There are some movies that are so interwoven with my childhood that to say I love them would seem somehow inadequate. Obviously (as anyone who read my blog in May this year will know) the original Star Wars trilogy are the definitive movies of my youth, but there are several other films that are not far behind in my esteem. And leading the pack would have to be 1984’s The Karate Kid.
I’m not sure if it’s even really that good a movie, but I love it so much that can’t be objective about it. I do know that I spent much of my childhood attempting to master the crane kick (and I occasionally still do when no-one is watching).
Like many commercially successful films, it has something of a dubious legacy. The Karate Kid Part II is an entertaining, but somewhat preposterous follow-up, The Karate Kid Part III is still more ludicrous and The Next Karate Kid has given up any pretense at reality and should only really be viewed by completists and anyone who wants to see the early work of Hilary Swank (proof of the adage that ‘we all have to start somewhere’). I am quite fond of all of the sequels in spite of their dubious quality and, although it was entirely unnecessary, I can’t bring myself to hate the 2010 remake either (although the pedant in me is convinced that it should really have been called ‘The Kung Fu Kid’).
My favourite ‘Karate Kid’ spin off would have to be the recent web series ‘Cobra Kai’ which reunites the original karate kid, Daniel Larusso (played by Ralph Macchio), with his Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the principal antagonist from the 1984 movie, as both characters fall back on their rivalry as a way of dealing with apparent mid-life crises. It’s very much tongue-in-cheek and shamelessly nostalgic but eminently watchable and essential viewing for anyone who loved the first movie.
But without any sequels, spinoffs or remakes, it’s hard to imagine that The Karate Kid could ever be anything other than a cult classic. Directed by John G. Avildsen of Rocky fame, The Karate Kid is a bit like Rocky for kids. There’s nothing hugely original about the plot, and if it doesn’t require you to suspend your disbelief quite as much as its successors, it’s still very much the stuff of fairy tales. I think the characters do elevate it to something greater than it probably has any right to be though. Daniel is a very likeable protagonist and Johnny is the perfect foil for him. A young Elizabeth Shue plays Ali, the love interest that sparks their rivalry, and she makes the most of a character that could have been far more 2-dimensional in lesser hands. The real stars, though, are the coaches; Martin Kove’s Kreese is just lacking the facial hair required to make him the archetypal moustache twirling villain, a role he relishes even more in the recent web series. However, the most iconic character is Pat Morita’s Mr Miyagi. It’s hard to believe that in real life, Morita was not, in any way, a martial arts master – his performance as Miyagi is so convincing that you genuinely believe that the diminutive actor could easily dispatch the best of Stallone or Schwarzenegger’s eighties action heroes. Indeed Mr Miyagi would not be out of place in the Star Wars universe – the force is definitely strong with him and comparisons to Yoda would not be out of place.
I don’t know if The Karate Kid would be particularly appealing to anyone who didn’t grow up with it, and in many respects it is a product of its time, but out of the many movies that defined my childhood, it stands up better than most.
Score for Christmasishness
Despite my love for this movie, I hadn’t ever thought of it as being remotely Christmassy until I started doing this annual countdown. But, although the timeline of the movie begins in September, the All-Valley Karate Championships, which conclude with the iconic crane kick, take place in December, and there is a visible Christmas tree in the background when Daniel enrolls for the tournament. There are also Christmas decorations on display in some of the scenes which immediately precede the tournament. So the film is a little bit Christmas(ish), which means I can safely add it to my regular festive viewing schedule. Not that I ever really need much of an excuse to watch it.