I know this will tax your imagination, but try to envision one summer movie that doesn't feature ghosts, gremlins, spaceships, snakes, special effects or cardboard cutout characters, and that actually deals with hearts and minds and people. Believe it or not, such a movie really and truly exists, and, its hokey title notwithstanding, The Karate Kid is enchanting, a beguiling piece of whimsy. Next to the Detroit Tigers, The Karate Kid must be the best thing playing every day.
The movie is bound to be compared with Rocky, not only because it has the same warmth and quality, but also because The Karate Kid's director, John G. Avildsen, just happens to have won the Oscar in 1976 for directing that original Rocky—assembling the cast and then dusting the story with a mixture of care and fancy so lacking in the clumsy Rocky sequels, which were directed by someone else. In fact, although there are many structural resonances of Rocky in The Karate Kid, it is, to me, tonally much more reminiscent of Breaking Away, the only other really outstanding American sports movie of the last decade.
In its own sweet way, The Karate Kid is every bit as much a fantasy as most of the outrageous summer fare. The plot: Poor Newark, N.J. Italian boy comes to the promised land of Southern California, and there he wins the love of a totally awesome blonde Valley princess—plus self-respect and a yellow convertible—all on account of his dedication to karate. Boy meets sport, boy loses sport, boy wins sport. All this, plus motorcycle gangs, a beach party, Jan and Dean music and the erstwhile Oriental star of Mr. T and Tina uttering deadpan aphorisms that, Confucius say, make Charlie Chan roll over in grave.
Although it's almost impossible to measure the contribution of a screenwriter—in corporate Hollywood, writers are considered only the first drafts of human beings—in this case Robert Mark Kamen's script is integral to the film. Kamen has a feel for writing about young people (his Taps was the nether side of Kid), and unlike so many teen epics that depend on glib and glossy put-downs of the sitcom school of writing, Kamen doesn't write lines, he writes dialogue.
The Karate Kid is your basic new-boy-in-school-faces-the-black-jackets movie, but Avildsen carries it beyond that, while all the time remaining faithful to the homely underpinnings of the story. I doubt that the director could have managed that had the script been jerry-built by waves of rewrite men.
Still, even with careful handling, the film wouldn't be such a lovely product were it not for the extraordinary performance of Noriyuki (Pat) Morita, who's best remembered for his happily one-dimensional Arnold in Happy Days. In The Karate Kid he plays a maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi, who, as the movie progresses, reveals himself to be an artist, a philosopher, a karate master, a Renaissance man. What Mr. Miyagi really is is a fairy godfather. His charge is Daniel (Daniel-san), played ever so winningly by an earnest Ralph Macchio, and while the rest of the cast is fine, too, The Karate Kid only triumphs when Mr. Miyagi joins Daniel-san on celluloid.
Two scenes especially stand out: one, at dusk, when Daniel-san is dumbstruck to discover that Mr. Miyagi has taught him karate without his even realizing it; the other, when the old man, in his cups, evokes tragic memories of the "relocation camps" where Americans of Japanese descent were so cruelly sequestered during World War II (and where, in fact, Morita was himself forced to reside as a young man). With a lesser actor, Mr. Miyagi could have come off as no more than the stock Hollywood Oriental, but Morita has invested him with both humor and humanity. How often do the best films about young people depend on an old character for their distinction?
The Karate Kid is sometimes too much. The villains—all evil Aryan blonds—are overdrawn. We don't need a Fourth Reich to make the point. And while Daniel-san's love affair with the resident rich Wasp, Ali (Elisabeth Shue), is touching teen amour and a welcome respite from exploitative high school sex films, it's a bit too chaste. I mean, you wish he'd at least tried to cop a feel.
But all that may be missing the point. The Karate Kid is so touching largely because it is so innocent and so simple—although never simplistic. Once upon a time, I believe, we said films like this were fun for the whole family, for Mom and Dad and Sis and Junior, and Gramps and Grandma, too.