THE KARATE KID (1984)
DVD - Image C+ Sound C+ Extras A
BD - Image A- Sound B+ Extras A
starring Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove
screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen
directed by John G. Avildsen
THE KARATE KID PART II (1986)
DVD - Image B- Sound C+ Extras D
BD - Image B+ Sound A- Extras D
starring Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Yuji Okumoto, Tamlyn Tomita
screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen
directed by John G. Avildsen
THE KARATE KID PART III (1989)
*/**** Image C Sound C+
starring Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Robyn Lively, Thomas Ian Griffith
screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen
directed by John G. Avildsen
THE NEXT KARATE KID (1994)
½*/**** Image B+ Sound C+
starring Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Hilary Swank, Michael Ironside, Constance Towers
screenplay by Mark Lee
directed by Christopher Cain
by Walter Chaw Movies from the magic hour of my moviegoing experience cover that brief period of time between my being able to go to the cinema unattended (dropped at the theatre with a quarter to call the folks afterwards) and my being able to decide that there are actually films I'd rather not see for any price. You never love movies as much or in the same way as you do during this tiny porthole, and when my family first got a VCR (we were the last ones on the block), I pirated Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, and The Karate Kid onto one tape that I watched until you could see through the ribbon. Each seminal films of the fabulist '80s in their own way, all three spawned multiple sequels--though, at least until Indiana Jones struggles back to the screen with a walker and oxygen tank, The Karate Kid holds the record with four instalments in total. (And one that launched the career of a two-time Oscar winner, to boot.) Credit a lot of things for that: Bill Conti's classic score; John G. Avildsen's intuitive direction; and Pat Morita's and Ralph Macchio's superlative performances. But credit most of all the enduring power of a familiar tale told with conviction and skill. Take the intimidating volume of formulaic exercises that fall by the wayside (including The Karate Kid's own sequels) as testament to the difficulty of capturing a tiger by its tail.
There's a moment in The Karate Kid where our hero, Daniel (spindly man-child Macchio, 23 at the time), a fifteen-year-old 90-pound-weakling who's moved to SoCal from Jersey because of his mother's job, is asked to stand in the ocean to develop his balance. Behind the scenes, Macchio was asked how it was out there: "A little rocky," he said, to which director Avildsen, Oscar-winner for Rocky, said, "Yeah, I've heard a lot of people describe the picture that way." Sure enough, The Karate Kid is a pint-sized version of Rocky--a wrong-side-of-the-tracks melodrama married to an underdog sports intrigue that deviates from the saga of the Italian Stallion by making Daniel's love interest a sun-bleached cheerleader and the ending an actual victory rather than just a moral one. The differences are key in marking the evolutionary process of boy-into-man, too, as it happens, charting the line between identifying with fairytales with a happy ending and fairytales without one.
Daniel is gangly, awkward, and effete--the only olive-skinned brunette in the middle of an ocean of bleached blondes (the film will be remade in three years almost shot-for-shot as The Lost Boys) with black belts in karate, courtesy evil sensei Kreese (Martin Kove). Kreese's prize student Johnny (William Zabka) is peeved when former squeeze Ali (Elisabeth Shue) develops a hankering for Daniel and thus proceeds to kick the ever-living shit out of Daniel on a regular basis. (We like Daniel in large part because of the beatings he's willing to absorb: the Mel Gibson school of hero-building dictates that the better our hero takes a drubbing, the more we'll embrace his eventual Old Testament justice-meting.) One night Daniel, the lonesome punching bag, befriends landlord Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) and is content to cut Bonsai Trees with him before figuring out that mystical old Japanese men can teach hopeless punks from Reseda the ways of the Shaolin in weeks flat. Just in time, say, for the big karate tournament. Wax on, wax off.
Morita's work in The Karate Kid is iconographic--the character functions like any number of old Asian man archetypes from martial arts cinema, but, transplanted to American pop (his arrival softened by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back), Miyagi becomes something like an albatross for Asians in modern Western culture not for its incompetence, but for its tonal perfection. More subtle, if only a little, than Mickey Rooney's appalling "yellow face" performance from Breakfast at Tiffany's, Morita (California-born, he knew neither Japanese nor karate--his pidgin the result of a stand-up career as "The Hip Nip" and stints as "Ah Chew" on "Sanford & Son" and of course as Arnold on "Happy Days") is warm, authoritative, and fatherly in a genre defined by its father figures and its villains (i.e., fallen father figures). The problem isn't that he's bad, the problem is that, like Short Round and Long Duck Dong, he's a sterling example. The film only as good as its two dads, and both Miyagi and Kreese are fabulous, the two of them polarizing agents among which Macchio's limited hyperactive charm pinballs (by the third film, Macchio comes off like an espresso'd-up hamster) to gratifying effect. Daniel is pathetic--and though Johnny's a very fine villain in his own right, Daniel's pluck and defiance are responsible for the bulk of punishment he receives. He engenders, then, an equal amount of admiration and guilt: he's the kid you beat up who just won't stay down, so our identification with him is in part due to the guilty recognition that there but for the grace of Johnny goes all of us.
