The Karate Kid is perhaps the best of the Rocky clones, formulaic, manipulative, hokey — and thoroughly rousing. Directed by John G. Avildsen (who directed Stallone in the original Rocky), the film’s sincerity and emotional poignance have a way of steamrolling over gaps in plausibility and logic.
Ralph Macchio stars in what is still his signature role as Daniel LaRusso, a sensitive lad reared in the nurturing enclaves of Newark, New Jersey, who finds the harsh realities of life in southern California a bit overwhelming after he move across country with his single mother (Randee Heller), who’s just taken a new job.
On the one hand, there’s Ali (Elisabeth Shue), a bright, sweet California blonde from the other side of the tracks who takes a shine to Daniel. On the other hand, there’s Johnny (William Zabka), Ali’s swaggering, karate-fighting ex-boyfriend, who travels with a menacing coterie of fellow bullies and doesn’t deal well with rejection — or competition.
The heart of the film, though, is Daniel’s relationship with an unexpected mentor and father figure, inscrutable handyman Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Miyagi plays Yoda to Daniel’s petulant Luke Skywalker, wise, humorous, crusty, with unexpected skills and methods.
Miyagi’s self-defense oriented martial-arts philosophy mirrors Yoda’s teaching that a Jedi uses the Force “for knowledge and defense, never for attack”; and, if The Karate Kid film itself embraces the two-fisted cliché that the way to win a bully’s respect is by licking him good, the idea of violence as a last resort still comes across with tolerable cogency.
As with the Rocky films, the Karate Kid sequels increasingly went off the rails, and are thoroughly disposable; the original, though, is a keeper.
This Karate Kid may not be competing at the same level as the original, but it respects the tradition, and if it doesn’t really have anything new to say, it still says it in a reasonably engaging way.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.