bow to our sensei, Andee Dee, as he explores 1984’s High School/Martial Arts crossover drama, The Karate Kid.
I still to this day have only seen Rocky once, and I’ve never seen any of its sequels for that matter. It wasn’t until alarmingly recently that I learned director John G. Avildsen was responsible for directing The Karate Kid, and its two immediate sequels. One mirthsome on-set story about the latter was that, when filming the scenes on the beach where we see Mister Miyagi perfecting his patented Crane Technique, Ralph Macchio did remark that the coastal terrain was “A little rocky”. Nice. Boxing was more my dad’s thing, really. In fact, he has a whole study room replete with pugilistic memorabilia. Me, I was more into martial arts, and have been since I was a nipper.
At age eight I found myself stumbling into a local Shukokai Karate class. My secondary high school building was connected to our local Rec centre, so it was a perfect initial location (after about a year we were moved to a more central venue). In my eight-year tenure, I got within a one-inch-punch distance of the fabled Black Belt, but some of the moves and katas (breathing, balance, focusing strength to body parts I didn’t even know I had) – proved to be too much for this karate kid. By that point, I was in the thick of GCSEs, and coming to the end of… not a great period of my life in high school, and while it was a welcome diversion, I had to take a back seat to it. I also attribute it to the sacrifice of such childhood classics as Fresh Prince and Saved by the Bell which aired on the evenings I was flailing my limbs. Alas.
The thing was, I’ve never been in a fight in my life. Outside of the dojo (and I use the term “dojo” loosely – for the most part, our lessons were held in a basketball court, the kind you usually see in American high school movies), I have to this day never thrown a punch or kick at another living thing. My martial arts training bred within me a sense of emotional content, not anger. Karate to me was “for defence, only”. Now, truth be told I was always tall for my age – I’ve evened out to mostly-normal human proportions now, but for a while, I was pretty massive. I did get picked on verbally and psychologically by my peers, but a lot of the physical grief I received was from the older kids. In hindsight, I do sometimes wonder if I made the right choice in sucking it up and not going full-on Dark Hado; an ill-timed blow or throw could easily have done some irreparable damage that would have landed me a stint in juvie, and I am a clumsy person at the best of times. No, for me Karate was all about patience, balance, and achieving a sense of inner peace. While my experiences in high school remain a formative cause of my hangups and anxiety, I’m glad I rose above it.
My interest in martial arts was actually borne from seeing the much more visceral and violent Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon a year or so prior. It wasn’t long before my interest in Japanese culture was sparked in unison. Videogames had always been a huge part of my life, and as a lot of them I would soon learn were developed in Japan, my passion for those, hell even the language (The “Shiko-dachi” stance is lip-serviced in Karate Kid Part III, and young-me was pointing at the screen going, “I know that!”) and later anime, which themselves had numerous martial arts trappings, was blossoming. Movies like Hokuto No Ken (admittedly more inspired by Mad Max movies of the time), Ninja Scroll, and of course Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie were “the big three” in my anime fighting film fandom. Naturally, I was a huge fan of Street Fighter the game (not “The movie: the game” – that’s a whole different story) and seeing its main character Ryu, resplendent in the same white ghi I wore (although I was more of a Ken/Chun Li person), and poring over the movesets in gaming guides, it was always fun to see parallels (however minor) between their fighting style of Shotokan and my own Shukokai. I guess that would explain why I never threw any fireballs or flew into the air with my arm on fire, different styles and all…
Back to The Karate Kid though, one thing that did become apparent upon rewatching it was that there’s not an awful amount of actual Karate in it. There is plenty of fighting, sure, although most of the bouts between Daniel-san and his Cobra-Kai oppressors are pretty one-sided. Five-to-one problem too much ask anyone. It’s worth noting that the Cobra Kai themselves are refreshingly diverse and three-dimensional. In the iconic “Skeleton attack” where Johnny and his cronies utterly pummel Daniel just yards from his Californian apartment, Bobby proves to be the voice of reason, urging the rest of the gang to ease off. By the time the third movie rolls around, this kind of nuance is eschewed completely to make way for new cackling cartoon nemesis Terry Silver and his bumbling henchmen Snake (!) and Mike “Bad Boy” Barnes. I’m not making this up. Karate Kid Part III is one of those films like Jaws the Revenge, where the series has taken a colossal dip in quality, and whose only entertainment value is gleaned from its villains, and just how shockingly inferior it is to the original in every aspect.
I always found the now-infamous car washing scene interesting, even then. The movie is paced at such a way that you’re with Daniel for the whole laborious ordeal, and you feel his frustration. If the days of him sanding Miyagi’s floors and painting his house were all displayed in montage, we wouldn’t feel the same frustration and ennui as Daniel does. It makes the final payoff, where we see a near-perfect muscle memory in blocking his sensei’s attacks all the more rewarding. I’m happy to say the only thing I ever had to clean was the trophy I won for a coming third in a (sadly quite rare) fighting tournament.
