Summer Series 2: The Karate Kid
Unlike the first franchise in this summer’s experiment, the Karate Kid is a franchise I was intimately familiar with as a child. I don’t know if anyone my age couldn’t recite the first movie by rote, and I know I watched the second one dozens of times over the years as well. I don’t quite remember the third one, although I’m sure I saw it at least once, and I’ve never seen The Next Karate Kid at all, so that will be an adventure. I know there was a remake a few years ago starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. I’m not counting it, as it’s obviously a total reboot and therefore not part of the original series, and also Jaden Smith is the most pretentious thing outside of a cologne commercial I’ve ever seen.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka
Thoughts: As I said, I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it in years. When the opening credit sequence began, with Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother Lucille (Randee Heller) loading up a station wagon in New Jersey to move across the country to California, I didn’t remember it at all. I was a bit taken aback, but once the dialogue started it all started clicking back, I found myself anticipating the lines before they started. There’s something great about watching an old movie for the first time in a long time. It’s kind of like coming home.
Anyway, the story is pretty universally known at this point – Daniel moves to a new town and falls for a girl named Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Ali’s creepy ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (perennial 80’s movie douchebag William Zabka) beats him up using the skills he learned from his Karate sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove). Just when things seem darkest, Daniel meets his apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, in a genuinely iconic performance), who reluctantly takes Daniel under his wing and begins teaching him to defend himself.
I forgot just how long the build-up was in this movie. Daniel’s troubles take up an enormous chunk of the beginning, and in fact, he encounters Mr. Miyagi several times before he finds out the old man is a Karate master. Until that point, it’s about building the relationships between Daniel and his mother and Daniel and Ali, both of which work well. Maccho and Heller have great mother-son chemistry, with her gentle nagging and his quiet frustration rubbing each other just the wrong way. It’s also a more honest relationship than you see in a lot of movies – it seems like most of the time parents and children in cinema either have a flawless connection or are at each other’s throats with nothing in-between. Here it’s clear that Daniel and Lucille love each other deeply, but at the same time, the move west has caused undeniable and unavoidable friction between them. Ali is kind of a typical 80s teenager, at least for a PG movie and not a slasher flick, but part of that is due to Elisabeth Shue. Between this movie and Adventures in Babysitting, she was every 80s boy’s childhood crush at some point.
As this is going on, we see Daniel and Miyagi starting to bond. Miyagi helps him several times, teaches him how to trim a bonsai tree, makes him a disguise so he can go to the Halloween dance without being pulverized… and then the ass-kicking begins. Morita’s performance here, even 30 years later, is absolutely flawless. He’s a good man, a kind man, but a man who has seen enough violence and doesn’t want to see any more. Even when he sees Daniel practicing karate from a book, even when he sees the results of one of his beatings, it’s not until he has to step up and defend Daniel from nearly getting killed by a whole mob of Cobra Kai that we get any hint of the fierceness he’s capable of. And it’s only when Daniel practically begs him that he agrees to teach his young friend to fight for himself.
Plus he was more than capable of holding his own against the youngsters. Morita was 52 when this movie came out, but he played the character as that sort of wizened, ageless Asian character that seems to carry around an age that transcends his body. That’s why it’s so awesome to see him beat the crap out of William Zabka in such a convincingly choreographed fight scene.
Speaking of Zabka, it’s funny how time can change your perspective on a movie. When I was a kid, I always thought of Johnny Lawrence as the bad guy in this film. And while he’s certainly not a good guy, watching it again for the first time in years, I’m starting to see that Martin Kove’s John Reese is the real villain here. Johnny and his buddies are thugs, to be certain, but they learned to be thugs from Reese. This man is supposed to be a teacher. A mentor. Instead, he’s taken something that’s supposed to be about discipline and control and turned it into a weapon. He refuses to tell his attack dogs to leave the new kid alone, he tries to pick a fight with an old man, and he orders a teenage boy to lay a brutal and illegal hit on another one. That’s way more insidious to me now than some high school punk who beats up the new kid.
Again, because it’s been so long since I saw the movie, I’d forgotten just how 80s this soundtrack is. Virtually every song pumped in the background evokes feelings of elementary school for me, some of them going so far as to cause me to wistfully remember Kids, Incorporated. If you know what I’m talking about, I assume that you, like me, are currently being bombarded by Facebook posts by former classmates talking about an unpcoming reunion and making you feel about a million years old.
