At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Karate Kid “84”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Martial Arts Drama/ Stars: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka, Chad McQueen, Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison, Tony O’Dell/ Runtime: 126 minutes

It should be said that when a film manages to blend together a pair of the more visible genres in the form of the teen drama and the inspirational underdog narrative that existed in that timeless era known as the 1980’s Combining two of the more prominent genres of the 1980s your film will most assuredly become just as timeless. A fact that I am proud to say The Karate Kid has managed to exemplify beautifully. Indeed to say this film is no less than iconic cinema is a gross understatement. Yet, and perhaps more remarkably than that, is the fact that this film is still just as fun, emotional, and actually meaningful even though it has now been over 35 years since it was first released back in 1984. Indeed it really is one of a group of films, of which Dirty Dancing and The Breakfast Club are charter members, that not only are films commonly tied to the decade they came from, but also are wonderful representatives that show just what the 80’s represented in terms of film styles and/or themes. Indeed what this film, and other 80’s movies, lacked in any real suspense or uniqueness, they definitely made amends for it by possessing huge amounts of both heart and spirit in equal measure. Indeed while there are several things from this film, “wax on, wax off” being the main one I can think up, that have become ingrained into pop culture, the reality is that they are still just as timeless as they were back in 1984. Indeed suffice it to say then that this film overall still works on the level that it does because there is so much the film teaches you tucked away behind a narrative that is the dictionary definition of clichéd. Indeed by teaching us all lessons about the power of friendship, the necessity of integrity, the true worth of hard work, and the comprehension that sometimes to try is more important than to succeed, The Karate Kid manages to still prove to be one of the most important as well as satisfying from a pathos perspective films of the 1980’s and beyond.

The plot is as follows: The Karate Kid tells the story of a young man by the name Daniel Larusso as he and his mom find themselves moving from New Jersey all the way out to Reseda in the sunny, hot, warm, earthquake-loving state that is California. Yet even though his Mom is optimistic about the move, and the new job in California that is awaiting her, Daniel is more cynical about it to the point that he really finds himself having issues with making things work in their new home. Yet even though that changes when he meets and forms a connection with a beautiful girl named Ali, Daniel soon finds himself at odds with her ex-boyfriend, and an arrogant student of the martial arts, named Johnny Lawrence. Thus finding himself constantly under assault from Johnny and his cronies from the martial arts dojo in town, Daniel decides that life is going to be a living nightmare. That is until he makes the unlikely acquaintanceship of his apartment building’s maintenance man: an elderly man from Okinawa by the name of Mr. Miyagi. However when Mr. Miyagi saves Daniel from a ruthless five-on-one beat-down as well as is a firsthand witness to the bullying and downright brutal methods being taught by Johnny’s dojo instructor John Kreese, Miyagi sees what Daniel is facing and agrees to teach him the martial art known as karate that way Daniel can both reclaim his honor AND also show up Johnny and the rest of Cobra Kai bullies at the local All-Valley Karate Tournament. Yet even though this sounds all well and good, there is one hiccup. That would be the fact that Daniel’s skill level is wayyy lower than any of the students at Cobra Kai and the tournament is only a couple of months away. To that end, Miyagi subjects Daniel to a regiment of intense physical training, albeit training that upon first glance really has no ties to karate whatsoever. Thus, and as the tournament date gets closer and closer, Daniel finds himself not only improving, but also getting to construct a genuine relationship with both Ali and the gentle yet powerful Miyagi. Indeed it will be this pair of relationships that will ultimately determine if Daniel has both the heart and skill needed. Not only to become a great martial artist, but a great man as well…….

Now it goes without saying, but there is quite a bit that has helped to ensure that The Karate Kid is not only seen as a standout film, but also a crown jewel in the crown of movie magic from the 1980’s. Yet when one looks past the potent pathos, the sweet 80’s soundtrack, the iconic quotes, and the sentimental narrative, one might discover the immense and potent wisdom that this film has been blessed with. A wisdom that, I feel should also be stated, is true just as much today as it was back in 1984. Not only that, but despite the film’s deceptively superficial attitude which erroneously gives off the vibe that this film will be clichéd to the hilt, there is an immensity of depth in following several months in a young man’s life as not only does he come of age in an unknown environment, but also learns to be his own man whilst being guided by a wise, old mentor.  Indeed this really is an insightful yet also purpose driven film that manages to showcase several important rules of life through what is simple good vs. evil story. Yet despite the presence of this simplicity, the deeper concepts at play manage to rise above that and are ones that can be applied to an individual’s life. Indeed these themes of which integrity, honor, trust, friendship, assertiveness, and the power of trying to be the best that you can be are constantly touched on throughout and managed to be immensely interwoven into the film’s narrative. Indeed it shows how powerful a movie is when the concepts are obvious to the viewer going in, but they don’t override the viewing experience; rather they weave their way into the narrative subtly and, as a result, prove to be more immersive and relevant to the world around us. That is of course should a viewer choose to look closely at just what message(s) the film is trying to convey and is also able to see past the superficiality that is on the screen.

