“Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.”
I’ll be honest: I initially didn’t want to include The Karate Kid on this list. Directed by John G. Avildsen (Rocky) and starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and Elisabeth Shue, it follows the underdog formula popularized by Rocky, but brings it into the 80s with the now-familiar stereotypes: the everyman teenage boy, the evil bully, the sweet girlfriend, the parent who just doesn’t get it. On paper, it looks very cliche and much like the sea of other 80s teen movies. I didn’t want to like it. But on a recent viewing, I realized that The Karate Kid has actually aged very well. The dialogue, while cheesy at times, has moments of clarity and humanity to keep the movie grounded. The villains are surprisingly well-written in the end (especially with some of the deleted scenes). Daniel is just such a likable character that it’s very hard not to like him. Even the martial arts aspects are very down-to-earth and not overdone (with a few notable exceptions from sensei Miyagi). If you can look past a bit of 80s camp and stereotyping, this is a real gem of a movie that still holds up well today.
The plot opens with teenager Daniel and his single mother moving across the country for the mother’s new job. Daniel is less than pleased. He quickly connects with Ali, a girl his age from the more affluent part of town, and comes into conflict with Johnny, a bully and karate fighter who keeps his gang of ruffians close. As tensions rise, he meets Mr. Miyagi, a Japanese immigrant who proves to be an expert in karate as well. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing and begins to teach him about karate in very unorthodox ways, preparing him for the inevitable showdown with the bullies.
No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.
As I said, there’s definitely some cheesiness here; but there’s also a surprising amount of depth do everything lurking just below the surface. We see Miyagi’s family history and why he needs Daniel as much as Daniel needs him. We see the bully preface every evil action with his horrible mentor’s words, and eventually come to doubt what he’s been taught. (There’s a deleted scene that states this doubt a little more clearly.) We see Daniel struggle with some all-too-real anxiety about his family’s social standing, and we see Ali get some flak from her friends for falling for him. We see a karate tournament play out very much like real ones do, not with stylized action and impossible stunts. The depth is all understated, but there’s a lot of it there waiting to be discovered.
True to its underdog movie roots, this is a very uplifting film. There are lots of funny moments, and the scenes with Daniel and Ali are some of the better written teen interactions in 80s movies. The relationship between Daniel and Miyagi is sweet, and you soon realize the happy ending began shortly after the two met. Even Daniel’s mom, as out-of-touch as she is initially, shows that she cares about Daniel and wants to understand him. It’s a movie where you want the lead character to succeed, and it does not disappoint.
The Karate Kid is a great, if a bit light, teen movie and underdog story. It’s uplifting, sweet, funny, and has a great message. This is definitely a gem of the 80s. It’s something just about every American who grew up in the 80s watched. If you’ve been turned off by the exuberance of typical 80s movies, give this one a try.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: John G. Avildsen
Genres: action, teen