Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Karate Kid”

When the student is ready, the master will appear.

-Buddhist Proverb

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In 1977, Director John G. Avildsen won the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on “Rocky”.

He declined to direct the sequel, “Rocky II”, for understandable creative and artistic reasons. However, he went on to make “Slow Dancing in the Big City”, “The Formula”, “Neighbors”, and “A Night in Heaven” instead. The critics of his win had their validation.

And so, 1984′s “The Karate Kid” was an opportunity for him to return to form. Not necessarily to Oscar contention, mind you, but the opportunity to tell an underdog story, a story of an unlikely victory, and a young man coached by a elder mentor and surrogate father figure. The parallels between the core story of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” are undeniable (including both being scored by Bill Conti). In fact the core plot elements of “The Karate Kid”, could be considered “time honored” to the point of bordering on trite. Yet the audience never once feels that… the story feels fresh and unique due to the considerable charms of the cast, and the context of Karate.

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In the mid 1980s, Karate was still very exotic to American movie audiences. They certainly weren’t new to it, per se, but the concept was still very foreign. To them it was practiced by men like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee – tough men who trained themselves into fighting machines – not teenagers from the local high school. Karate was taught in temples, by monks – not in local dojos in your neighborhood. Even though it was a misconception, to the theatre going audience in the early 1980s, Martial Arts were a mysterious skill, taught in far away places, to dedicated men who did nothing but. It was not done for sport, it was not practiced by youth, it certainly wasn’t something you enrolled your child in.

This movie changed that. Opened the public’s eyes to the fact that the martial arts were taught here in America, and were accessible to anyone. I’ve had a couple of different conversations with martial arts instructors who recalled the enormous influx of business they experienced after this movie came out. I know, personally, that this movie planted a seed in me… eventually I would learn Karate, earn a black belt, participate in several tournaments (actually winning a couple), and then have the joy of teaching students and watching them succeed themselves.

None of that would have happened if it weren’t for the perfect casting and wonderful characters of Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso, and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita’s Mr. Miyagi.

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When casting the part of Daniel Larusso, the filmmakers were looking for a “wimp with a chip on his shoulder”.

They found him.

22 years old at the time of filming, Macchio looked every bit the scrawny high schooler he was playing. Doe eyed, baby faced and skinny, it’s easy to envision him as someone the jocks would regularly use as a punching bag. But that vulnerability, that weakness, worked to his strength in terms of the film. The fact that he not only keeps getting up, but keeps challenging the Cobra Kai clan (punching one on the soccer field even after getting his ass kicked on the beach, or dousing Johnny in the bathroom stall on Halloween in spite of being run off the road on his bike)… You have to root for him.

He’s innately likable, too. He may not have gone on to be a huge star, but for this role, Macchio was absolutely perfect. He’s wimpy enough to believe they’d kick his ass, yet plucky enough to believe he’d keep getting up. He’s young enough to sell you on the fact he’s still very much a kid (when he has a hissy fit over wanting to go home, for example). He has the requisite sense of humor that a bullied kid would need to get through such a trying time, he has extraordinary chemistry with Morita as they bond, and he’s got the pretty boy looks to make the audience believe he could get a girl like Elisabeth Shue interested in him.

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I’m sorry, wha– wait. Huh? Pfft. You’ll have to forgive me, I was 14 again there for a second.

Where were we? Oh yes, Pat Morita.

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The legendary Toshirô Mifune actually read for the role of Mister Miyagi. Per scriptwriter Robert Mark Kamen, however, “his Mr Miyagi was a scary Mr Miyagi… It was full of dignity and bushido”. Which left the door open for another actor, comedian Pat Morita.

Morita was born in America – his accent in the film was actually an affectation. He got his start as a stand up comedian, billing himself as “The Hip Nip”. Prior to this film, his best known work was as Arnold, the diner owner on “Happy Days”.