Of course, it isn’t too much of a spoiler to reveal that it is the character of Mr. Miyagi who manages to be the middle ground between the obvious good and bad parties in the film and also manages to be the one to construct the teachable concepts in the movie beyond the superficial trappings that overrun the rest of the film. Indeed it really is not a coincidence that the film chooses to make this character a maintenance man since these people are individuals who, with the right degree of skill, truly can bring new life to discarded, broken, and/or abandoned objects. Yet more important to the narrative is Miyagi’s phenomenal attention to detail and gift at being able to shape with finesse his bonsai trees that he grows. This is because it really is a wonderful showcase for the audience of the man’s immense patience with a shapeless item as he transforms it into something that is truly unique. Indeed as he tells Daniel-san to close his eyes, imagine what he wants the tree to look like, and then has him trim the tree to reflect that, he isn’t just telling Daniel to trim a tree. Rather he is also saying that anything is truly possible when you put your mind to it; indeed all Daniel, and through him the audience, need to do is envision something and then go and do it. Much in the same vein as tree trimming, it is a work of heart, but the vision that is the driving force behind what we do is one of but many things this wonderful sensei will teach Daniel, and through him, each and every one of us. To that end, it should be said that Pat Morita’s work in this film is truly one of the most endearing, lovable, and memorable as I have ever had the privilege of watching. Indeed there is so much beyond the quips such as “wax on, wax off,” for which the character is known for utilizing, and he may not say much. Yet that is simply because there is so much meaning hidden behind them. A meaning that is only possible because of the plain and simple fact that Morita plays this role with an honesty and integrity that, much in the same vein as good martial arts, could only originate from the heart and soul. Indeed Miyagi is truly a selfless man so it is safe to say that the individual playing him manages to provide an equally selfless performance. Indeed Miyagi has managed to become a true inspiration to many people. Not just for the words of wisdom he shares, but also through learning more about his own personal history of overcoming tragedy that we learn about as the film progresses. Plus as a man who becomes the closest thing Daniel has to a father, he also manages to lend more weight to the overall narrative by providing the protagonist with a genuine feeling of family, and belief that he can truly overcome any obstacle he puts his mind to, thus making Miyagi one of cinema’s finest mentors ever.

Now when looking at this movie through a technical lens, it should also be noted that the film even manages to succeed there as well. Indeed, and to be fair, the movie may be a bit slow at the beginning, but due to a terrific sense of pacing as well as a runtime that is 5-6 minutes over the two hour mark, the director of the film, a Mr. John G. Avildsen, is able to actually develop the film’s cast of characters thus giving the narrative a huge pillar to be supported on even if everything is still just elegant showmanship to display against what is a hugely telegraphed in advance race to the film’s conclusion. Yet as I already noted, The Karate Kid chooses to be more about its cast of characters and the things that they learn throughout that help them become better people than the telegraphed plot and the solid acting on display really does help to strengthen the key themes of the film. Indeed even though Morita, naturally, manages to walk away with the film we also get a wonderful performance from Ralph Macchio as the titular kid Daniel. Indeed even though he also did wonderful work in The Outsiders as Johnny (and still makes me cry every time I watch) and My Cousin Vinny, I feel it is his work in The Karate Kid universe that will always be the thing he is most remembered for. I say that because Macchio nails this role through and through and manages to showcase a comprehension of this character and the narrative wonderfully. Indeed his acting can be a little bit off-kilter at moments, but Macchio still makes it work thanks in large part to some genuinely emotional moments alongside Morita, plus a cute mini-romance arc that he gets opposite an equally as well cast Elisabeth Shue. As for the antagonists of the piece they all do wonderful work, but let’s face it everyone. In regards to a film like this, The Karate Kid is one that has 80’s underdog film stamped all over it. By that I mean the villains are genuine punks with no integrity or class and given just enough characterization so that you know just enough to hate them while our hero is some little “nobody” who gets the rich characterization and is meant to overcome these hooligans and gets the girl at the end. Kind of a weird contrast though when you realize that the 80’s was also home to the gonzo action flicks where the hero never felt to be a large enough somebody (think Arnold in….anything Arnold did in that era or Stallone in Rocky 2, 3, or 4).  Finally it should also be noted that this film’s soundtrack is just as engaging and toe-tapping as any other film released from that era with particular regard to “Young Hearts” by Commuter and “You’re the Best Around” by Joe Esposito. Indeed it is the latter that not only is still one of those iconic 80’s anthems, but is one that gets your blood pumping, your heart racing, and makes you feel that, like Daniel, you too can do anything you set your mind to.

All in all The Karate Kid might not be a perfect movie in the typical way one thinks of perfect cinema; by that I mean this movie is most definitely not Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia-level by any stretch of the imagination. Yet nevertheless it still should be noted that this film is a phenomenal movie in its own way, and in the genre in which it has chosen to insert itself. Indeed it is quite well-placed, and deservedly so, on the list of the very best inspirational films ever made, and the film’s finely-structured script manages to go way deeper than the vast majority of the cliché-stricken and completely telegraphed in advance material that superficially goes on through this film’s 126 minute runtime would seem to indicate and ultimately works in vast measure due to Pat Morita’s Oscar-nominated turn which is one of the finest mentor roles ever put to celluloid. Indeed, much like any great film made in the 80’s, The Karate Kid is also one of those films which is easy quotable, is one that can be watched time and time again, delivers a refreshingly dated yet quite riveting soundtrack, and also gives audiences a set of not exactly subtle life lessons buried under the karate training and the character arcs. Indeed it may be nostalgic, but it still manages to hold up together extremely well to this day. Suffice it to say then that The Karate Kid is movie magic at its finest and a top-notch look at just what was so magical for film about that timeless era known as the 1980s. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Karate Kid “84” a solid 4 out of 5.