MF 341 : Summer movie series: The Karate Kid (1984)
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
What's left to be said about this summer time classic? A lot. Today, I cover The Karate Kid (1984). More at www.bemovingforward.com.
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Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
An underdog that wins time and again
Summer 1984. I was a kid in summer camp, an experience I loathed. The kids were jerks and the counselors were apathetic. Among the breakout activities, we had karate lessons. The camp had an instructor dressed in a traditional white gi and black belt who would train us in basic kicks, punches, and blocking. Us as in a bunch of scrawny kids in t-shirts and shorts. On the last day of camp, we had a tournament. Yes, a tournament with partial contact. I don't think we even had to get a signed permission form from our parents. This would hardly fly today, pun intended. However, this was a different time when risk and legal liability was clearly not a high priority for a crappy camp. As for the tournament, it wasn't exactly a grand spectacle but rather, an awkward jumble of elbows, knees and fists on worn out yoga mats. I do remember one kid raising his arms, standing on one leg, his other knee raised, imitating a bird (you know which one). He proceeded to jump mid-air to propel a kick with his other leg. Clearly he‘d seen a movie that happened to be playing that same summer. My memory is fuzzy but as I recall, it got him a point.
In the weeks leading up to that "tournament," I'd seen commercials for that aforementioned film, The Karate Kid. The movie didn't have a lot of buzz going into the summer so I never got to see it. Back then, my parents worked (hence stuffing me into day camp) and family trips to the movies were far and few in between.
As the summer progressed, I heard murmurs from the other camp kids about this "karate movie" that was "awesome" and "really cool." Later that fall, as I came back to school, I listened to similar stories from my classmates. Soon after, I got one of those scholastic catalogs they used to hand out to kids in those days to take home and bother their parents with to buy books. I saw a book that caught my attention: the novelization of The Karate Kid. I added it to my queue and the rest of that school year was literary love history. I chain read it 20 times and fell in love with the story of a teen moving from New Jersey to California with his mom. Daniel, the film’s teenage protagonist, was a fish out of water. Awkward and gangly, he did not fit into a world, in which everyone was blonde and looked like they stepped out of a catalog. As an awkward kid myself with unruly hair and scrawny everything, I could relate.
Flash forward to summer 1985. I'm traveling with my parents to New York for a work trip. I'm being dragged from place to place. We couldn't afford many trips back then so this was as close to a vacation as I got. My parents decided to treat me to a pay per view movie at the hotel we were staying at and you guessed it, I picked the "karate movie" that I had heard about the summer before and whose novelization I had read all throughout the school year.
Despite knowing the story by heart, I was mesmerized by the film. From the first frame to the last, I was enchanted and the two-plus hours flew. As much I loved my now widely creased, dog eared copy of the book, the movie was a transcendental experience. I would go on to watch it countless more times on TV and VHS rentals.
In later years, I got to see The Karate Kid Part II and III in theaters, and during college, I rented the third sequel, The Next Karate Kid, from Blockbuster. The sequels were fun but not nearly the magical experience of watching the first installment. It wasn't until 2018, shortly before the premiere of the excellent sequel series Cobra Kai, that I got to see the original film on the big screen for a one-night showing along with the first two episodes of the show.
Needless to say, The Karate Kid was a staple of my childhood and continues to be a favorite in my DVD library. So much has been said about this movie that it would almost be pointless to do a standard review. Instead, I'm going to share some aspects that I've grown to appreciate as an adult.
Unlike most movies today, The Karate Kid takes its time. It devotes that time and care to its characters. While I loved the underdog themes and martial arts action as a kid, these days I appreciate more the smaller, quirkier character moments. When Daniel, and we, first meet Mr. Miyagi, the encounter is awkward. He's gruff, standoffish and the reason for the visit: a leaky faucet in Daniel's apartment, isn't exactly the stuff of grand adventure. Daniel is also an unlikely protagonist. Despite the title of the film, it's hard to see him as a "hero" type in the beginning. We not introduced to a confident or particularly strong character. Instead, we get an awkward teen who talks to himself in cafeteria lines and restaurants, has a temper, and takes foolish risks; antagonizing his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend, Johnny, who happens to be the All Valley karate champ. The movie takes its time to bring Daniel and Miyagi together in a friendship that transforms from teacher and student to father and son. It's never forced or rushed. The pacing is as steady and organic as Miyagi's karate lessons.
Also noteworthy is the cinematography, which doesn't get enough credit or mention. In a movie called "The Karate Kid," you wouldn't expect to see sweeping shots of a cross country trip, starting with the Newark skyline and transitioning to a motel in the middle of the Arizona desert as Daniel and his mom push their beat up old car onto the road. Later, we’re treated to revealing wide shots of a scenic lake and crashing ocean waves as Daniel starts to learn karate. Contrast this with the Cobra Kai dojo, in which we see the sensei, Kreese, administer hard discipline and aggressive training tactics. The movie reveals all you need to know in its small details. As Daniel visits the dojo early in the film, hoping to find a karate teacher, we see the camera pan over a framed portrait of Kreese in a military uniform from his tour in Vietnam. That tells us a lot about the character without any explicit or unnecessary dialogue. Then, when Daniel sees that Johnny and his gang are all students there, the pained look on his face and Johnny's arrogant smirk convey everything you need to know without a single word spoken between them. The movie brilliantly uses these techniques to show rather than tell us the story. Later, as Daniel is frustrated by all of the household chores that Mr. Miyagi puts him to, you see hints of a knowing smile from Miyagi. He knows why Daniel is confused, setting up a payoff for the household labor that still gives me goosebumps to this day. The movie puts its confidence into the audience and we in turn, become invested in these characters. The senseis, Miyagi and Kreese, teach us as much as they do their own students through the actors' performances, expressions, and body language.
Speaking of the Miyagi character, his greatness isn't presented all at once but rather in slow drips throughout the movie. Miyagi is a mystery to us, an enigma. As Daniel gets to know him, so do we. The film wisely never gives us too much, peeling back one layer at a time, slowly and assuredly, leading up to the film's most touching scene. Daniel comes to Miyagi during a time of need and finds his mentor drunk, celebrating an anniversary. The scene is sad, moving, and haunting as we learn about Miyagi's past and a secret pain that he's carried for decades.
All of this is underpinned by Bill Conti's score. Conti's work here is truly sublime and consistently so throughout the sequels. Each character has an identifiable collection of notes that permeates the story, elevating this film from good to great.
There's a lot more to discover about The Karate Kid, including behind-the-scenes trivia, that further adds to the appreciation and reverence you will gain for this movie. Whether you're a long time fan or have recently discovered Cobra Kai, it's worth revisiting the film that started it all.
Excellent performances, especially a career defining one for the late great Pat Morita.
The sweeping score by Bill Conti.
The story takes its time.
A plot hole: what if Daniel lost the first match in the tournament and went home?
Most likely, Kreese wouldn't have let him off the hook that easily.
***** (out of five)
Where you can watch The Karate Kid (1984)
Correction: I mention in the episode that the film is currently streaming on IMDb/tv. While I saw it was available a few weeks ago, it is no longer there. As IMDb regularly rotates its selection of free movies, you may want to check back at a later time.
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Cobra Kai articles
How ‘Cobra Kai’ is kicking butt at storytelling, marketing, and business (also on LinkedIn)
Why ‘Cobra Kai’s’ move to Netflix is the perfect sequel (also on LinkedIn)
Check out the Moving Forward mini-series collection
My conversation with William Christopher Ford ("The Karate Kid Part III")
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