Wednesday 24 August 2011

Movie Review: The Karate Kid (1984)

The Karate Kid delivers a strong punch of entertainment with a kick of sly humour. It is a memorable story about the weak kid who learns to defend himself from bullies, thanks to the guidance of a wise old man. It is also a solidly crafted movie, impressively patient in its build-up, allowing its two main characters to grow into well-rounded personalities.

High school student Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and his single mom (Randee Heller) relocate from New Jersey to California, and settle into an apartment building managed by Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita). Quick to meet and make new friends, Daniel is soon attracted to the wholesome and friendly Ali (Elisabeth Shue). But Ali's former boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka) is immediately jealous, and along with his friends, Johnny launches a campaign of vicious bullying against Daniel. Johnny and his buddies take karate lessons at a school run by Kreese (Martin Krove), an ex-Special Forces soldier, whose teaching philosophy of merciless violence fuels the bullying behaviour of his students.

Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, and negotiates a truce with Kreese: Daniel will enter a karate tournament in two months time to take on Johnny and his buddies. In the meantime, as Daniel trains, the bullying stops. For two months, Miyagi teaches Daniel the true philosophy and techniques of karate, and their relationship evolves beyond karate to cover many principles of life. In the meantime, Daniel maintains a stuttering courtship of Ali, and discovers a wide gap between her family's wealthy social status and his humble life.

The tournament arrives, and Daniel has to apply all that he has learned from Miyagi to survive and progress against the hardened students from Kreese's school, with all roads leading to a final showdown against Johnny.

Miyagi: Hai! Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out of mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don't forget to breathe, very important. Wax on... wax off. Wax on... wax off.
Daniel: Hey where do these old cars come from?
Miyagi: Detroit. 

Other than the obvious revenge-of-the-scrawny-kid attraction, the appeal of The Karate Kid stems from the relationship between the mystical Miyagi and the willing-to-learn Daniel. The strength of the Robert Mark Kamen script lies in the breadth and depth with which the bond between the mentor and mentee is probed. A painful and touching scene, atypical of the feel-good genre, reveals Miyagi's background, and it becomes clear that Miyagi needs Daniel as a surrogate son just as much as Daniel needs Miyagi as a father figure. From then on, the father-son connection achieves the strength of indestructible hardened steel.

Director John G. Avildsen applies all the lessons he learned from the classic underdog tale of Rocky to good effect, and provides The Karate Kid with texture and artistry to elevate it several notches above the routine. The production quality allows the film to overcome a soundtrack filled to the brim with the worst of 1980s pop-rock.
A cast of previously obscure acting talent works in favour of The Karate Kid, which is essentially a story about the success of the nobody. Relative unknown Ralph Macchio is competent as Daniel, rarely straying far from doing exactly what the script asks for, and projecting adequate and joyfully doe-eyed appeal for the target audience of 12 to 14 year old girls. Pat Morita was mostly known for television roles prior to exploding into prominence as Miyagi, a one-man quote machine and a competitor for Yoda's crown as filmdom's ultimate fountain of old-aged wisdom laced with cynicism. The Karate Kid was Elisabeth Shue's movie debut, and despite a perfectly boring and predictable role as Ali, the most stereotypical of girls-next-door, Shue would go on to have arguably the most interesting and varied career from among the cast members.

The Karate Kid does struggle to soften the otherwise blatantly worrying message that fighting back is the only solution to bullying. Miyagi stresses the need for balance, and there is dialogue about fighting as a last resort, learning to fight in order not to have to fight, and karate being a defensive skill. But it is all for naught: the film boils down to meeting force with force, and there are no attempts to promote the engagement of the intellect or diplomatic skills to cleverly sidestep retarded and testosterone-driven conflicts.

The Karate Kid is also not helped by a very sudden ending. As soon as the climactic tournament ends, the film ends. The otherwise relaxed two-hour running length is abruptly rushed to the exits, while the story screams for an extra, thoughtful 10 minutes to wind-down, tidy up Daniel's relationships, allow Johnny and his buddies some moments of reflection and partial redemption, and to emphasize the more useful, less violence-obsessed lessons that could be learned from the experience.

As it stands, The Karate Kid is an easy-to-like feel-good story, providing far-fetched hope for all underdogs: with the wisdom of a strange man from Okinawa, humiliation can be the platform to learn life's long-lasting lessons.

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