The challenges Morita faced in life extended beyond his limited comedic career. His parents were fruit pickers, and as a baby, he suffered from spinal tuberculosis. Until the age of 11 he spent much of his time in hospitals, often in a full body cast (it was there he got the nickname “Pat”). He was told at one time that he would never be able to walk. When his health issues were resolved, he had other challenges to face – namely that he had to join his family in the Japanese interment camps which the U.S. had set up during World War II. He would spend four years there.

So, much of the grief that deepens Mr. Miyagi’s character is brought to the table by Morita himself, via his own personal experience. But it works to create a well rounded, multi-dimensional character. He’s not simply the compassionate handyman who knows Karate. He’s constantly surprising the audience, and thus became fascinating to watch.

Morita was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and the character is widely beloved.

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Together Miyagi and Daniel-san embark on one of the most unique training regimens in movie history. My martial arts training actually dispelled a lot of the Hollywood bs in this film (painting and sanding is not an efficient training strategy, especially not without foreknowledge of the fact you’re actually trying to practice form and build muscle memory). But it’s still a magical portion of the movie because it speaks to so many of the things we WANT to believe about the martial arts.

It’s not about strength it’s about heart.

Balance and blocking are more important than punching and kicking.

Peace of mind and good intentions will overcome aggression.

Lessons are best taught by inscrutable masters who hand out wisdom in bite sized bits.

There’s truth within, but more than anything the audience WANTS those things to be true. And thus Miyagi and Daniel-san prepare for the All Valley Karate Championship by waxing cars, painting, sanding, swimming and fishing. They bond along the way, and by the time the tournament rolls around, you’ll believe Daniel Larusso has a fighting chance.

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You’ll definitely be pulling for him wholeheartedly at this point, as not only has he been getting his ass kicked by the school bullies, now their entire Karate Dojo is strongly represented in the tournament. Almost comically evil, the Cobra Kai stand as the antithesis to the lessons of Miyagi. Brutishly portrayed by Martin Kove, Sensei John Kreese teaches his students that mercy is for the weak, and that no such thing as good sportsmanship exists. As much as you love Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi in this film, you also hate Kreese and Billy Zabka’s Johnny. There’s a saying that a movie is only as good as it’s villains, and the villains here are wonderful. My hat always has and always will go off to them.

The film climaxes with an absolutely fantastic finale – the All Valley Karate Championship. Set to Joe Esposito’s intoxicating “You’re the Best” (a song originally written for “Rocky III”, but turned down in favor of “Eye of the Tiger”, and offered to “Flashdance”, but turned down in favor of “Maniac”), Larusso is shown advancing – realistically enough – with his limited martial arts techniques. The Cobra Kai resort to fighting dirty to stopping him from reaching the championship round. Kicking him in the knee illegally in order to injure him.

But once again, Daniel Larusso picks himself off the turf and refuses to be beaten. “Daniel Larusso’s gonna fight? Daniel Larusso’s gonna fight! Now isn’t this what it’s all about Folks? You know it!”

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Larusso triumphs using the Miyagi’s technique, the legendary “Crane Kick”, a leaping front snap-kick directly to Johnny’s face. Set to Bill Conti’s chill inducing score, Larusso wins the match, gets the trophy, gets the girl, and gets lifted up by the adoring crowd, all while a proud, approving Miyagi looks on.

It’s one of the most uplifting endings in movie history, and put a bounce in the step of every single audience member leaving the theatre. “None can defense” this ending.

It’s a fitting high note for a wonderful movie. The tale of Daniel Larusso and his under-estimable martial arts instructor is full of warmth and charm. Genuine heart. It’s the triumph of compassion and concern over cruelty. It’s the very illustration of not judging a book by its cover. Its a true underdog triumph and a genuinely moving story of a childless man and fatherless boy finding each other and and enriching each other’s lives.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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48 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Karate Kid”

  1. Mrs. Brik and I watched this last year just before watching the remake.

    Goddamn, it is a HUGE cheesefest. The fighting is so poorly (hilariously) choreographed, we were laughing our asses off. The montage sequences is so contrived that you can’t help but simultaneously laugh and cheer at the same time. Pat’s performances, however, was pretty awesome. Neverthless, I’d love to see a screentest with Mifune, because he’s the ultimate samurai badass.

