The same thing that excites a viewer about “The Karate Kid” (1984) – the fact that it’s directed by John G. Avildsen and filled with songs by Bill Conti – also brings it crashing down, because “The Karate Kid” is no “Rocky.” It’s no fault of those “Rocky” collaborators — Avildsen gives the film a nice look and gets strong performances out of young Ralph Macchio and veteran Pat Morita, and Conti is on his game, especially with Survivor’s “Moment of Truth” – but many parts of the movie are not fully fleshed out.
That said, every kid of the 1980s loved “The Karate Kid,” and we weren’t totally wrong for doing so. Written by the prolific Robert Mark Kamen, the film successfully captures the horrors of what it’s like for a new kid at school. It also peppers in some notably hopeful elements. Within a minute of arriving in Reseda, Calif., with his single mom (Randee Heller), Daniel (Macchio) is invited to a beach party. Within a minute of that party, he has attracted the attention of popular pretty girl Ali (Elisabeth Shue).
Then he gets the crap beaten out of him by the full-time bullies of the Cobra Kai dojo – who bastardize the defensive principles of karate – and this group (led by William Zabka’s Johnny, who also eyes Ali) will spend the rest of the 126-minute (!) film harassing Daniel.
When Daniel returns home after being driven off a steep rise on his bicycle by the Cobra Kais, he rants at his mom about how she never asked his opinion about moving from New Jersey to California. Moving can be a difficult and even traumatic experience for kids, and “Karate Kid” nicely shows Daniel’s perspective in this scene.
Otherwise, the film encourages hope in its young viewers. Despite being inexplicably picked on (he’s not “stealing” Ali, since she already hates Johnny’s guts), Daniel is effortlessly suave. But even so, the ease with which he gains the affections of Ali is staggering, both in comparison to reality and to other coming-of-age films.
As for his karate skills, though, Daniel has to work at it; there might be even more training shown in “Karate Kid” than in “Rocky.” When Mr. Miyagi (Morita) trains Daniel in a manner that seems suspiciously like he’s scamming for free child labor, young viewers can certainly relate to Daniel’s frustrations. Kids want to know something now, they don’t like the long and winding path. But one of the film’s coolest moments comes when Miyagi throws training punches and kicks at Daniel, and Daniel realizes he can fend them off with the “wax on, wax off” hand movements and other moves now ingrained through repetition from waxing Miyagi’s car, sanding his deck and painting his fence.
The Japanese-American Miyagi is the most iconic character to come out of “Karate Kid.” He’s the human answer to Yoda, but instead of speaking “backward,” he speaks in a truncated manner befitting someone for whom English is a second language. The short bursts of wisdom have some Confucius in them, even though he’s irked that Daniel mistakes Japanese and karate culture for other East Asian traditions.
We also get a surprisingly mature burst of backstory for Miyagi that probably flew over the heads of young viewers in the 1980s. He fought for the US in World War II in Europe, but his wife and unborn child died in an American internment camp, lacking access to proper medical care for her pregnancy, during that time.
Meanwhile, there’s no backstory (at this point in the saga) for the character who needs it: Kreese (Martin Cove), the teacher at the Cobra Kai dojo. It makes sense that he’s training his students to win karate tournaments. But what makes no sense are his goals outside of tournament competition. Kreese encourages his students to go around being bullies and particularly target Daniel. Indeed, it’s only because of a negotiated truce (the only honorable thing the Cobra Kais do) that the students don’t attack Daniel and Miyagi during pre-tournament training.
There’s something missing here, like maybe the Cobra Kais are running a Foot Clan-type of thievery syndicate. If they are above board, they should want Daniel in their ranks, so they can train him to his full potential and win more tournaments. Sure, it makes sense that Johnny hates Daniel because of the Ali thing, but there’s no reason that should spread to Kreese.
If we’re being kind, we could say Kreese is a fantasy element similar to Ali: the purely evil and scary adult figure, just as Ali is the dream girl who likes you as soon as she knows you. However, he’s much more extreme. We can see why Ali likes Daniel – he’s cool and good-looking and kind of exotic with his Jersey accent – but we never learn Kreese’s motives.
His evil gets so extreme in the tournament that he instructs a student to injure Daniel in the semifinals so Johnny is assured of a win in the final. Then in the final, Kreese instructs Johnny to go after Daniel’s injured leg. In the tournament, there are great over-the-top taunts in the background (“Get a body bag!”), but also a slight sense that the Cobra Kais who are fighting Daniel are bothered by Kreese’s crueler instructions.
“Karate Kid” abruptly ends with Daniel’s victory and Johnny saying “You’re all right” as he hands Daniel the trophy like a good sport, an action we had gotten little hint of up to this point. Throw in an awkward sequence of events earlier where Ali briefly hates Daniel for no apparent reason when they’re at the arcade, and it’s clear “Karate Kid” was being rejiggered up to the last minute.
It’s a sloppy film in a lot of ways, one that doesn’t take advantage of its long run time to flesh out the Cobra Kais. Still, it checks the boxes for a winning film for older kids – there’s even some swearing! By the time the credits rolled, I was interested to learn more about the under-explained elements of the saga’s first entry. (Two more films about Daniel follow, then two films about other karate kids, then the current “Cobra Kai” YouTube series that chronicles Daniel and Johnny as adults.)