Thursday, July 29, 2010

Karate Kid (1984)

The Movie: Teenager Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) unwillingly moves from New Jersey to California with his mother. On the plus side, very early on he meets Ali (Elisabeth Shu), who reciprocates his attraction to her. On the down side, she has a jealous ex, Johnny (William Zabka), who is also the leader of the local junior thug society. Daniel finds himself on Johnny and his gang’s shit list really quick.

Even worse for Daniel, Johnny and his goons turn out to be very apt pupils of the Cobra Kai karate dojo; which is run by John Kreese (Martin Kove), himself very much a vicious bully. Daniel is unable to fight back against these bullies, they outmatch and outnumber him. With them gunning for him, it’s doubtful he’ll even survive the school year.

Fortunately, Daniel has made a friend in Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the building’s handyman. Miyagi himself is very skilled at karate, and saves Daniel from the latest and most brutal beating. What’s more, he accompanies Daniel down to Kreese’s dojo to confront him about his students. An agreement is reached that the upcoming karate championship will be used to settle matters.

Miyagi is able and willing to teach Daniel what he needs to know. Unfortunately, Daniel’s insecurities threaten to derail any and all of his future successes. Then there’s the little matter that even if Daniel gets his insecurities under control, Kreese is not a man who believes in fighting fair…

The Review:

Daniel: “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?”
Mr. Miyagi: "Canvas, you like? J.C. Penny for $3.19. In Okinawa belt mean no need rope to hold up pants."

A few weeks back an old high school friend of mine invited me to join her and some of her friends to see the Karate Kid remake. Talk about your depressing experiences. Not the people; I am rather fond of said friend, and everybody I was introduced to was pleasant enough. The movie on the other hand, that depressed me.

About a week or two prior I had bought a copy of the original Karate Kid, so it was fresh in my mind. As a result, I had a constant sense of déjà vu all throughout the remake. Seriously, the majority of the good parts and all of the major plot points were lifted straight from the original; almost entirely word for word. But what really got me wasn’t the blatant plagiarizing, though that was bad enough; it was how obvious it was that the people who put this movie together had no idea what any of what they were ripping off meant.

The Karate Kid is a popular movie, and rightly so. On its surface it doesn’t look like much; just your formulaic coming of age story. A young boy on the cusp of manhood is facing a crisis of identity, and the choice he makes will determine the rest of his life. He finds a mentor who, while seemingly teaching him something unrelated, helps him learn what he needs to know to resolve his crisis. In many ways Karate Kid is very much a product of its time; and it even plays to the vogue for wise, ethnic mentors.

However, that is just on its surface. Not far beneath, this movie has a real and relevant message. True, said message was shaped by the time period the movie was made in, but it is one that is relevant to any time or place. At its core, Karate Kid is a story about the clash of two very different ideologies, which are represented in the persons of Miyagi and Kreese.

John Kreese espouses an ideology that was very common at the time, and unfortunately is all too prevalent today: namely, Might Makes Right. Or, as Miyagi puts it, Kreese thinks with his fist. Kreese believes that being strong is the most important thing, and that those who aren’t strong aren’t worthy of respect. Kreese’s definition of strength is one of self aggrandizement and force. The strongest man is the one who can toot his own horn the most, and who can shout down or roll over everybody else. Mercy, compassion and courtesy of any kind are all signs of weakness.

Miyagi, on the other hand, follows a very different definition of strength. He knows exactly what he is and what he is capable of, and he doesn’t feel any need to show it off. Most people just assume Miyagi is an unimpressive old man, and he’s happy to keep it that way unless more is needed. As can be inferred from the quote above, for all his skill in karate Miyagi has never felt the need to compete. Likewise, compare Kreese’s wall of trophies and awards with the fact that Miyagi keeps his Medal of Valor hidden in a small box.

