A New Jersey teenager named Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) moves to Southern California with his single mom. But Los Angeles isn’t the dreamland he’d been told it was.
For one thing, California is full of bullies. And they all seem to know karate.
Not all is dismal in California, however. Daniel meets a promising young California blonde, Ali (Elizabeth Shue). But one of the karate bullies just happens to be her very jealous ex-boyfriend. And he isn’t going to take no for an answer.
Will Daniel walk away from the girl, or he will he resign himself to being beaten to a pulp every day?
But maybe there’s a third choice. Daniel is befriended by the mysterious Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the maintenance man of the rundown apartment building where he and his mother live. Mr. Miyagi might just be able to help him with that whole self-defense thing.
This is the setup for the first Karate Kid movie of 1984. The Karate Kid wasn’t the most wildly successful 1980s film franchise, but it did spawn three sequels and one remake, the most recent one in 2010.
This was one of those movies from my youth (I turned sixteen in 1984), that I never got around to watching when it was current. The Karate Kid was playing on cable the other day, so I decided to watch it, 35 years after everyone else in my peer group.
There is a lot about this movie to love. Stories about mentorship and standing up to bullies have a timeless appeal, and for good reason.
This film also has some lessons about the importance of hard work and sticking to a process. Consider the scene in which Daniel thinks he’s beginning his karate lessons, but Mr. Miyagi tells him to wash and wax all those old cars. As we learn later in the film, there was a method behind Mr. Miyagi’s seeming madness.
No complaints with the acting. Pat Morita (1932-2005) was a perfect choice for the stern but compassionate mentor, Mr. Miyagi. The other members of the cast are at least adequate in their roles.
Certain elements of the script, however, seemed a bit dated…or maybe the standards of filmmaking have just changed too much. Or maybe I’ve aged to the point where I can no longer fully appreciate a movie made for a teen audience–even the teen audience that I was once a member of.
The character of Daniel comes across as flippant, and some of the actions he takes are just a bit too silly and self-destructive to be believed. Likewise, Ali’s sudden and dogged attachment to the new loser in school isn’t completely credible.
In some of the scenes, I found myself saying: I don’t remember teens acting like this in the 1980s. This is an idealized version of how teens behaved and interacted in…the 1950s, maybe?
But then, it’s important to remember that John G. Avildsen, who directed The Karate Kid, was born in 1935. Robert Mark Kamen, a Baby Boomer born in 1947, wrote the script.
And herein lies the problem. If I were to make a movie about contemporary teenagers, my teens would all talk and behave like teenagers from the 1980s–because that’s what I know. (I’m about the same age today that John G. Avildsen was in 1984.)
Adults can never fully understand contemporary teenagers, perhaps; but adults are the ones who direct movies and write screenplays. I can only wonder what today’s teens think of the movies made for them and about them, by writers and directors of my generation. They no doubt shake their heads in irony, like I inadvertently did while watching some parts of The Karate Kid.