In the movie’s final tournament scene, which plays out as a memorable musical montage (something which has been referenced and parodied beyond all recognition), we see essentially a highlight reel of scraps, as the camera keeps focus on Daniel’s face, and the building tension amongst the Cobra Kai and their no-nonsense drill sergeant sensei, John Kreese. Some of the athletes they roped in for these scenes are pretty spectacular, Darryl Vidal in particular gets some amazing kicks in before Johnny defeats him in the semi finals.
Kreese is a fascinating, tragic parallel to Mister Miyagi, both having served military time, and both having clearly suffered some kind of damage from it. Kreese’s PTSD is left to our imaginations, but Miyagi’s is conveyed in a truly heartfelt scene, wherein he drunkenly toasts to the memory of his late wife and child with Daniel. Bafflingly the studio was keen to remove this entire scene for pacing reasons, but it absolutely warrants its existence; it humanises the until-now all-powerful, mystical eastern presence, and it goes some way to explain just why this jaded jii-san would want to hang out with such a wayward teen. It’s the father/son combo component that each never had. Give the sequel it’s due, it’s not quite hitting the high notes of this film (although it is leagues ahead of Part III), and it features a couple of nagging retcons, but the scene on the Okinawan beach where Daniel comforts Miyagi after having lost his father is easily the most emotionally resonant pieces in the movie. As of the time of writing i have never lost a parent, so I can’t empathise on the same level as those who have, but both these scenes are a masterclass in character building.
I actually saw the Karate Kid films in a weird order. Part I we had recorded off TV, and it wasn’t until some time later that saw the third part via a rare rental (most of my films were either recorded and housed in faux leather VHS cases that looked like something from a 19th century library), or simply bought outright. Heck, if I had known that DVD, with its tantalisingly efficient slim format was going to be a thing, I wouldn’t have bothered amassing such a huge VHS collection once I discovered what “Long Play” was, and probably saved about a hundred square feet in shelf space. But I digress…
Yes, as mentioned before, Part III was a pretty shallow retread of the first film, with some bizarre lapses in real-life logic – why doesn’t Daniel just press charges against his tormentors and have them arrested for assault? It’s pretty clear that they’re all adults – even if Barnes wasn’t, Terry Silver sure as hell was. Hilariously, his actor Thomas Ian Griffith was actually younger than Ralph Macchio! 1978’s Grease gets some flack for some pretty laughably innapropriate age casting, but the universe of Grease is that of a mildly-fantastical one whose residents burst into song every five minutes, so I give it a pass.
Part II in hindsight was a much more interesting affair, and actually did raise the stakes for our characters somewhat. Here, we have Daniel out of his Californian comfort zone, fighting this time not for a wooden plastic trophy, but for his life. Undercut somewhat by Miyagi’s lame nose-honking running gag, it’s is a respectable and logical continuation of the story, even if it does near-irreparable damage to its predecessor by retconning the two leads’ respective love interests. Ali-with-an-I is unceremoniously dumped offscreen in the first five minutes, which is a bit of a slap in the face to the likeable, slow-build romance, one which I think is one of the most realistic on-screen pairings I’ve seen in a movie that’s ostensibly about fisticuffs – usually any chemistry that occurs between heterosexual couples just feel shoehorned in, like an obligatory checkbox.
Meanwhile, Miyagi’s late wife is replaced by a still-living high-school sweetheart never mentioned in the previous movie, which completely dilutes and the gut-wrenching scene from before. It was a film that I ended up catching many years later on an early afternoon TV recording, with some of the more brutal violence trimmed somewhat, but I was cognisant enough to appreciate its better qualities. By that point I had already started seeking out more schlocky martial arts fare like Kickboxer and Bloodsport, and while they were entertaining on a visceral level, nothing quite matches the emotional impact of Daniel being handed the trophy by Johnny, having finally earned his respect.
We’ve seen the Karate Kid legacy continue in some increasingly ill-advised sequels, a NES videogame, a 1989 cartoon series, a bafflingly slavish-yet-not, different-but-the-same 2010 remake, and a TV series reboot which, to this day, I am ashamed to say I have still not checked out beyond its initial episode (although with the recent news that the series is being migrated over to Netflix, that looks likely to change). That might mark me as some sort of poser, a mere white belt who’s not even fit to enter the ring amongst the hardcore. But to me, it’s all about 1984’s The Karate Kid. It’s still the best, around.
Next week, you bring the sunglasses and we’ll get the Orange Whips in for more #80sMC adventures as the newest member of the WGN family, Cameron McCrorie shakes a tail feather and whisks us away on a Mission From God.
That’s right! It’s 1980’s music-and-mayhem masterpiece The Blues Brothers!