Sony // 1984 // 127 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // July 2nd, 2010
Wax on...wax off.
All a viewer needs in order to enjoy The Karate Kid is a heart; it's just such a well-intentioned, charming, and rousing motion picture. Directed by John G. Avildsen (who also incidentally helmed Rocky), The Karate Kid is brilliantly acted and uplifting to boot. Sony also deserves praise for releasing it on such a decent Blu-Ray; this disc is definitely sharper than most catalogue titles being converted to Hi-Def at the minute.
After moving from New Jersey to California, Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio, Beer League) is struggling with school, girls, and most tellingly, bullies. After one particularly vicious attack, Daniel turns to local handyman and karate master Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, Mulan) to help him learn the art of combat so he might best his tormentors in a forthcoming karate tournament. Through the repetition of household chores and the beginnings of a soulful friendship with Miyagi, Daniel grows in confidence and in contentment, moving into the karate tournament with a newfound love interest (Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas) and the invaluable teachings and skills that Miyagi has instilled.
The Karate Kid is an adorable film. It offers a fantastic script, solid performances, and a slice of '80s innocence that leads to one of the most startlingly involving denouements in cinema history. It's not as rich or emotionally rewarding as Rocky, Avildsen's other big underdog tale, but it provides the sort of raw and undemanding joy the best popcorn pictures do. The Karate Kid is an exceptionally generous slice of filmmaking; it gives the audience so much, and asks only that they tolerate its over-beefed 127 minute run time.
Ralph Macchio gives a great performance, capturing both the essence of the era and the spirit of an underdog wonderfully. Daniel is a far more complex character than most teenagers committed to celluloid, he's got several thorny issues to contend with in his life, and Macchio nails the conflicted youth with panache and truth. He's also a disarmingly charming screen presence, making one wonder how a fully fledged career never came up on the cards for the youngster. It's the sort of easy going yet slightly anxious routine that has turned multiple performers into A-list legends, something that never truly materialized for Macchio. Rounding things out is the actor's slight frame, rendering him a realistic target for a group of steroid popping jocks. However, even Macchio is outdone by Pat Morita, putting in an unforgettable turn as the mysterious Miyagi. Together he and Macchio share a sterling chemistry, but what really sets Morita apart is the subtle intimacy that he brings to the role. Morita can spew life lessons and morals with the best of them, lacing them in honesty and conviction, allowing viewers to stand firmly behind Macchio as the finale arises.
The screenplay is a gem, conjuring multiple classic sequences and a solid momentum with which to stitch them together. The plot is engaging (largely thanks to the earnest characterization of Daniel and Macchio's excellent performance), zipping skillfully between scenes of mentoring, young love, and social disruption. Elisabeth Shue does a good job of fleshing out her suburban rich girl, sporting enough of a friendly demeanour to keep her likable, allowing the romantic subplot to feel well adjusted and worthwhile. The best sequence is the film's most dramatic and resonant, in which an intoxicated Miyagi explains his tragic past to Daniel, thus adding an extra dimension of loyalty and strength to their relationship. Both Macchio and Morita are extraordinarily good at this juncture, surpassing even the robust work they do throughout the rest of the movie.
The antagonists are painted as a group of ready-to-fight Aryans, and add a fun layer of 80s' cheese to proceedings. They all learn karate at the Cobra Kai dojo, which is presided over by one of the biggest assholes ever seen on screen. Played with a smug satisfaction and unmerciful attitude by Martin Kove (Wyatt Earp), The Cobra Kai sensai works as a sturdy contrast to Miyagi, helping to further solidify just how strong a bond he and Daniel share. The final tournament scenes are competently handled by Avildsen, who also generates several iconic shots with his camera. The view of Miyagi performing a Crane maneuver at the beach is beautiful, and the moment involving the fly and the chopstick is deserving of its place as a classic moment in '80s filmmaking. Avildsen can also maintain a comic rhythm in his direction, something that truly enables the picture outside of the tense karate sequences and moments of emotional distress or insight.
The Karate Kid is a lovable affair, and one can only bemoan that like Rocky, the sequels were so unworthy of celebration. The film was of course this year remade with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan to the tune of box-office success but critical indifference. I haven't seen the reworked version yet, but I would feel confident that in today's age of filmmaking, it would be impossible to replicate the good natured and delightful appeal of this feature; and in many ways, that's the biggest selling point.
The Blu-Ray looks exceedingly crisp, and even during the picture's many night-time sequences it offers a clarity and polish that most catalogue efforts aren't adorned with. The colors are vibrant and well handled, with virtually no distortion or dirt evidenced in the Hi-def transfer. In order to maintain the '80s aura, the film still has splashes of grain throughout, but I would assume most film fans would actually view that as a plus. The sound design is also worthy of admiration; it offers a particularly aggressive and immersive mix during the big tournament moments at the end. This almost allows the viewer to feel immersed in the crazed and hectic atmosphere that the movie so obviously wants to convey during these segments.
The disc comes equipped with a very strong selection of bonus materials, acting as a fascinating retrospective on the whole thing. Avildsen, Kamen, Morita, and Macchio are all onboard for a superb commentary track, which provides plenty of good-willed banter and a hefty dosage of filmmaking insight into the whole event. They are all exceptionally proud of the feature, delving into it with an enthusiasm that suggests the project was completed just yesterday. A pop-up trivia track is packed in, allowing viewers to embrace nuggets of trivia as they watch the film. I personally find these things obvious and annoying, but if you feel otherwise, it's here for your enjoyment. A two-part documentary on the making of the film is also included (it runs for nearly 50 minutes) and marks another worthwhile offering of retrospective discussion and review. Again most of the key contributors are on hand to offer stories and compliments, again all generally exuding an atmosphere of intense artistic loyalty to the film. Rounding out the package are a selection of shorter featurettes focusing on the art of karate, the film's musical score (composed by Rocky maestro Bill Conti), and even on the creation of the now famous Bonsai trees. It's a really good selection of extra content, and one that fans of the picture should revel in for a few hours at least.
Sony has given a sublime film an awesome release; thumbs up all round for this one.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Trivia Track