Fobbed off by many as Rocky-lite, well it was helmed by the same Director, John G Avildsen, and had music by the same composer, Bill Conti, but for many who were young in the mid-80s the antics of Daniel Larusso, played by an unbelievably young looking Ralph Macchio who was 22 at the time, and Mr Miyagi resonated far deeper than Balboa smacking about cold meat in a freezer ever did.
After all with his problems with girls, bullies and his mum, it was something far easier for us to relate to.
The new Mr Miyagi may be played by martial arts legend, Jackie Chan, but for me this will still only ever be one, that as played here by Pat Morita, who was Oscar nominated for his first outing as the wise old teacher, and showed flashes of humour, speed, wiseness and humility.
First viewing though we were all as Larusso when Miyagi was getting him to do a whole host of chores from staining the world’s longest fence and waxing cars for no apparent reason, ah, but then we didn’t figure on this being actual fight training and how we all marvelled at those seemingly inane tasks being transformed into bonafide fight moves (nice try mum, but the same thing didn’t work with washing the pots or tidying my room). Now it seems obvious but when little it seemed a massive revelation and totally inspired.
The Karate Kid is no Citizen Kane but it really struck a chord with many, with such moves and phrases as wax on, wax off becoming part of the popular culture and used by people who haven’t even seen the film. And who hasn’t tried doing the crane, sure it may not have been on a beach post like in the film, but us boys of a certain age have all given it a good attempt.
Viewed today it’s typical of its era, slower paced, not full of fast editing, swearing or big explosions and that is part of its charm. Like many of its classic brethren of the time: Back to the Future and a whole slew of John Hughes films at its heart it is a simple movie with a massive feel good factor.
On many levels it has many similarities with Back to the Future, both are about coming of age, about a boy needing an old man and vice versa, which turn them into an unlikely buddy movie of sorts. Both Larusso and McFly are also thrust into unfamiliar worlds, one to the 1950s and the other into the competitive world of karate. There’s also obviously the gang of bad guys in both, with the Cobra Kai in an inspired assault on Larusso during a Halloween Ball, with Daniel dressed as the, er, shower from Psycho and the Cobra Kai as a group of skeletons.
Which brings us onto the chief villain, Kreese, the owner of the Cobra Kai Dojo Academy, played by Martin Kove, who was perhaps best known to most for his good guy role in Cagney and Lacey. He clearly revels in his role and seethes nastiness right until the very end, even sacrificing his own students in the tournament and aiming to win at any cost, a move that ultimately sees his fall from grace and the loss of respect from his students.
With the majority of the early part of the film dealing with relationships, whether it is the growing relationship of Mr Miyagi and Daniel, Daniel and his mum or Daniel and Ali (played by Elizabeth Shue), it is the latter part that really ramps up the tension with the All Valley Karate tournament, where a member of the Cobra Kai intentionally fouls him causing injury to his leg.
And here, in a film of great visually memorable moments, from the aforementioned skeleton attack to Mr Miyagi catching a fly with his chopstick, is where my standout moment occurs that makes me go all goose-pimply just thinking about it. It is that moment where Mr Miyagi claps his hands together to give an in pain Daniel the ultimate massage to get him back to the tournament area and finish his fight. It’s a simple moment, beautifully heightened by Conti’s score, that really helps pile on the anticipation.
The Karate Kid, which has some great displays of karate action, doesn’t live or die on its action scenes, for a film with such a violent sounding title, there isn’t really that much karate action to be fair. It works because we care about the characters and how they interact with one another and because it is an uplifting tale about perseverance and the underdog coming out on top.
I also loved the fact that Parts II and III continue directly after the film that has preceded it with previous events neatly recapped in that film’s opening credits, which somehow made it feel more like a natural continuation of that same story rather than a brand new tale, as if that was the plan all along.
To paraphrase one of the film’s most famous songs, is this Karate Kid still the best around? Hai, as Mr Miyagi might say.