    The remake actually fares much better on all technical levels, plus Jackie Chan’s fighting is much more believable. Why they didn’t name it “The Kung Fu Kid” makes no sense to me other than LOLHOLLYWOODISSTUPID.

    • Ohhhh Brik, Brik, Brik, Brik, Brik.

      I would argue about the remake NOT being better than the original, but the truth is it’s one of the small handful of movies I refuse to watch “in protest”. So I dont wish to be a hypocrite and argue about something I’ve actually never seen.

      Still, methinks you’ve missed the point.

      Regardless, it’s part of the Brik charm. Can we expect a Classically Shitty at some point?

      • Like I said, the remake is “much better on all technical levels.”

        Whether or not you find it better/worse on an emotional level is purely subjective.

        I don’t think I’ll write up a Classically Shitty on this one, since it’s not really considered a “classic” the same way as 2001 or The Hustler are considered to be “classic.”

      • In my opinion in now way is the newer version better than the original. On a technical level sure, but I mean it was made nearly thirty years later… you can’t really compare them in that way. That’s my view of it, at least :)

      • I’ve seen some clips and stuff and it looks like Jayden Smith can actually throw some kicks, etc… but I have a hard time imagining I wouldnt want to throw up each step of the way….

  2. The artwork at the top of the post is very good.

    Karate Kid is a perfectly fine film. However, I can’t see myself ever telling someone that it’s a move they HAVE to see. For grown-ups, it doesn’t cover anything that “Rocky” didn’t do better.

    I do love the movie in one aspect though… “Cobra Kai!!!” is my go-to epithet for anyone that’s acting in a bizarrely thuggish manner.

    • Essential piece of pop culture and a rock solid flick. I think its a movie everyone SHOULD see, for sure.

      I think its different than Rocky in a lot of subtle ways even though the broad plot points have similarities.

  3. From “How I Met Your Mother”

    Barney: Hey, The Karate Kid’s a great movie. It’s the story of a hopeful, young karate enthusiast whose dreams and moxie take him all the way to the All Valley Karate Championship. Of course, sadly he loses in the final round to that nerd kid. But, he learns an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat.

    Lily: Wait, when you watch The Karate Kid you actually root for that mean blonde boy?

    Barney: No, I root for the scrawny loser from New Jersey who barely even knows karate. When I watch The Karate Kid I root for the karate kid, Johnny Lawrence from the Cobra Kai dojo. Get your head out of your ass Lily.

      • I don’t watch that show.

        But now I don’t like it.

        Although Johnny going to train under Miyagi because of the wonders he worked with Daniel-San…. Miyagi-do karate would be the most sought after dojo in town, and Johnny IS a highly competitive martial artist PLUS he seemed to learn his lesson at the end, telling Daniel “You’re alright Larusso”

        That would have been TEN times the sequel KK2 was.

      • I don’t watch the show either, but from what I’ve seen in commercials, I think Barney is meant to be something of an asshole. I.e., get a laugh out of him, but they don’t expect you to actually agree with him.

  4. The Karate Kid is very much a product of its time, but it’s a lot of fun. And a lot of its strength really does come from Pat Morita, who really gives a surprisingly good performance for what should have been, by all rights, just a fun little kid flick. There’s a reason why, if you say “Daniel LaRusso”, people have to stop and think a moment before going “Oh, yeah”, but everyone immediately knows “Mr. Miyagi”.

    I don’t know if I’d hold The Karate Kid as one of the all-time great films, but as a “must see movie” for its pop culture importance? Yeah, I’ll go along with that. This film fed off of and fed into the martial arts fascination that was so big in the 80s, so it’s at least a little important for understanding that era of pop culture.

