It’s not that I disliked The Karate Kid when it came out in ’84. I liked it fine. I just didn’t like it as much as Gremlins or Repo Man or Ghostbusters. To name three considerably stranger and more twisted films from ’84. By age 13, I already preferred my movies on the weirder, darker side. The Karate Kid felt like a kind of by-the-numbers story that merely happened to be told better than most of its ilk.
But watching it last night, it played great. I kept thinking, why can’t anyone make a by-the-numbers movie this good anymore? Is anyone even trying? It all feels so low-key and straightforward. It’s pleasures are simple and yet it builds those simple pleasures one on top of the other until you’d have to have some kind of icy cold heart not to tear up at the end.
And that end! It’s so restrained. We get the briefest of fight montages of the karate tournament’s early rounds, then we’re in the semis, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) goes down, his leg illegally kicked by one of the Cobra Kais, and then it’s the finals against Johnny (William Zabka). Which lasts almost no time at all before Daniel pulls his crane move.
It reminded me of Breaking Away, but even Breaking Away, for all the beautiful restraint of its final race, has a final race. Lap after lap of it. Plenty of time to soak in the drama. The Karate Kid just bangs it out.
Most of the movie is the building of a friendship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). The training sequences are as restrained as the rest of the movie. One might wonder if two months painting fences and practicing punches while balanced on the bow of a rowboat is enough preparation for a karate tournament, but why bother? It’s too charming a movie to care about the details. If all Rocky has to do is run up famous landmarks and punch meat, Daniel’s cool sanding decks and waxing cars.
Speaking of which, is there any more famous training sequence than the washing/waxing of cars, sanding of decks, and painting of fences? You see the pay-off coming a mile away, but when it plays out it’s still dynamite. Which again, I’m calling a scene between Daniel and Miyagi, where the latter throws some punches and the former blocks them, dynamite.
It works so well because it’s not a movie about learning karate, it’s a movie about the emotional states of its characters. Their emotional states aren’t complicated. The writing, by Robert Mark Kamen, isn’t subtle. Everything is on the surface. We get these characters, we get what’s driving them, and we believe them. Simple emotional drives work great in movies providing you don’t harp on them. There are no big speeches in The Karate Kid. No profound learning moments crammed down one’s throat. The closest it comes is when Daniel pisses off Miyagi by saying he’s learning karate to fight. Miyagi barely has to say a word before Daniel realizes his mistake. He’s learning karate so he doesn’t have to fight, he realizes.
The biggest life lesson in the movie is just as simple. Miyagi puts it as a metaphor. Walk on one side of the road, you’re fine. Walk on the other side, you’re fine. Walk in the middle, you get squashed like a bug. It’s like Yoda told us four years earlier: Do or do not. There is no try.
The scenes between Daniel and his girlfriend, Ali (Elisabeth Shue, who I can’t believe was ever this young), aren’t anything great, but they’re not at all bad, either. You might not believe these two as actual high-schoolers, but as movie high-schoolers, sure. They’re adorable.
The evil trainer, Kreese (Martin Kove), is little more than a caricature of evil, and I didn’t mind him either. He fits right in with something else Miyagi says, that there are no bad students, only bad teachers. By the end, even his own students recognize what a bastard he is.
Then there’s the music. A John Hughes movie this ain’t. The ’80s songs are pretty much terrible throughout. You can’t have everything.
Deeper thoughts escape me. The Karate Kid is not about deep thoughts. It’s directed by John Avildson, who most famously directed Rocky (and most infamously, Neighbors). He keeps it simple. More than anything, The Karate Kid is a story of new kid in town making a friend. It doesn’t need to be about anything else.