The Karate Kid ★★★★½

Being a fan of pop culture in the 2010s has meant a lot of things, but one of them has definitely been being subject to boat loads of 80s nostalgia of which I have none. There was a Ghostbusters revival, a Star Wars revival, those commercials that recreated significant portions of Ferris Bueller and E.T., the very existence of Stranger Things with its infinite call-backs to E.T., Aliens, Indiana Jones, etc. But as a big-time fan of How I Met Your Mother, I was subject to endless references to 1984’s The Karate Kid. Between HIMYM and that episode of Community where they recreate the entire movie as a play, I feel like I had already seen this movie before, and frankly I wasn’t too excited. I’ve been told “wax on, wax off” so many times in my life it had practically lost all meaning. After so much build up for what seemed like a silly teen movie from 36(!) years ago, I expected to be disappointed.

I love when my expectations are wrong. This movie fucks. If I were a kid/teen in the 80s, I would absolutely be a Karate Kid fanboy. Yes, in plot it’s not too different than the first Rocky movie. A challenge is put forth to our underdog protagonist (here Daniel played by Ralph Macchio) and the movie focuses on his training alongside an old, cranky man (here Mr. Miyagi played by Pat Morita) as he gets ready for the big fight with which the movie closes.

Like Rocky, Karate Kid too focuses on issues of class. Daniel and his single mother live in a slightly dilapidated apartment complex and drive a car that often requires a (quite literal) running start. Meanwhile, seemingly the rest of the high school Daniel attends lives in mansions and attends social gatherings at the local country club. But where I felt Rocky was rather one-noted in terms of its themes, this movie isn’t simply a rich vs. poor story. Nor, like Rocky, is the final fight simply a way for the protagonist to gain glory. This is a coming-of-age tale, one in which training is less about building muscle and more about find balance (in more ways than one). And it’s a film whose script is in countless subtle ways filled to the brim with heart.

Every character is a fully rounded individual whose backstory is filled with sadness, sometimes made obvious to the audience, sometimes merely hinted at. Much has been said (sometimes comically, sometimes not) about how the film’s primary antagonist (the snobby, entitled, rich kid Johnny Lawrence played by William Zabka) is unfairly portrayed as a villain. While I find these arguments largely facetious, I admit he is far more than your average movie stereotype of a bully. He’s subtly nuanced with real motivations beyond the plot’s need to have an antagonist, especially since Daniel is far from an innocent victim and does much to provoke the conflict between himself and Johnny.

But take Daniel’s mom (played by Randee Heller). We never hear “boo” about Daniel’s father. We don’t know if the two divorced, if his father passed away, etc. What we know is that this is a woman for whom her child is her world. She will do anything to advance her station to give him a better life, but she is not embarrassed of who she is. Yet her heart breaks (and ours with her) when she sees her son’s black eye or sees him throw his broken bicycle in the dumpster. She cares so much that her son fits in and that he has friends, that she blames herself for anything that goes wrong, seemingly giving little thought to her own sacrifices, that she too moved across the country for the promise of a job in tech only to end up working as a hostess/waitress in a local restaurant. All these details are plain and out in the open, but never fully dwelled upon, which is appropriate. This movie isn’t her story. Yet these small details are crucial. They build a realistic world in which Daniel operates and heightens the drama of his situation. He’s not just fighting to get back at bullies. He’s fighting because he’s too young to fully appreciate what his Mom has done for him. He just sees that his Mom has always made him an outcast socially (it’s not the first time they’ve made a move like this), that she dropped into a new school environment, and he now turns to violence because presumably because no male figure has been there to teach him any other way.

All this makes his relationship with Mr. Miyagi so beautiful. On his sixteenth birthday, it is Mr. Miyagi that Daniel chooses to celebrate with over his own mother. Only in the 1980s could films pair teenage boys with old men with no questions asked (see: Doc Brown & Marty in Back to the Future). But the two fill a void in each other’s lives. Multiple times Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi how he learned all the various things he knows about life and karate, and every time Miyagi answers that it was from his father. Daniel replies that Miyagi’s father must have been something special, and we can just hear the pangs of regret beneath Daniel’s words that he wished he had such a man in his life. And on the converse, in that unforgettably emotional scene where a drunken Miyagi openly grieves his wife and newborn child who died in a Japanese internment camp forty years prior from likely preventable complications of childbirth, in front of Daniel, we learn how Miyagi was denied the opportunity to pass on that incredible Miyagi family wisdom to the next generation. Surrogate father gains surrogate son; what could be more beautiful?

There are other small thematic touches I enjoy. I like how the two karate trainers are symbolic of how American vets from differing eras transitioned to civilian life. The Cobra Kai dojo where the film’s antagonist Johnny trains is headed by John Kreese, a highly militant Vietnam vet who treats his dojo like training camp. Orders are barked out and push-ups expected for the slightest infraction. It is not enough to defeat the enemy: they must be destroyed, shown no mercy. This Vietnam vet never fully transitioned to civilian life. He fought in a war that America never won, and therefore never really ended. In an effort to gain control and respect he creates new enemies and uses brute strength to subjugate them.

Miyagi on the other hand has no interest in violence. He tells Daniel how he was always scared to fight, which at the time in the film seems to mean that he is scared when he has to fight out in the streets, but after we find out about his military service it instantly speaks of his time fighting the Germans in WWII. He fought and risked his life, scared that he would never again see his wife, all for a country who didn’t care about him, who let his wife and child die. He won his war, was likely celebrated as a hero, but what price glory? Victory gave him nothing, which likely informs his final advice to Daniel before he tries to return to fight Johnny despite Daniel’s broken leg. Miyagi asks Daniel what’s the point of fighting since he made his point and gained the Cobra Kai’s respect. The fact that Daniel insists on fighting goes against Miyagi’s deeply rooted life philosophy to not use karate in an aggressive manner. Yet he compromises because he loves the boy and to do otherwise would break his heart. The ritual laying on of hands is obviously little more than placebo, but it means the world to a boy who places his utmost love and faith in the man.

Probably the weakest aspect of the film is the love story but that’s not to say that Macchio and Elizabeth Shue aren’t cute and don’t share good chemistry throughout the film. They are and they do. Really it’s more just that this movie is a product of its time and largely views Shue’s Ali as an object to be “won” by either Daniel or Johnny. That said, she is a fairly strong character who is more than capable of standing up for herself, but overall doesn’t have a whole lot of personality other than having a good heart.

But a weak love story does little to drag this movie down. I’ve spoken little of the film’s cinematography but there are many beautiful and expertly crafted shots. I loved the way that the shadows of the Cobra Kai loom large behind Daniel as he hurries to ride his bike home without being pummeled at the beginning of the film. And all of the shots from the beach contain stunning shots of water and sun. But the reall winner is incredibly smartly crafted script that refuses to overplay its action. In fact, there is really little action throughout the film, which makes the ending karate tournament montage set to “You’re the Best Around” a genuinely exciting sequence. Overall, its emphasis on character-building scenes over muscle-building training sequences help this to rise above the crappy movie this could have been. I was not expecting to be brought to tears by The Karate Kid, but with one of the all-time great characters in Mr. Miyagi, it’s hard not to be won over. Don’t fear the hype, this movie really is one of the best around.