In essence, The Karate Kid is a film about different worlds. Sure, it packs all the iconic 1984 goods and all the big scenes. But at its root, it’s a picture about the struggle between light and dark and the relationship between good and evil. Everything in this John G. Avildsen movie deals in finding the balance between those conflicts.
Avildsen, who directed Rocky, knows the territory well. He works from a screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen, who would go on to write the Transporter and Taken scripts, and crafts a largely intuitive motion picture. There is some filler, to be sure, but a lot of what seems superfluous adds up to the larger character study.
Ralph Macchio is Daniel LaRusso, a high school student moving to Los Angeles with his mother (Randee Heller). He has trouble at school and clashes with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). He also carries on a relationship with Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue), a cheerleader who used to date Johnny.
When the bullying gets to be too much, Daniel becomes desperate. He discovers that his building’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), knows karate and he turns to him to learn to fight. What develops is a friendship more vital than Daniel could imagine.
There are the usual tropes, of course. The movie builds to a tournament that inevitably pits Johnny, with his violent style of martial arts, against Daniel. There’s the brutal karate teacher (Martin Kove) training the Cobra Kai and there are the scenes of bullying and fights at Halloween dances.
But it’s the friendship between Miyagi and Daniel, which is really an authentic relationship, that makes The Karate Kid matter. Miyagi lost his wife and son at an internment camp while he was serving with the US Army in World War II and that gives his character a tragic history, but it also lays the foundation for where Daniel belongs.
The picture details how Miyagi rises out of the darkness of his past without really showing it. Instead, it passes the lessons on to Daniel by way of various exercises disguised as menial tasks. Everyone knows the “Wax on, wax off” portion of the flick and everyone can quote the various lines, but they really do matter when it comes to driving the storyline.
For Miyagi, life is not about doing things the easy way. When Daniel insists that there are easier ways to paint fences, Miyagi doesn’t care. He wants to catch a fly with chopsticks because there is beauty in the task. You can imagine his immediate discouragement when Daniel has a case of “beginner’s luck.”
For Johnny and the rest of the Cobra Kai, life is about showing no mercy. This naturally sets up some issues when the karate tournament comes around, but it also lays down the movie’s main conflict. Miyagi’s way of patience and compassion is pitted against the Cobra Kai’s way of physicality and cruelty.
Further to that point, the film lays down another set of differences by linking Daniel with Ali. She’s a rich girl and he’s from the wrong side of the tracks. This positions some obstacles, namely in the form of economic class, but the characters insist on overcoming the hurdles.
Some of The Karate Kid looks corny by modern standards, but that’s part of the fun of watching the movie. The score is often preposterous, even if a lot of the music rules (damn you, Joe Esposito), and the tournament comes and goes without much actual significance. But again, the film is about more than the trophy; it’s really about painting that fence.