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Karate Kid, The (1984)
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by brianorndorf

"The Class of 1984 welcomes a pipsqueak triumph"
5 stars

“The Karate Kid” holds a special spot in the prestigious summer movie Class of 1984. It was the sleeper sensation, free of Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and resistant to the Black Sleep of Kali, becoming a box office bear using a tried and true Hollywood tool that isn’t employed much these days: patient characterization. Perhaps a touch on the corny side and undeniably broad, “The Karate Kid” is a ridiculously rewarding drama that puts pure sincerity to marvelous use, inflating a mild underdog story into an inspiring tale of education and developing friendship.

Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is having a difficult time adjusting to life in California after a cross-country relocation from New Jersey with his mother (Randee Heller). Discovering comfort in flirtations with classmate Ali (a wonderfully virginal Elisabeth Shue), Daniel finds his East Coast brashness and geeky body put to the test when bully Johnny (Reagan-era jerkwad extraordinaire, the amusing William Zabka) comes around, beating down the new kid with karate moves gathered from the Cobra Kai dojo and its wicked sensei, John Kreese (a menacing Martin Kove). To Daniel’s aid comes apartment handyman Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), who agrees to teach the battered teen the ways of karate through the repetition of household chores. While concentrating on building himself up for a critical karate tournament, Daniel finds an unexpected friendship with Miyagi that elevates the wounded spirits of both men.

Director John G. Avildsen had already been down this road once before, with 1976’s “Rocky.” Perhaps the ultimate underdog story, “Rocky” cemented a formula that many films would come to imitate, and while derivative, “The Karate Kid” is perhaps the finest riff on the Sylvester Stallone classic that’s come along thus far, with Avildsen expertly working his considerable hindsight, branding a new, unlikely hero in Daniel LaRusso.

Written by Robert Mark Kamen, “The Karate Kid” is primarily fueled by the conflicted heart of the 1980’s teen, as Daniel isn’t just dodging bullies, but trying to win the approval of a suburban princess, deal with his ambitious mother, and figure out Miyagi’s secretive karate instruction. Kamen and Avildsen refuse to burn through the conflicts to please the target demographic; instead, “The Karate Kid” winds leisurely, developing Daniel as a young man struggling to find his center while his whole life has been disrupted. These torrents of emotions and urges are beautifully realized by Macchio, who infuses the character with sensitivity, some Joisey nerve, and hormonal bewilderment while rocking a perfectly pipsqueak frame. Not a centerfold or a dreamboat, Macchio is perfectly cast in the demanding role, creating a relatable character of torment and longing, while still tending to the shrill parts of the teen character that bring the ‘80s into clear view.

Matching Macchio note for note is Morita, embodying the heart and soul of the film as Miyagi. The Yoda role of the alien sage is fairly easy to coast through, but Kamen doesn’t script Miyagi as a one-dimensional life lesson machine. With the help of a crushing drunken confessional scene between Miyagi and Daniel, the character is handed profound psychological weight, with motivations not emerging from a place of cliché, but of heartfelt alliance, as Miyagi finds a human connection with Daniel that his life had been missing for decades. The interplay between Morita and Macchio is seamless, humorous, and playfully abrasive, breathing life into revelations that define the film’s sense of partnership and instruction. 26 years later, the “Wax on, wax off” payoff still delivers goosebumps, and not because of pop culture repetition; the moment is pure due to the intimacy of the writing, with the solidification of Miyagi’s seemingly mundane domestic busywork as a lightning bolt of realization brought to life by superb performances and immense chemistry.

“The Karate Kid” has garnered a reputation as a slice of ’80s cheese, and I suppose the picture does manufacture a few moments of ridiculously flared-nostril combustibility, sold by a small horde of untested teen actors working under a director in his late forties. It’s all so silly, but only if cynicism is permitted to swallow the viewing experience. Kamen’s writing certainly takes matters seriously, and the film’s gradual pace doesn’t encourage camp. “The Karate Kid” clicks elegantly because it steps carefully, building characters to believe in. Karate doesn’t even enter the film until the hour mark, as Avildsen takes his time observing struggle and forming bonds before its all rewarded with a final act showdown on the tournament floor. But all the cranes, leg sweeps, and magical healing hands aren’t worth a damn without an incredible emotional investment, and that’s precisely what “Karate Kid” achieves, on a rather impressive scale too.

“The Karate Kid” has endured throughout the years, spawned a number of sequels, and even returns to screen this summer in a remake that looks, from preliminary footage only, to be an utter travesty. Finding the picture appealing in a retro fashion is one thing, but the filmmaking is genuinely splendid and timeless, taking a flat concept and filling it with unexpected purpose, charisma, and kindness. Its natural wave of genuineness is irresistible, and after all these years, there’s something exceptional about the way the film leaps obvious dramatic pitfalls to develop a beating heart.

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originally posted: 05/08/10 06:33:17
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User Comments

10/05/11 RAY POVERSTEIN its a very grate movie for the family 5 stars
5/14/10 Jeff Wilder Coulda gone so wrong. But went so right. 4 stars
5/10/10 James The best movie ever made. A+, 4*, 10/10,5/5 5 stars
3/18/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess Classic 5 stars
7/28/08 David Cohen A movie for anyone who has ever cheered for the underdog 5 stars
4/27/06 Sugarfoot A fairly well written and agreeable teen flick. 4 stars
8/17/05 ES One of my favs growing up, still a cherished piece of movie history. Wax on, wax off 5 stars
8/16/05 Klondo much better than Citizin Cane 5 stars
8/03/05 ALDO One of the best. Total quiver-lip ending. 5 stars
3/15/05 Ronin If you are even slightest interested in martial arts you should see it 4 stars
1/29/05 Jack Sommersby Well, it works, but kinda like a faucet dispelling water, ya know? 3 stars
1/29/05 R.W. Welch Fun movie that has a certain touch to it. Morita very good. 4 stars
1/29/05 tatum Stunningly overrated tale 3 stars
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  22-Jun-1984 (PG)
  DVD: 07-Jun-2005



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