    Like you, I haven’t seen the remake “in protest”. Three reasons. One, because it is a remake of a much-beloved film. You don’t remake a classic, or a touchstone of pop culture. Two, because of the “Kung Fu Kid” argument that Brik makes. I don’t think it’s just being a pedant to insist that when you make a movie called The Karate Kid that you stick to freaking karate. Honestly, if they had called it The Kung Fu Kid, it’d eliminate two of my reasons for not seeing it, because then I could view it as an affectionate homage to the original, instead of a remake. And third… Will Smith’s kid. I don’t know if he’s a good child actor, or a bad one, but this just seemed to be so transparent as an attempt by Will Smith to create a vehicle for his child that I wanted to skip it out of spite.

  5. I realized, recently, that I had failed as a brother when my much younger brother told me that he now loved this 80s song that goes “You’re the best around…” because it appears on the ingame radio of Grand Theft Auto knock-off Saints Row 3.

    This was a followup statement to being told that “Working for the Weekend” was also awesome, because it appeared in Saints Row 2.

    • [Sad montage of children playing video-games begins. Cue the Sarah McLachlan]

      You too can prevent this from happening to a child YOU know.

      For the price of one red box rental a week, or a netflix dvd plan, you too can help educate today’s children and help PREVENT cultural deficiencies like the one we’ve just heard about today…

      Don’t let the children YOU love grow up to think that “You’re the Best” comes from Saint’s Row…

      Please.

  6. My friends from high school considered this one of the greatest movies ever and I agree everyone should see this movie at least once. At the very least to be able to understand all the references. What fun would it be imitating Mr. Miyagi and not having anyone get it?

  7. Nice post. I never knew Morita had to fight through so much as a child and Asian-American; Wow!

    I liked movie quite a bit due to the 80s music(Cruel Summer), karate as a plotline, and the Morita-Macchio magic. Additionally, it’s such a good original picture that it STILL inspires similar films like Karate Kid circa 2010 with Chan and Smith; granted sequels/remakes are never as strong as the first.

    Fun Karate Kid(1984) quotes:
    1 – “look eye,always look eye” -Miyagi;
    2 – “karate for defense only” -Miyagi ;
    3 – “wax on…waxoff” -Miyagi
    4 – “He says that, uh, you remind him of an uncle he has back in Tokyo.” -Ali
    5 – “Balance is key.” -Miyagi
    6 – “I say you do” -Miyagi
    7 – “Oh, Daniel-san! You all wet behind ear!” -Miyagi

    Perhaps someone has better quotes?

    • Must not. Get. Into. Quote. War….

      Ok, though, what’s up? No love for the Cobra Kai?

      Defeat does not exist in this dojo. DOES IT?!

      And of course, the CLASSIC “Get ‘im a bodybag!!”

      Cmon S. Mercy is for the weak. LOL :D

      Meanwhile, thanks for your support on this one. Mixed reviews so far surprisingly. I expect the Monday tallies will even that up, but early returns have this one as a close race…

  8. Fun movie that really sends you back to the cheesy 80′s. Pat Morita is so much fun and totally deserved his Oscar nomination. Not sure why they had to remake the movie with Jayden Smith though…

  9. ABSOLUTELY AGREE!! a film EVERYONE should see! (Had no idea he was 22 years of age at filming! wow!)

    good pick for this spotlight. I like this series (It’s always SO much better than G4TV’s “Movies that don’t suck!”)

  10. Fantastic movie and great choice!!!

    I think you can probably tell by my above comment, but I absolutely HATE the remake. One of the worst movies of last year IMO haha. Don’t see it! Lol.

    Good review man!

  11. It was a very entertaining movie which I have not seen in ages (did see the remake). Agree that it’s one everyone should at least have seen once.

  12. We avoided the remake too. There is only one Karate Kid! I loved it then, and I love it now. (I am pretty sure my husband would still leave me if Elizabeth Shue still looked like that.)

    On a side note……Miss Piggy is right….everyone should see this so they can understand the references the movie. It was a huge letdown for me when I saw my niece (I KID YOU NOT!!) caught a fly with a pair of chopsticks…..I asked he if Mr. Miyagi showed her how to do that. She looked at me like I was crazy!

  13. I refuse….I repeat REFUSE to watch the remake. Karate Kid is so engraved into my mind as a child of the 80s that I will never attempt to taint it in any way. You can tell me all about the choreography, acting, blah blah blah….this movie is all about the story that will remain a classic for the ages.