A few sequences of distinction: the climax with severe knee injury and flying crane kick never fails to raise goose bumps; the scene where Daniel-san discovers that his days of sanding decks and painting houses for Miyagi have taught him the fundamentals of karate; and a drunken anniversary where Daniel discovers that Miyagi's wife and child died in childbirth while both were interred in a relocation camp. There is real courage here in a mainstream entertainment willing to present a minority character who has not only a medal of valour for service in his adopted country, but also a family that was imprisoned by that same country during one of the more shameful chapters in American history. Unfolding in a long-take, it's the Tiffany moment in the Karate Kid saga--arguably the five most important minutes in the 360 of the series, the one in which we begin to care about Miyagi and Daniel beyond their archetypal function. It's better than it has any right to be and, as the films play out, it's better than the series deserves.
The decay starts as early as the first sequel. The Karate Kid Part II picks up directly where the first film leaves off: a quick foreshadow of the third film's conflict ("My opinion of future? Early retirement") leads into Miyagi humiliating Kreese, the arch-villain, who's in the process of wreaking vengeance on his defeated students in the parking lot outside the tournament. Instead of breaking his face, though, Miyagi honks Kreese's nose--the rationale something like it's better to completely emasculate a person in front of his charges than put him in the hospital and emasculate him in front of his charges. (Not a terrible lesson as lessons go.) After a six-month jump forward encompassing Ali and Daniel's off-screen break-up (not a bad thing, either, as Shue and Macchio's head-size discrepancy rivals that of Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise in Top Gun) and a letter from Okinawa informing Miyagi that papa Miyagi is gravely ill, off we go to Miyagi's island nation, where old flames are rekindled and new flames (Daniel's similarly large-domed inamorata Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita)) are kindled. Turns out Miyagi has a long-simmering dispute with childhood buddy Sato (Danny Kamekona), one that can only end in a death match. After a hurricane ravages Miyagi's little fishing village, Daniel and saliva-flecked cartoon-character Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) fight on their masters' behalf, with Daniel getting to employ his new secret weapon, "drum technique," once the unblockable "crane kick" is blocked. Small thing in the grand scheme of things, but exactly the kind of thing that drives thirteen-year-olds crazy: Unblockable my ass--the first chinks in the armour start appearing once you can't even honour your own lore.
If the strength of this kind of film is in its yin/yang father figures, Miyagi remains constant while Sato, who delivers his dialogue as though he's swallowed Toshiro Mifune, proves a hollow substitute for Martin Kove's terrifying Kreese. There's no discernible chemistry between chatterbox Daniel and bewildered Kumiko, so the meat of the film invested in their lifeless courtship is as deadly cheesy as Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love" anthem. Avildsen and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen (perhaps the most immodest human being on a planet that knows M. Night Shyamalan) return for this sequel and the next--proving a lot of things, chief among them the truism that quality fades with each successive Xerox and that maybe Avildsen is a hack who happens to have stumbled upon a couple of entertainingly macho soapers. At least give The Karate Kid Part II credit for setting its scene on an island completely inhabited by Asians, despite its refusal to allow those crazy little fellers to communicate in their native tongue.
No such luck with 1989's The Karate Kid Part III, which follows the events of the first film by nine months, meaning that Daniel is now somewhere around seventeen but that Ralph Macchio is 28 years old in real life. This isn't a problem if you don't think about it much--but it's a huge problem if you think about it for even a second. The Karate Kid Part III reintroduces Kreese, walking the streets homeless and seeking the charity of old pal Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith). The two of them hatch a ridiculously Byzantine plan to turn Daniel against Mr. Miyagi and defend his tournament trophy against embryonic psychopath Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) using the Dark Side of the Force. Here the secret weapon isn't a quaint and arcane move, but rage--something Miyagi manages to harness in Daniel only to have him unleash it precisely when it'll do the most good for both of them. It's an ugly film full of ugly messages and featuring a performance from Macchio so irritating that the goodwill left over from the The Karate Kid is gone in a finger-snap.
