After “Rocky” an appetite for a good underdog story grew. “The Karate Kid” capitalized on this with Daniel LaRusso’s ‘troubled’ move to Los Angeles. A young romance tumbles together with some readily relatable drama and a pinch of Japanese culture that went a long way for this award winner. This was an iconic movie that etched the “Wax on, Wax off” idea (and maybe even the technique!) into a whole generation of movie goers!
Ralph Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso, a poor but smart-mouthed high school senior form New Jersey. Honest, kind-hearted and full of one liners, he gives a dramatic performance that we can easily engage with and relate to. Trying to save his crush Ali (Elisabeth Shue), from a violent ex-boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka), our would be hero made himself a target for the town’s thugs.
As it turns out all the thugs train at Cobra Kai Karate with Martin Kove as Sensei John Kreese, a rough military type with more brawn than brains and no courtesy to boot. It takes some wise Zen-fu intervention on the part of Pat Morita playing our much loved Mr. Miyagi for Daniel to finally learn from and ultimately transcend his issues.
A fresh start with great weather and a swimming pool; at least that what’s Lucille LaRusso had in mind when deciding to move to Reseda with Daniel. Things start off well with some friendly neighbours and a trip to the beach, but after a little conflict between Daniel as the new guy and Johnny the town’s karate fighting delinquent, things begin to spiral off course. As Johnny and his group of thugs start to take an interest in humiliating Daniel, turning his life inside out, a stroke of good karma arrives however in the form of Mr. Miyagi who kindly steps in to help.
What started as a peaceful solution to the problem ends up taking Daniel on a journey to learn Karate with Mr. Miyagi. Undertaking a slow, frustrating learning curve combined with a sorrow filled past and budding school romance, our unlikely hero emotively stumbles his way through to a Karate Tournament. Now is Daniel’s chance to make a stand and change the situation he’s been handed.
This prequel to many of our modern martial arts genre pictures was still but a prototype in infancy. Graced for the most part by an unnatural and mechanical fighting style; we get to be fairly impressed with Johnny’s picturesque spinning back kick and Darryl Vidal’s (the tournament semi-finalist) few fleeting moments on screen. Pat E. Johnson the choreographer by this point was starting to add more of a flair but still was perhaps reluctant to incorporate many of the all-out combat elements we enjoy in modern fight scenes today.
LaRusso’s first success turned out to be his first failure; as our hero’s attempt at gallantry provoked his beach beat down sending him on a gruelling journey. Johnny doesn’t hesitate to exhibit his favourite moves for torment either, leaving Daniel crushed and miserable on the receiving end of his kicks in this scene. Ironically, after dishing out this opening beating, the group of thugs thereafter resort to predatory guerrilla tactics, and never really faces our hero on equal ground. Perhaps Daniel was more of a threat than they were willing to admit?
We see these tactics again as the thugs hunt Daniel down for interfering with their dastardly karma. Vindictive and sour, Johnny and his boys abrasively present a violent thrashing and even a rock and roll-esque spin kick. They quickly get what’s coming to them however when Mr Miyagi jumps in to save Daniel smashing the posse of delinquents with the cool ease only a true Zen-fu Master could.
What really makes this film a gripping experience though, is seeing Daniel grow with his unorthodox training. As we watch him wax, sand and paint his way to exhaustion, we can’t help but feel awe for his determination. It’s a huge relief when Mr. Miyagi finally reveals the real world application of his strange training, giving us the “AHA!” epiphany moment of revelation we were anxious for! It is still unclear whether this was an intentional display of traditional martial arts applying functional and natural training, to better develop the warrior as a whole; or if it just happened to be a consequence of bringing a Japanese feel into western cinematics. Either way, it was a great success.
Personally, I felt that the apt use of the music score to emphasise both Daniel’s internal struggles and reflection helped bring it all together. By the time we arrive at the scene with Daniel training with his back to the horizon, I almost felt like being there training beside him.
Later on, at tournament time we get a nice array of tricks on screen, backed up by Joe Esposito’s infectious number “You’re The Best Around” and you just can’t help being drawn in.
While most of the punching we see is counter punching and fill-in for the kicks, there are some great highlights, best of which come from Darryl Vidal and his masterful spinning back kick and flurry of axe kicks. The cherry on the cake, is of course that now iconic “Crane technique” (invented by Vidal himself) that Daniel uses as his ultimate weapon.
Again with this classic we have to pay special homage to the inspiring use of its score to pull us into the scenes. From the training to the fighting, we are treated with engaging (even if a little cheesy by today’s standards!) music from start to finish.
While not as flashy or daring as some of martial arts titles that came before or after, it still managed to become a huge sensation of the times. It’s a classic for Western martial arts movies and has earned its place by emotionally moving so many martial artists and movie enthusiasts alike. This family flick might well stick out like a sore thumb today with its juvenile dramatics and light comedy, but its theme endures and we love it all the same. This is a movie then that teaches humility through empathy, a must watch for those who like a little drama mixed in with their kicks.
- Ralph Macchio seemed early on to have discovered the fountain of youth, if you re-watch the movie now, it may well be in disbelief as he was already 22 when he played the role of Daniel.
- The crane technique used by both Miyagi and Daniel, was a suggestion made by Darryl Vidal that corresponded with what choreographer Pat E. Johnson had in mind, even though it’s not actually related to any of the crane styles of Kung fu, or Okinawan Karate.
- Pat E. Johnson was the stunt coordinator and helped choreograph “Mortal Combat” and the Original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.