Updated date:

Should I Watch..? 'The Karate Kid' (1984)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

The Karate Kid is a martial-arts coming-of-age film released in 1984 written by Robert Mark Kamen, loosely basing the film on his own life experience. Directed by John G. Avildsen, the film follows the journey of a young man recently relocated to California who runs afoul of a local karate class. Befriending an elderly Japanese man, he then learns about karate and life from this unusual tutor. The film stars Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Elizabeth Shue, William Zabka and Martin Kove. A critical smash when it was first released, the film continues to enjoy huge popularity among audiences thanks to the success of a spin-off show, Cobra Kai, which continues the story 34 years later. The film's success led to a number of sequels over the years (none of which came close to matching the critical acclaim of the first film) and a reboot in 2010 starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. The film also earned Morita a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at that year's Academy Awards.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

Seventeen-year-old Danny LaRusso reluctantly moves cross-country with his excitable mother Lucille to the Reseda district of Los Angeles from their home in Newark, New Jersey. Quickly learning that their apartment doesn't quite live up to his mother's expectations, the despondent Danny has a change of heart after falling head over heels in love with the beautiful Ali at the nearby beach. Unfortunately, this draws the attention of Ali's ex Johnny who is a promising student at the local Cobra Kai dojo and soon demonstrates his abilities by delivering a beatdown to Danny.

After being continually beaten by Johnny and his friends, Danny is saved by the actions of his apartment block's maintenance man - an elderly Japanese man called Mr Miyagi who first defends Danny from the bullies before offering to train Danny in karate. Delighted at the prospect of getting his revenge, Danny accepts Miyagi's offer and soon the two of them begin an unusual training regime that not only teaches Danny how to defend himself but also bring balance to his complicated lift.

Trailer

Main Cast

ActorRole

Ralph Macchio

Danny LaRusso

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita

Mr Miyagi

Elizabeth Shue

Ali Mills

William Zabka

Johnny Lawrence

Randee Heller

Lucille LaRusso

Martin Kove

John Kreese

Technical Info

DirectorJohn G. Avildsen

Screenplay

Robert Mark Kamen

Running Time

126 minutes

Release Date (UK)

31st August, 1984

Rating

12A (2020 re-rating)

Genre

Action, Drama, Family

Academy Award Nominations

Best Supporting Actor (Morita)

Pat Morita (right) is fantastic as Mr Miyagi, one of cinema's greatest mentors as well as breaking many stereotypes about Japanese characters in movies.

Pat Morita (right) is fantastic as Mr Miyagi, one of cinema's greatest mentors as well as breaking many stereotypes about Japanese characters in movies.

What's to like?

Having never seen the film before until very recently (I know, don't ask me how!), I didn't have the same nostalgic warmth that many viewers today might have watching the film. But thankfully, The Karate Kid doesn't have to rely on such cheap tactics to find its audience. Mirroring the typical journey of any protagonist in a sports-based film such as Avildsen's earlier smash hit Rocky, Macchio's baby-faced Danny is fantastic as one half of cinema's most unlikely partnerships - relatable, conflicted and clearly one who would benefit from a replacement father figure that Miyagi provides. But Morita goes one better, turning the traditional teacher role into one of depth, emotional heft and occasional humour. The character's eccentricities and hidden depths bring to mind the likes of Yoda - who at this point in time was still just a puppet with a funny voice - but like his green-skinned inspiration, Miyagi has since become a meme factory and remains one of cinema's most iconic and beloved characters and it isn't hard to see why.

Thankfully, the film isn't just an exploration of karate and overcoming the odds. Danny's pursuit of Ali gives Macchio more to do than just balancing on top of things while Shue feels well suited as the well-meaning good girl from the posh side of town. Opposite them, Zabka's blonde-haired menace and Kove's almost psychotic sensei give the film a real sense of danger despite you probably being able to guess the film's outcome after the first few scenes. Even the action scenes, which aren't as frequent as you might think, are well choreographed and shot while the soundtrack also alternatively gives the film plenty of punch when it's required and plenty of introspective panpipes during the more Zen moments.

Fun Facts

  • The original surname of Danny was supposed to be Weber but it was changed to LaRusso as soon as Macchio was cast. Macchio, who was 22 at the time of filming, had to prove to some of his co-stars how old he was because they didn't believe him.
  • The regiment that Mr Miyagi once served in, the 442nd Infantry, was a short-lived combat unit comprised almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans who saw combat in Europe during the Second World War. It was the most highly decorated unit of the US Army for its size.
  • The stunt double for Morita, Fumio Demura, heavily influenced Morita's portrayal of Miyagi who imitated Fumio's approach to martial arts and speech patterns in the role. However, Fumio caused some disruption during the skeleton fight scene by repeatedly hitting the actors for real. After Fumio persuaded Avildsen to use his own students in the scene, they then nailed it in one take.