We all know how Daniel wins, taking out Johnny Lawrence in the final battle (which is technically illegal, as he hits him in the face, but the judges seem to ignore that – I’m going to assume because they all know John Reese is a jerk). When you’re a kid, this is wish fulfillment at its finest – the boy takes down his oppressor. He proves himself the better man. Every boy my age wanted to be Daniel, every one of us wanted to be trained by Mr. Miyagi. And yeah as an adult it’s easier to look back and see that in the real world a confrontation of this sort probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Johnny wasn’t going to be nice after being taken down in the ring. The Cobra Kai kids weren’t going to leave you alone after you beat them. If anything, it would probably simply escalate the problem. But in Movieland it doesn’t matter, in Movieland Daniel wins and the rivalry is settled for all time. Hell, in Movieland the defeated Johnny actually hands Daniel the trophy.
The real world doesn’t work that way. But man, it’s nice to look back a movie like this one, where it does.
The Karate Kid Part II (1986)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, William Zabka, Yuji Okumoto, Joey Miyashima, Danny Kamekona, Tamlyn Tomita, Nobu McCarthy
Thoughts: The Karate Kid Part II begins with a brief prologue that takes place right after the first movie ends. Right after the tournament, Miyagi encounters Kreese berating Johnny for losing, and winds up humiliating him in a fight by only acting defensively, then refusing to strike a killing blow. This was actually an unused ending written for the first movie but not filmed until production began on part two. I don’t know if it was changed at all, but it works very well to bookend the film, providing Daniel’s first lesson in his second adventure.
After the prologue we fast-forward six months to the end of the school year, where Daniel’s life is crapping out on him again. Ali has dumped him and his mother is being sent to Fresno for two months, so Miyagi decides to help him focus by having him build what turns out to be a guest room so he can stay in town. His relief is almost immediately derailed though, when Miyagi gets a letter from Okinawa telling him that his father is dying.
There’s a great moment early in the film when Miyagi is about to board the plane to go back to Okinawa only for Daniel to come running up behind him, having emptied his savings account to buy a plane ticket. This scene demonstrates two things. First, it shows just how deeply the affection these two characters have for one another runs. Second, it flips things from the first movie. In Part I, Daniel was the one who needed help from Miyagi. Here, Daniel is asking Miyagi to let him become the helper. The role reversal becomes plainer later on, but this helps show how Mr. Miyagi mostly takes the protagonist role from Daniel this time around. Later, when Miyagi’s father dies, Daniel tells him a story about the death of his own father, and Morita squeezes out very convincing tears. The student has become the teacher, and it’s done very smoothly.
Miyagi’s arc continues nicely from the first movie. When Daniel was first in trouble, it took an extreme situation to draw him out and you could tell there was a reason he didn’t want to fight. Here we find that reason. Again no matter how much Sato and Chozen provoke him, he doesn’t decide to fight back until it’s necessary to defend somebody else. The first time it was Daniel, this time it’s his entire village in Okinawa that’s in jeopardy. I doubt Kamen and Avildsen (who wrote and directed both movies, respectively) planned things quite this far when they were working on the first script, but the pieces come together very well.
That said, this movie does share a bit too much of the DNA of its parent, almost making it a clone. Miyagi’s former friend Sato (Danny Kamekona) takes over the Kreese role, Sato’s nephew Chozen (Yuki Okumoto) is the new Johnny Lawrence. Miyagi’s lost love Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman who came between him and Sato, has no analogue… but there’s her niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) to take over as Daniel’s love interest. And just like the original the climax of the film boils down to a fight scene in which Daniel uses a “special move” he picked up from Miyagi almost as an afterthought in order to win.
Chozen, however, is more than just Johnny Lawrence redux. While Johnny was a bully, everything he did in the first movie was easy to chalk up to teenage bravado. Chozen is brutal and far crueler than Johnny ever was. He beats Daniel severely more than once, trashes Miyagi’s father’s house and garden, scams farmers in the town who rely on his family business for their livelihood… he’s an outright criminal. And while it may have been a bit of a stretch for Johnny to hoist Daniel’s trophy and proclaim, “You’re all right, Larusso!” it would be simply inconceivable for Chozen to do such a thing. Even after Miyagi saves Sato’s life and he relinquishes his vendetta, Chozen still carries around that chip, that blow against his “honor.”
But there’s enough that’s unique to this movie to make it compelling. It builds on the characters, particularly fleshing out Miyagi’s backstory, in a very pleasing way. For example, Miyagi tells Daniel that his father took him fishing as a child in 1927. Morita wasn’t even born until 1932, validating my feelings during the first movie about the ageless quality they tried to give the character. The final fight, this time between Daniel and Chozen, is also markedly better than the Daniel/Johnny fight. In fairness, though, in the first movie the fight was a strictly regulated battle for points, except for the judges letting Daniel get away with that kick to the face. This time, Chozen fights to kill and Daniel fights for his life. It’s a more brutal fight, with some pretty good choreography and a finale that bounces back to Miyagi’s defeat of Kreese at the beginning of the movie.
