The Karate Kid is one of my favourite films of all time but hasn’t really begun to get as much love as I think it’s deserving of until fairly recently. The uptick in interest came in 2018 thanks to the incredible sequel series ‘Cobra Kai’ – launching on Youtube Red of all places. It wouldn’t be until season 3 of the show where things really kicked off in terms of popularity as the show was moved over to streaming giant Netflix, becoming the most popular show on the platform for a time.
I’ve been watching Cobra Kai since the release of its very first episode, and as great as it is, that’s not what I want to talk about right now. What I want to discus is the film that it follows on from. Yes, I know there are technically four films in the original Karate Kid series (yes I’m counting ‘The Next Karate Kid staring Hilary Swank) but I want to focus on John G. Avildsen’s 1984 film The Karate Kid.
What is The Karate Kid?
The Karate Kid is quite a simple film on the surface, at least where plot is concerned. A young boy named Daniel Larusso and his mother are forced to move from New Jersey to California thanks to a new job opportunity. Although struggling to make friends in this new town, Daniel quickly falls for a girl called Ali. Being the hot-headed guy that Daniel is, he can’t help but insert himself into a fight between Ali and her ex-boyfriend Johnny, leading to Johnny basically promising to make Daniel’s life hell from then on. Now, this description makes this all sound like a basic high school drama…which it kind of is – but there’s a small twist. Johnny isn’t just an American high-school bully, he’s a karate black belt.
Luckily for Daniel, he doesn’t have to face Johnny and his gang alone. In the building that Daniel and his mother have moved to, the maintenance man just so happens to be a karate master – Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). The film from this point on becomes the perfect blend of high-school drama and martial-arts film, which as it turns out is an amazing combination.
The reason this film works so well isn’t the plot, the cinematography, the editing, the music or any other technical aspect you can think of – although all of these have their moment to shine – it’s the dynamic at the heart of the film between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi – probably one of the best on-screen friendships there has ever been.
With Daniel lacking a father figure and Mr. Miyagi having lost his son – the connection between the two is clear. Despite being so different, both are connected by their same feelings of loneliness and being the odd one out, which makes every moment they are on-screen together heart-warming, funny and exciting all at once.
The karate in this film is more than just the tool characters use to fight each other, it’s a tool the film uses to develop its characters.
I don’t know anything about karate, and you don’t have to either to enjoy this film. The purpose of the karate is that the differing styles and techniques represent different ways of living and different philosophies of life. The “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy” mantra of the Cobra Kai dojo is one way, with Miyagi-Do’s reactive and self-defence orientated style being the other. Ultimately, the reason the latter wins isn’t because it’s an inherently better fighting technique, it’s because the film is telling you that it is better to know how to react to and stop violence than it is to create it.
It isn’t a complex message, but it is a powerful one, and a message the film gets across rather effectively.
The Karate Tournament!
It would be hard to talk about this film without mentioning what is probably the most infamous scene from the whole thing – the tournament montage.
For a bit of context, the director John G. Avildsen, also directed the best picture winning film ‘Rocky’ – a film and series of films famous for its montages. If you’ve seen Rocky and The Karate Kid, you probably know the films are quite similar. Both are fighting movies starring an Italian-American underdog who through hard work and determination earns the respect of all his doubters. With Rocky featuring one of the very best montages in any film ever, it made sense that The Karate Kid should have one too.
The Karate Kid features a couple of montages. The training one earlier in the film is great, featuring Daniel turning all the manual labour he’s been doing into some high-level Miyagi-Do karate, but it’s the tournament montage at the end that really succeeds.
To the tune of ‘You’re The Best’ by Joe Esposito, Daniel takes on the karate tournament that the whole film and been leading towards. What follows is my favourite scene in any film. Daniel starts the scene biting his nails and anxiously looking around his Cobra Kai rivals absolutely destroying these other competitors. As every fight passes Daniel rises in confidence as he sees his reactive style working. You can see him shaking as he anticipates the moves of his opponents before taking them down throwing only a single kick or punch.
Meanwhile Johnny confidently launches himself at his opponents, easily taking down whoever he’s facing with a flurry of moves they can’t escape. It perfectly sets up the final fight where these two differing styles clash, and we’ve seen how effective they can both be.
You always want an underdog protagonist to “get revenge” and this scene does so in a way that is so satisfying yet doesn’t force the protagonist or the film to compromise its morals. Daniel doesn’t win ‘dirty’, he does it the Miyagi way.
Because of this, Daniel’s win feels realistic. His approach to fighting isn’t reliant on him having become a professional karate master over the course of the run time – it relies on him being patient and more interested in preserving himself than inflicting harm on others. The fact he is almost shocked by every win he gets is a great touch that highlights this point.
The Karate Kid (2010)!
Everything I’ve just said about that incredible montage scene makes for a perfect comparison to the 2010 reboot starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. Whilst Jaden Smith does okay job at looking scared, the grandiosity of the tournament and the skills of himself and the other fighters make the whole thing feel absurd. The moves Jaden Smith pulls out don’t really look like a translation of the manual labour he’d been doing over the course of the film; they look like he’d already been great at kung fu (yes they do kung fu in the reboot rather than karate for some odd reason) and is just here to beat up some other kids.
Meanwhile, the main villain might as well have been pulled from Mortal Kombat as he flips around like Scorpion, making me unsure how they were allowed to hold this tournament as it’s a wonder how none of these children died!
The reboot wants the characters to serve the karate and the cool action fight scenes, but the original is always looking to see how they can use karate to serve the characters – as the tournament shows by being a perfect representation of every character’s motivation and the film’s overall message.
Ultimately, The Karate Kid isn’t perfect, it’s a flawed film that depicts a very binary approach to life. This is something the sequel series Cobra Kai manages to use as a platform effectively. By flipping this binary and having Johnny be the underdog who’s gone nowhere in life whilst Daniel is the rich and successful bully, the show operates in more grey areas than the film ever could, and even in its latest series has its characters use both Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do fighting styles to beat the villains.
However, the show is as good as it is because of the foundations the original film created by focusing on great characters and using karate to develop them. Whilst Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi is no longer around to be in Cobra Kai, the spirit of the relationship he and Daniel had in the first film lives on in that show.
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