What's not to like?

Viewers will any kind of dairy intolerance would be advised to stay away from The Karate Kid down to the sheer amount of cheese this movie contains. Much like its spiritual ancestor Rocky, the film throws every cliché in the 'sports movie' canon into the mix such as the scenes of young Danny repeatedly being bullied by bigger and older kids, the training montages and the deceptive appearance of his elderly tutor, the surprisingly spritely Miyagi. Even the soundtrack feels corny with Joe Esposito's stirring anthem 'You're The Best' providing the backdrop to the karate tournament at the film's climax. Modern viewers should appreciate that this is a film very much of its time, before martial-arts became almost ubiquitous in action movies, and the fashions, dialogue and direction very much reflect the Eighties atmosphere and ethos over style over substance.

While Macchio and Morita's performances would dog them for the rest of their careers, Elizabeth Shue hasn't much to do in the film but she at least managed to shake off the film's shackles. And while the film sticks to the rigid formula of sports movies, it also attempts to be a teen romance but I feel that the film drops a couple of narrative threads. Take the story of Danny's mother played by Randee Heller - there is little to no exploration of her character which makes Danny's own story feel half-finished and that in turns make his journey feel less significant. Of course, the film is also cursed by being as predictable as your typical sports movie but then again, they all are so that shouldn't be a surprise. But judged in isolation, there isn't a lot wrong with this film. It's inspiring, heart warming and if you are catching up with it for the first time in a while (possibly due to Cobra Kai), it's probably a fantastic nostalgic trip down memory lane.

The film is as cheesy as many other sports-based movies and the Eighties setting makes it feel like a heck of a nostalgia trip.

The film is as cheesy as many other sports-based movies and the Eighties setting makes it feel like a heck of a nostalgia trip.

Should I watch it?

The Karate Kid is as hackneyed and cheesy as they come but that doesn't really stop the film from being highly enjoyable. It actually stands up really well, considering it's a seminal Eighties movie - it's also head-and-shoulders above its sequels. It makes a decent family film, one that carries a message about the corruptive side of violence and the inner strength within us all. It might look a old passé today but it's easy to see why this film remains a cult classic after all these years.

Great For: children of the Eighties, fans of the Cobra Kai series, martial artists, family viewings, nostalgia nights

Not So Great For: bullies, elderly Japanese Americans who aren't martial arts experts, actors hoping to avoid becoming stereotyped

What else should I watch?

The series would continue for another three sequels before disappearing into the ether. The first sequel, The Karate Kid Part II, picks things up almost immediately after the first film finishes and sees Danny and Miyagi journey to Okinawa. While the film didn't win over quite as many critics, it did find success with audiences. The same cannot be said of The Karate Kid Part III and The Next Karate Kid, which saw a young Hilary Swank in her first leading role replace Macchio as Miyagi's new student. Neither film saw much in the way of critical praise or box office success which may go some way towards explaining why the next film was a reboot. 2010's The Karate Kid was intended as a star vehicle for young Jaden Smith (his father Will was one of the producers) alongside martial arts legend Jackie Chan. And while it is the most financially successful effort so far, the critics weren't hugely impressed and the series has been on hiatus since.

Martial arts tournaments have been popping up in cinema as often as roundhouse kicks in a Chuck Norris picture, ever since Bruce Lee introduced the concept to western audiences in Enter The Dragon. Unfortunately, this can often lead to lazy story-telling and sub-par efforts such as DOA: Dead Or Alive or The Quest, Jean-Claude Van Damme's directorial debut. Speaking of the Muscles From Brussels, JCVD enjoys a martial arts tournament more than most with a number of films in his career featuring the trope - Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Lionheart (also known as AWOL: Absent Without Leave), the aforementioned The Quest and videogame adaptation Street Fighter all feature some kind of violence-based tournament as a plot device, to varying degrees of success.

© 2020 Benjamin Cox

Soap Box

Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on December 29, 2020:

I actually didn't mind Dirty Dancing. It's as corny as hell but the soundtrack makes up for it.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on December 27, 2020:

I'm glad you caught up to a film you like. I liked this one as well. One from the eighties I caught up to earlier this year was Dirty Dancing. That coming-of-age film is more of a product of the time in which it was set, especially with the choreography and the songs written for the film. I think that one was best left in the corner.

Enjoy the rest of the holiday season and have a better 2021.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 27, 2020:

It's been years since I saw this film. I love it!

Related Articles