The first Karate Kid would have stood perfectly well without ever having a sequel but The Karate Kid Part II was a pretty good sequel to have.
The Karate Kid Part III (1989)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, Robyn Lively, Thomas Ian Griffith, Sean Kanan
Thoughts: I only vaguely remember The Karate Kid Part III, but I find it amusing that – like Part II – it kicks off with a montage of moments from the first film. This montage also picks up the Part II prologue, where Kreese wound up with a pair of bloody fists after Miyagi refused to fight him. Did the 80s really have that big a problem with people forgetting what happened between installments of a film series? Is that simply something I don’t remember?
Anyway, after ignoring the rest of Part II, Part III jumps ahead in time to show us Kreese, now a broken man with an empty dojo and no students left. He goes to his old army buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), a millionaire businessman who he owes back rent on the dojo. Terry isn’t mad, though, far from it. No, he wants to plot with Kreese to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for humiliating him. Our dynamic duo, meanwhile, are returning from Okinawa only to find that their apartment complex has been sold and Miyagi is out of a job. Oh, and Daniel’s mother has gone back to New Jersey to tend to a sick uncle and he’s been dumped again. I don’t know what this kid was doing between movies to drive these girls away, but he had to knock it off. In fact, when he meets this film’s love interest, Jessica (Robyn Lively), she preemptively breaks up with him by saying she’s got a boyfriend “back home” that she’s going back to after Thanksgiving. Before I met my wife, I always thought I had the worst luck with women in the history of the planet, but watching these movies back-to-back has made me realize I can only play for the Silver in this competition.
Anyway, Daniel again blows his college money for Mr. Miyagi’s benefit, this time helping to open a store selling bonsai trees. This is the same money he just brought back from Okinawa, mind you which means that all three of these movies take place in less than the space of a year. Ralph Macchio was 23 when the first one came out, and still capable of passing as a teenager. By 1989 he was pushing 30, and while he still had a babyface (and does to this day, honestly), it was getting harder for him to pull off playing the “Karate Kid.”
The Daniel/Miyagi stuff is strong, but Silver as a villain is comical. With his greasy, slicked back hair and his casual racism (I never noticed the ethnic slur Kreese used in the prologue of Part II when I was a kid, but I caught it this time, and when it showed up again in the recap in Part III, and again when Silver says it a few minutes later), it’s as if he plucked all the bits and pieces of his existence out of a Bad Guy Catalogue and turned into a generic jerk. He’s constantly turning up in bubble baths or saunas while he wheels and deals, recruiting a ringer named Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) to fight Daniel as he defends his tournament title. Of course, he doesn’t know that Miyagi has no intention of sending Daniel out to fight again. After all, a big part of Part II was Daniel learning the lesson of what real Karate is, and how it should be used for defense, and that fighting for the sake of a trophy would be stupid, which is why Silver exists in the first place. There needs to be some reason for Daniel to do Karate, or neither of the words in the title would make sense.
Aside from the plot, the dialogue in this film is painful. When Barnes and his flunky harass Daniel and Jessica, the best insult she can muster up is “slimeball,” and the best retort he can summon is “Did your mother teach you that?” I was in middle school when this movie came out, and evidently, so was whoever wrote these lines. (To be fair, Robert Mark Kamen wrote all three movies, but claimed this time his script was warped so much that he walked away from the franchise.) Silver’s plot – which involves him pretending to train Daniel while his hired goon threatens him – is bizarre and pointless in regards to his actual goal. He makes a speech at the tournament about training people with “values,” then sends out his student to beat Daniel around and take cheap shots in full view of everybody, which seems somewhat counterproductive. The metaphor of a bonsai tree standing for Daniel keep turning up over and over again, growing beyond merely strained to obnoxious. And Jessica, frankly, is pretty worthless as a character. This isn’t a knock against the actress – Robyn Lively is actually quite charming – but she doesn’t do anything. She’s not even a damsel in distress, which may be a trite and outdated cliché, but at least it’s a role.
Oh, and Daniel wins thanks to a casually-learned “secret move” yet again.
A great original film, a decent sequel, a weak part three. Now for the capper, the Karate Kid movie I’ve never seen. Is it possible that it could dip from here?