My second favorite scene in the film demonstrates the differences between the two men. Miyagi has accompanied Daniel down to Kreese’s dojo to confront him about his students. Kreese behaves in the expected ways; he bullies, he blusters, he yells and gets into Miyagi’s personnel space, and otherwise tries to roll over him. Miyagi, meanwhile, refuses to play Kreese’s game. He stands up to him by quietly making it clear that he will have his say. Miyagi doesn’t even raise his voice, but he very obviously doesn’t back down from Kreese.

The thing that really struck me about Miyagi is how little he talks. He dispenses little tidbits of wisdom to Daniel, of course, but he never speechifies like mentors in these movies are expected to. In fact, Miyagi never says a word more than what is absolutely needed. Kreese is the one in this movie who gives long-winded speeches and diatribes; but Miyagi teaches by example whenever possible.

Due to pop culture saturation, almost everyone is familiar with how Miyagi begins Daniel’s training: “wax on, wax off.” Miyagi makes Daniel do chores such as waxing his cars, painting, and sanding his floor. Each one is supposed to be done only with a certain hand movement; up-down when painting the fence for example. And of course, irritating and irrelevant as this all might seem at first; the gestures turn out to be the basis for the fighting style Daniel is being taught.

But there is a bit more to it. More than fighting moves, Miyagi is teaching Daniel humility. First of all, people of Kreese’s ilk would claim that their training puts them above this kind of work; Miyagi is showing Daniel that this isn’t the case. Far more importantly, Miyagi is teaching Daniel the simple, yet essential lesson that there is much to be learned from even the most humble tasks and experiences.

My favorite part of the Karate Kid, and the part that is most revealing about Miyagi and his teaching, is when Daniel finally confronts Miyagi about the tasks he is being put to. A scene that is elegant in its simplicity, Miyagi’s response is to order Daniel to demonstrate the hand gestures. All he says are simple orders; “show me sand’a the floor; no, stand up,” with no more elaboration than that. Then, once Daniel is doing it, he simply demonstrates how the required gestures work as a fighting style, with no more words. His point made, he walks silently back inside. What I love about this scene is the expression on Daniel’s face at the end, one that says very clearly “wow, I think I’m starting to get this.”

The final important character is, of course, our hero, Daniel. Both Macchio and the script do a great job of creating a realistic character. I identify very strongly with Daniel; although I must confess it’s less in the pleasant nostalgic way most people usually mean when they say that and more in the “oh gods, please don’t tell me I used to be like that” way. Daniel is your typical, directionless teenage boy who is plunked down into an unknown and uncertain situation. And it shows.

Through the first half of the movie Daniel follows Kreese’s ideology, although one gets the impression that it’s less out of conscious decision than it is simply because he doesn’t know a better way. He picked up a little bit of Karate in New Jersey, and uses it to try to impress people. When Daniel and Johnny first butt heads, Daniel uses it on him and learns, firsthand, the major flaw in this ideology. As Miyagi points out later; no matter how good you think you are there’s always somebody better.

There’s also the fact that Daniel is extremely insecure. Even when good things happen to him, such as Ali reciprocating his affections, he can’t help questioning it and expecting the worst. He tries the easiest seeming solutions to his problems, such as the suicidally blatant prank on Johnny that nearly gets him killed. And whenever he comes upon a hurdle, whether or not it’s one of his own creation, his reaction is always to lash out and then cut himself off from those around him.

However, Macchio and the script do a good job of making Daniel sympathetic. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from, and he has enough good traits that it’s hard to dislike him entirely. Ultimately you wind up hoping he’ll succeed; even if, at the same time, you want to smack him around yourself and say “now see here you moron!” On a personal note, I think Daniel’s girlfriend is way too good for him (although not in the way her family and most of her friends think so), but I’m glad she doesn’t realize it.

Even though it follows a familiar formula, Karate Kid very much deserves its popularity. The makers of this movie use the well-known elements of the genre to create a story that provides a real message. What’s more, it doesn’t hit you over the head with the moral like so many other of these movies do. This is a movie worth rewatching multiple times.

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