The good dad/bad dad dynamic this time is between Miyagi and the oily Silver. Consequently, the best moment in the picture is one where Silver taunts Miyagi with Bruce Lee yips, gets the shit kicked out of him, then has Miyagi perform those same yips for him in sarcastic return. It's a tangled, surprisingly pithy commentary on racism and the toll that Asian representations in film have taken on Asian-Americans. The discomfort with which the scene is met speaks volumes to its effectiveness; a shame that the rest of the picture is such repetitive garbage. Daniel-san gets knocked around and knocked around, Miyagi finally intervenes, there's some Bonsai-tree bullshit, and Daniel-san wins the film-ending tournament despite the lethal intervention of his unscrupulous opponents. Anti-climactic and flaccid to the point of being entirely vestigial, The Karate Kid Part III would be the nadir of the series if it weren't saved from that fate by The Next Karate Kid.
With a new creative team (director Christopher Cain, writer Mark Lee), The Next Karate Kid also jettisons Ralph Macchio and anything resembling a mooring in logic and reality en route to becoming something that looks and acts like a sequel to The Substitute made for basic cable. Picture it: an exclusive academy run by psycho Colonel Dugan (the great Michael Ironside), ruler of a band of elite, militarized student hall monitors called "The Alpha Squad" who have in their collective jarheads the sole purpose of raping poor, butch Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank). With her recently-late grandfather a comrade-in-arms to Miyagi-san, Miyagi goes to live with Julie as a surrogate--wait for it--father to help her through the Scylla and Charybdis of dead parents and puberty. Miyagi and Dugan constitute the film's daddy dichotomy, I guess, though Dugan is more the bad-dad to pretty boy Eric (Chris Conrad), whose decision to leave the Alphas is influenced by a desire to get in poor Julie's pants. This deconstructs what makes the formula work, first by replacing the effete Daniel with the masculine Julie, then by splitting the father figure emphasis between two characters engaged in an adolescent and howlingly-unconvincing kiddie romance. Miyagi still schools Julie in the fine art of defending herself, but the stakes (rape) are a helluva lot higher this time around. Simultaneously, Miyagi is exposed to the indignities of being mortified by walking in on a brassiere'd Julie, wandering into her wet stockings hanging in the shower, and deadpanning his incredulity at the stupidity of the girly breed.
What the film does right is cast a fifteen-year-old in the role of a fifteen-year-old; what it does wrong is cast Swank, here demonstrating that for as wooden and exasperating as her performance is in this picture, it's the only performance she's ever contributed to any film. Boys Don't Cry, her first Oscar, is the awkward version of drag king Julie, and her Million Dollar Baby Oscar was for exactly this role in exactly this premise: a classless girl at odds with her upbringing enlisting the aid of an old trainer-cum-father surrogate to teach her how to, in essence, keep her hands up. Like Eastwood's film again, The Next Karate Kid is more the showcase for the geezer and his collection of exasperated eye-rolls and condescending sighs. A chase through an abandoned cafeteria kitchen is an obvious ape of the previous year's Jurassic Park, while a visit with a band of twinkly-eyed monks underscores everything that's wrong with the particular noble-savage stereotype to which Miyagi belongs.
The Next Karate Kid exists in a perverse dreamland, crammed to bursting with unlikely moments and impossible situations--each of them set up for the sole purpose of a Miyagi reaction shot (he's a dog now, going so far as to talk to one in this picture) or a bloody Julie-fied rant, excepting the bits of course, where every man other than Miyagi or Eric offers to rape Julie but good. What is it, by the way, about Swank and punishment? Find in the answer the secret of her success. Where it brings the Gibsons and Bruce Willises of the world fame and fortune, it brings the lady punching-bags (Kim Basinger and Faye Dunaway, for instance) Oscar nominations and awards. There's apparently nothing the American moviegoing public loves more than someone capable of absorbing a good, solid smiting.
Sony brings The Karate Kids 1-3 home in grainy 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers that preserve Avildsen's dingy aesthetic. (The second, third, and fourth films also sport fullscreen alternatives.) Comparing The Karate Kid with my ossified VHS bootleg, however, the saturation is indeed brighter and the images are sharper, though instances of edge enhancement and overcorrected colours tend to mar the overall experience. Dolby 2.0 Surround mixes are unremarkable across the board, to the extent that Bill Conti's soaring score fails to leave much of an aural impression. The Karate Kid is the only flick of the four that sports anything in the way of edifying supplementary material. A feature-length commentary with Avildsen, Kamen, Macchio, and Morita is a riot; lots of ribbing is aimed at Kamen--who pretty clearly can't take it. I particularly enjoyed it when Morita has his balls broken over doing a fourth film with "that Oscar chick." Uncomfortable silence of the best, most ambiguous kind, follows. Macchio is given a lot of credit and the abovementioned WWII monologue is dissected in detail. No slow spots mar the yakker, but be aware that many of the stories told therein are repeated in a quintet of featurettes playable individually or in tandem.