The Next Karate Kid (1994)
Director: Christopher Cain
Writer: Mark Lee
Cast: Pat Morita, Hilary Swank, Michael Ironside, Constance Towers, Chris Conrad, Arsenio Trinidad, Michael Cavalieri, Walter Goggins
Thoughts: Mr. Miyagi is in Boston to get one of those military decorations that the previous movies clearly established were meaningless to him. While there, he drops in to visit Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers), widow of one of his old army buddies. Louisa is having a tough time – not only is she a widow, but she’s raising her teenager granddaughter Julie (future Oscar winner Hilary Swank, but man, you never would have guessed it from this film), who has carried around an anger with the world since her parents died in a car accident. We know this because Julie announces it in some of the most forced dialogue ever written. She could have easily ended the speech by screaming, “THERE! Is THAT enough exposition for you, GRANDMA?” and I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest. At any rate, after approximately twelve seconds of movie time Miyagi tells Louisa to go chill at his house in California for a while so he can straighten Julie up.
Julie resists, of course, because there wouldn’t be much of a movie if she didn’t, and she gets mad enough to bolt into the street and almost get plowed over by a pizza delivery guy, which she avoids by jumping on the hood of the car. Miyagi recognizes the “tiger jump” she did, and gets her to admit she learned it from her father. They strike a bargain for him to teach her karate, which comes in handy after she gets suspended for fighting in school – although she was actually just trying to protect a hawk that’s kept in a cage on the roof… look, I know it doesn’t make any sense when I explain it but it doesn’t make any sense when I’m writing it either, so we’re on the same page. With her time off from school, Miyagi takes her to a Buddhist monastery where she learns to respect all life, which frankly doesn’t really seem like it was her problem in the first place.
And that’s the major problem with this film, friends. The writing in this movie is just plain sloppy. Aside from the awful dialogue, there’s the fact that Julie’s early exposition enunciation comes after her grandmother accidentally calls her “Susan,” her mother’s name. That would be a stretch in and of itself, but Louisa and Julie have the same last name, implying that it is Julie’s father who was Louisa’s offspring, not her mother. What’s more Julie’s dad learned karate from Louisa’s husband, who learned it from Miyagi… that feels like a father/son thing to me. More and more, Louisa shouting “Susan!” feels like lazy writing. This is the point where people in the comments will start saying things like, “well, maybe her parents weren’t actually married” or “what if Louisa had known Susan since she was a small child and thought of her as her own” or somesuch. My response to that is: if the movie intended for that to be the interpretation, then damn it, they should have said it somewhere. Otherwise it is sloppy damn writing.
Then there’s Michael Ironside, the bad guy in this movie, as Col. Dugan. Dugan is… it’s actually not clear what the hell he is. Is he an ROTC instructor? A really intense coach? Whatever. The point is, he teaches physical education by verbally brutalizing students, then punching one. Granted, I’ve never been in the military and I know they go to extremes to break their cadets down and bring them back up, but I can’t imagine a school in this country where a teacher who clocks a student in the jaw is going to have their job come seventh period. Not only does he stick around, but he’s training his students to be criminals with absolutely no coherent reason or motivation behind it.
I try to give screenwriter Mark Lee at least a little credit for winking at the fans’ expectations. When Miyagi agrees to teach Julie karate in exchange for doing all the homework she’s missed, he immediately tries to pull the ol’ “wax on, wax off” routine again, but she’s having none of it. Okay, clever. But then his alternative solution for teaching her discipline is having her babysit the hellions next door. Nineties-era feminism, ladies and gentlemen!
I’ll give him this too – although Dugan’s thugs are the antagonists here, the fights don’t really get physical until the end. Julie isn’t learning karate because she’s getting the crap beat out of her like Daniel did, she’s learning it as an anger management technique. (The real violence doesn’t happen until they attack her date after he has the audacity to point out that they nearly killed themselves when they bungee-jumped into the prom.) That, at least, is something different. And there are a few nice moments with Miyagi learning how to deal with a girl, including one rather charming moment where she thinks he’s giving her a karate lesson, but he shifts it into a dancing lesson to get her ready for the prom. Again this is not a great moment for women in cinema, but it feels nicely in-character for Mr. Miyagi, which is sorely needed, as nothing else in the entire movie feels even remotely like the original.
The weird thing is, despite the many, many flaws with this movie, I still think it’s better than Part III. This is different and is trying to do something new, which isn’t a bad thing, whereas Part III was pure rehash and really added nothing of substance to the mythology of the franchise. It’s not as good as the first two, but after Part III, The Next Karate Kid was at least a step up before the series died.