  14. I will strongly disagree. The new Karate Kid is nowhere as good as the original. I saw both of them and i was very dissappointed in the new one. I did not think Will Smiths son fit the part at all. The training part was not very interesting at all. It involved picking up your coat and putting it on the coat rack. Oh yea. Jackie Chan is good at Karate or Kung foo or whatever but he did not bring the same kind of magic and chemistry as Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita).

    The original Karate Kid was a classic on all levels. The training scenes were really cool. And your right I remember when i walked out of the movies feeling like i just saw a Rocky movie. I did not feel that at all with the new one.

    • There you go Mike.

      I cant comment on the new one (you probably saw I’m holding off in protest) but I agree with the sentiment, and the praise for the original is spot on.

      I think the exhilaration from the Karate Kid may have even been more than Rocky. Hard to top that Crane kick the first time you see it. Right to his head!! LOL

  15. This is definitely a movie everyone should see! But if you saw it a long time ago, or so many times on tv, does it feel like it’s lost it’s magic over the years? That’s the way it feels to me. I loved this movie when it came out and have not seen it recently, so maybe I’ve just lost touch. Or maybe I’ve just gotten older and can’t hear Santa’s sleigh bells. I have not seen the remake and don’t intend to. Maybe I should just watch it again! Or maybe I should wait until I’m in the home and I can watch it every day and every day it would be a new movie. haha.

      • I was talking to my oldest daughter about her cousin. She was there that day too. I was trying to recall the circumstances surrounding the “capture”. She basically remembers the same thing. We were in the garage, she said she wanted to add a fly to her bug collection, took out the chopsticks (apparently in the bug collecting kit she made) and caught one after a couple of tries.

        As for me, Ray……..I too, am chopstick challenged. Haha

    • Ended that one on a bleak note, eh buddy? LOL

      No. To me it has not lost the magic. But, I will admit, watching them as a blogger has been like seeing movies in HD for the first time… it feels as if I’m looking at them in a new way, because I am, in a sense. So for me, still a winner, still had all the charm, definitely worth a rewatch if you get the chance!

  16. You know, I’m not sure if I have actually seen this in its entirety. It seems like a movie I watched when I was a kid, but I don’t remember much outside of a few select moments/lines. The next time I have 80s nostalgia running through my veins, I’ll be sure to give this a go. :D

      • Hmm… maybe. The project is definitely still in the works, and I am debating on expanding it to 50. If that’s the case, I know for sure that Rushmore will be in (know you will be happy about that one!).

  17. This is such an excellent write up of a film that still makes an impact on me, years after I first watched it. Decades! Man I feel old now.

    You know, this was one of those films that came on the approved parental list of films kids are allowed to watch. Well for my parents. It had a solid message behind it, but it wasn’t heavy handed.

    I didn’t know that Pat Morita had spinal tuberculosis when he was a child. All I knew was that the film makers of this film were looking for a Daniel and Mr. Miyagi who themselves had to go through a certain amount of training before the film so that the actors themselves could really appreciated karate.

    Daniel-son and Mr. Miyagi are one of the all time best film team-ups.

    Now I want to watch this….

    • Nice…. there we go.

      See? That’s how I’M feeling about the movie, too. I was surprised to get so many lukewarm comments on this one, I really was. I felt like I was busting out one of the “Big Guns” you know?

      Mitagi and Daniel-san were pretty much the stuff of legend. At least in this one. LOL. By 3 it got kind of creepy! :D

      • Yeah. It’s some unintentional comedy goodness though.

        The Sports Guy on ESPN/Grantland.com loves to rag on how absurd it is that the two grown men involved would go so far out of their way to exact “revenge” on a teenager who won a karate tournament. LOL

      • It’s also funny how by this one they don’t even really try to shoehorn in a romantic subplot with the female lead. It’s like they said “Well, if we do yet another one, we know he’ll just wind up having ditched the girl anyway, so why bother?”

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