Sure, back in the day, sluggers would pop one out of the park for a dying kid or "win one for the Gipper," but it was the blockbuster success of Rocky that turned the inspirational sports movie into a deathless genre. By now, it's settled into a particularly hoary routine, but in 1984, The Karate Kid brought something fresh to the table and proved exceptionally skilled at reaching its adolescent audience.
Director John G. Avildsen (Rocky) and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen (Lethal Weapon 3, Taken) creates a teen Rocky in Daniel Larusso, a New Yorker transplanted to the San Fernando Valley. Immediately out of place around beach boys and an excess of blonde girls, Daniel quickly runs afoul of the Cobra Kai, a de facto gang made up of students from the local karate school. Not unlike the iconic ninety-eight-pound weakling, the scrawny Daniel longs to save face, not only for himself but with Ali (Elisabeth Shue), the cute girl who witnessed his ignominy; naturally, it's Ali's ex Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) who has it in for Daniel. With the karate school not an option, Daniel's lucky to discover the hidden talent of the handyman at his apartment complex: unassuming Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita of Happy Days) turns out to be just as handy with karate as he is with broken sinks and bonsai trees.
In archetypal zen master style and broken English, Miyagi delivers cryptic lessons in karate and life. For such a simple movie, the next sentence qualifies as something of a spoiler alert, so if you've never seen The Karate Kid, stop reading. In a simple, but satisfying scriptwriting device, the goodhearted Daniel grudgingly obliges Miyagi's seemingly selfish requests for car-washing ("wax on, wax off") and fence-painting (um, "Paint the fence") only to discover he's been building strength and adopting key karate moves into muscle memory. Mark Twain might have appreciated this bit of homespun trickery, which bonds Daniel to Miyagi almost as effectively as Miyagi's drunken admission of his own life's disappointments (the scene that no doubt clinched Morita's Oscar nomination). By picture's end, Daniel is more interested in not disappointing his master than he is in getting revenge on Johnny.
Naturally, in true sports-movie fashion, the film is framed by Daniel's initial loss, a pummeling from karate-kicking Johnny, and Daniel's stepping into the ring to face his challenger in a karate tournament and open a can of whoop-ass with Miyagi's best crane move. But what makes The Karate Kid a continually appealing movie on a filmic level is what it does with the rest of its running time. In Macchio's hands, Larusso makes a goofy-sweet hero (with a cocky sense of humor and a way with the ladies, for good measure). There's a memorable Halloween party centerpiece with the hero dressed up as a shower and the bad guys in matching skeleton outfits, scenes from the class struggle as lower-middle-class Daniel (who lives with his single mom) adjusts to dating a rich girl, and a two-tiered story of bullying that parallels Daniel and Johnny to Miyagi and Johnny's creep of a dojo master John Kreese (Martin Kove).
The Karate Kid is about to get a remake, but I'm sure families will continue to return to this wholesome and likeable film about crossing boundaries to make unlikely friends, finding inner strength, and putting honor above baser instincts.
Sony gives The Karate Kid a noteworthy special edition Blu-ray debut that includes an upgraded hi-def transfer and a new video-enhanced pop-up track, dubbed Blu-pop. The image quality here is outstanding, accurately representing the film's original theatrical look, film grain and all. The natural look is always best, and particularly suits a movie that largely appeals to a nostalgia for the period in which it was made. A strong black level, appealing color and excellent detail also speak in favor of the picture, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix ably renders the dialogue and punches up the music, in spite of the source limitations of twenty-six-year-old elements.
The disc's Blu-pop track includes trivia and new observations from Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, and there's also a more substantial audio commentary track with director John G. Avildsen, writer Robert Mark Kamen, Pat Morita and Macchio.
Also on hand is a two-part retrospective documentary that affectionately recalls the film's inspirations and creation from the perspectives of writer Robert Mark Kamen, director John G. Avildsen, Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, William Zabka, and Martin Kove. The doc is split into two parts: "The Way of the Karate Kid: Part 1" (24:00, SD) and "The Way of the Karate Kid: Part 2" (21:25, SD).
Three interviews round out the disc: "Beyond the Form" (13:03, SD) with martial arts master & choreographer Pat E. Johnson, "East Meets West: A Composer's Notebook" (8:17, SD) with composer Bill Conti, and "Life of Bonsai" (10:00, SD) with Bonsai master Ben Oki.
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