Thursday, July 15, 2010

Flashback Review: Original Karate Kid Still Has Some Kick to It

SPOILER DISCLAIMER: Okay, so this movie is over 26 years-old, but just in case you missed the whole eighties phenomenon that was The Karate Kid, I am warning you now that there may be some spoilers. And, with that, on to the review.

Like so many eighties films, The Karate Kid had been put on the nostalgia shelf and labeled cheesy. I’d nearly forgotten the 1984 film, directed by John G. Avildsen and starring a very young Ralph Macchio and veteran Pat Morita, until news of the recent reboot surfaced. Honestly, I wrote off the reboot- I haven’t even seen it yet- as another crime in the recent remake-mania that has gripped Hollywood. And it wasn’t until my wife came across the original trilogy in a bargain three-pack at WalMart (only $13) that I decided to revisit The Karate Kid.

Sitting through the first (and best) film of the franchise, I was both charmed (by the quaintness of it) and surprised (by the weight of the performances).  You know from the first notes of the synthesizer soundtrack that you are getting an eighties movie. The after-school special camerawork only reinforces this. It would be easy to discount the movie at this point, but that would be a mistake.

Ralph Macchio
I was amazed at what a credible leading man he was. He has the looks of a 16 year-old, but he moves fluidly between humor, anger, frustration, and finally triumph. Amidst a cast of unbelievably evil bad guys, he holds your attention, never giving you reason to doubt that this is a real kid going through real struggles. Even beside Pat Morita, Macchio carries the movie.

Mister Miyagi
It’s no secret that Mister Miyagi stole his share of scenes. His zen-master sayings were ubiquitous on the playground in 1984. What surprised me this time as an adult was the depth he conveys through his sparse lines and physicality. Somehow injected into the middle of an average eighties feel-good film, the scene where Daniel finds him drinking to the memory of his dead wife was funny and heartbreaking while delivering a subtle rebuke about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Even today, this would have been a brave move, much less in 1980’s America when we were still too afraid to bring up racially tinged issues.

The Finale
The film transforms in the last 15 minutes as Daniel moves up through the tournament until he comes face to face with Johnny, his key antagonist. It is here that the dramatic weight of the moment really seems to catch up with the potential of its two protagonists. Cheesy sneers are hurled from the bad guy bench. Johnny sweeps Daniel’s leg as directed by his super-evil, king-of-all-bullies sensei. Mister Miyagi does his hand-rub thing to Daniel’s knee- even this comes across as cheesy. 

But when Daniel limps out onto the mat, you would have to be a corpse not to get goosebumps. The music builds. The excitement of the crowd climbs to full boil. And little Daniel, in his clean, white, Luke-Skywalker outfit, stands alone on one leg, still and ready to strike. It is a genuine movie-magic moment. I was so sucked into that moment, in fact, that I forgot to make fun of the idiotic comments the bad guys in background were making. Then Daniel strikes. Everything crescendos. You almost want to cry, it’s so cathartic.

By the time the credits finally roll, The Karate Kid still has plenty of kick, the kind of kick that never gets old. The cheesiness of the times often creeps into movies in any decade. But a talented pair of actors and some great moments can make those things fade into the background.

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