"The Way of the Karate Kid pt. 1" (24 mins.) and "The Way of the Karate Kid pt. 2" (22 mins.) is a modern behind-the-scenes documentary that has the benefit of a few impassioned interviews, including one with actor William Zabka that reveals that this Johnny had thought through his rationalizations for kicking poor Daniel-san's ass to the point that he, to this day, doesn't see his character as an antagonist. It's not as crazy as you'd think, and his ability to peg the father-issue at the root of the film is gratifying. It's here that Kamen, who goes on about his impressive though never-named filmography (Taps, Lethal Weapon 3, A Walk in the Clouds), reveals himself to be a grade-A dildo. "Beyond the Form" (13 mins.) finds fight choreographer Pat E. Johnson explaining the training process for the actors in the film while "East Meets West: A Composer's Notebook" (8 mins.) is Conti discussing the film composer's craft. Despite their rudimentary focus, neither featurette is a waste of time. Finally, "Life of Bonsai" (10 mins.), with optional English subtitles, is a pretty straightforward mini-doc on the art of Bonsai cutting. Previews for The Karate Kid, The Karate Kid Part II, and 3 Ninjas High Noon at Mega Mountain round out the disc.
The Karate Kid Part II offers up an old EPK called "The Sequel" (6 mins.) that's pretty typical of the B-roll crap of its day (lots of clips, lots of on-set interviews). Filmographies for Avildsen, Macchio, and Morita finish off that platter alongside trailers for The Karate Kid, The Karate Kid Part II, Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles - The Pluto Campaign, and Godzilla 2000. The Karate Kid Part III disc is more sparse at that: the same trio of filmographies join one extra trailer in addition to those already essayed, for Beverly Hills Ninja. It should be said that The Next Karate Kid's 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer looks a lot sharper than its predecessors' do; if for nothing else, credit is due Cain for pursuing crisper images, and the slickefied presentation is gratifyingly light on edge-enhancement problems. The Dolby Surround audio, however, still sounds flat. The disc closes out with filmographies for Morita and Swank and trailers for, again, The Karate Kid, The Karate Kid Part II, Godzilla 2000, Beverly Hills Ninja, and Roughnecks: Starship Trooper Chronicles - The Pluto Campaign. Note that this review does not apply to the more cost-effective four-film/three-disc "The Karate Kid Collection", whose tech specs may vary. Originally published: November 28, 2005.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS - THE KARATE KID + THE KARATE KID PART II
by Bill Chambers Available individually or in a "Collector's Edition" bundle that makes the snubbing of the third film all the more conspicuous, The Karate Kid and The Karate Kid Part II come to Blu-ray from Sony on discs that, content-wise, mirror their 2005 DVD counterparts. A/V-wise, on the other hand, the BDs offer a dramatic upgrade, something I noticed within seconds of cuing up The Karate Kid: In 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Bill Conti's main title suddenly sounds epic--a little shrill, maybe, but crisp and spatially rich. There's depth and dynamism to the mix that just wasn't there on DVD (when Miyagi slaps his hands together in preparation of magically healing Daniel-san's leg, it has the force of a thunderclap) and that goes double for the sequel, which adds a healthy current of bass to the music in addition to having a more active surround field. The pictures look lovely, too, their 1.85:1, 1080p transfers tightening up the grain, significantly boosting detail, and adding complexity, if not depth, to a quintessentially-brown '80s palette. Part II's appearance is a touch softer, with lighter blacks and more muted colours, but I figure the improved audio puts the two on a par with each other, and the print sources for both are equally pristine. Bonus material returns in standard-definition, albeit enhanced for 16x9 displays where applicable; HiDef previews for Hachi: A Dog's Tale, Facing the Giants, Extraordinary Measures, and The Water Horse append each platter along with a PiP track called "Blu-Pop" that promises "trivia, interviews and more secrets from the film!" I couldn't access this BonusView feature, though I presume it will better benefit the more sparsely supplemented The Karate Kid Part II. Originally published: May 3, 2010.
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