Here is a movie that people assume has little inherent quality or value, except for its sturdy punch of 80s nostalgia. But upon rewatching “The Karate Kid,” a seemingly nimble, unremarkable fish out of water sport film, there is a palpable sense of strong character development and zen-like storytelling lurking in its San Fernando Valley facade. It also helps that there’s some kick ass karate, too.
Ralph Macchio takes on his now eternal role as Daniel, a self-assured Jersey boy reluctant about his family’s move to Reseda, so far on the outskirts of Los Angeles that it might as well not even be considered part of the city. With his already brown skin and jet black hair, Daniel has no need for a SoCal tan, although he does warm up to some of the sunshine state’s girl offerings, specifically Ali (Elisabeth Shue). She’s warm and friendly and initially drawn to Daniel, irking her blonde-haired, blue-eyed, ex-boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka). Johnny and Daniel rumble on the beach, with the more athletic Johnny trouncing Daniel’s impassioned but weaker blows.
As Daniel aims for Ali’s affection while dodging the taunts and threats of Johnny and his karate bros, he forms a bond with Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), an unassuming, soft-spoken Japanese man who helps fix parts of Daniel’s apartment, but emanates a deeper, mystical knowledge besides kitchen sink repairs. Daniel learns of Mr. Miyagi’s karate expertise and becomes his student, disappointed when he learns less about punches and dropkicks and more about sanding floors and cleaning vintage automobiles. Just like Miyagi is doing to Daniel, the movie isn’t giving us what we initially want, but is supplying us with what we actually need.
“The Karate Kid” allows each of these characters to grow and develop their relationships, revealing the types of intimate truths to one another that can only happen after you’ve known a person for a long time. Daniel and Ali are initially attracted to one another, and the film builds upon their connection instead of laying it all out right at the start. Daniel and Johnny just start off as two guys who dislike each other, but it’s only through excessive taunts, pranks, insults and attacks do they actually become rivals.
This type of growth is most notable with Mr. Miyagi and Daniel, with the eager teen prodding his sensei with questions that Miyagi rarely answers in detail. Only until Daniel shows true talent and commitment does Miyagi open up, revealing his harrowing past in a Japanese interment camp, and the loss of a wife and baby that haunts him to this day. It’s a profound moment for Daniel and the audience, as this person who was depicted as nothing less than supernatural is revealed to be someone whose grief torments him just like any other common man.
“The Karate Kid” is a coming-of-age story based on the thesis that typical teens are capable of great achievements and remarkable horror, depending on what philosophies they adhere to and the teachers they are learning from. It overcomes the common teen movie tropes by giving its characters natural personalities. Even the film’s flashy, final sequence, where Daniel, Johnny and more compete in the All Valley Karate Tournament, still echoes “The Karate Kid’s overall theme: Daniel wants to win, but he doesn’t have to win. Karate has already given him a stronger sense of self, that he achieved great things and evolved as a person, and that journey was rewarding enough to watch on its own. But the witnessing Daniel crane kick Johnny in the epic final bout is tasty frosting on an already delicious film cake.