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The Karate Kid Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jul 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Karate Kid Review
    Remakes have always been a big part of movie business. Whilst many would argue that it is nice to see something different on screen, there are often only so many good ideas out there. And whilst the writers are coming up with them, the producers are rummaging around amidst older work, trying to find anything they can polish up, maybe put a new spin on, and then churn out to the over-eager lap-it-up public. Recently, the most popular habit has been to take iconic 80s work and attempt to trigger the nostalgic element in twenty- and thirty-somethings out there, whilst also tapping into the short attention-span of a younger generation.
    I know that terms like 'raping our childhood memories' have been bandied around in reference to the likes of Bay's Transformers 2 (which is such a shame considering the first one was actually quite good fun), but let's be realistic: some of those precious childhood memories are pretty damn rose-tinted aren't they? I mean, how many viewers who forked out the money to buy that A-Team-van-shaped box-set - with all of the episodes ever in it - actually got around to watching every single episode? Personally, I remember Knight Rider for very few things: the reason why skinny jeans were never fashionable; a car which could fire you from your seat onto a building, jump over articulated lorries lengthwise, and which displayed early indications of why SatNav may get irritating; and why - in Knight Rider terms - red is good and green is bad. The episodes themselves were really probably at their peak during the credits sequence. Hell I remember MacGuyver firing a hand-fashioned pen gun, jumping off a cliff and onto a raft and eating an ice-cream, but I'll be damned if I can remember the episodes where actually did any of that stuff.
    And revisiting childhood classics isn't always that pleasant; as the reality is that you are probably going to end up shattering all those pretty illusions you had about the stuff. That doesn't make it right to do a bad remake, it just means that a good tribute can go a long way towards rekindling all the right memories whilst also giving you a more stylish, modern and - frankly - often better production. The new Star Trek movie did this perfectly, and showed such potential that a superior sequel may even draw comparison with Wrath of Khan. But when it's done wrong, it can be such a waste of time. What was the point in doing a glossy, modern Knight Rider series if you can't even get the car right? I mean, all they had to do for the pilot is have it jump lengthwise over a truck. Instead, it just drives fast and changes colour. And how did Joe Carnahan - the man who did excellent drama in Narc and frenetic action in Smokin' Aces - so monumentally screw up an all-star A-Team? Did nobody tell him that parachuting a tank out of a plane and then shooting at a helicopter was a little too much? Another 80s icon is hitting the Big Screen as well this Summer, in classic reworking fashion: The Karate Kid. Boasting a perfectly cast Jackie Chan, and actual kids (rather than a bunch of twentysomethings pretending to be teenagers), the only thing that seems wrong about it to me is the title (but I guess The Kung Fu Kid - its more appropriate International title - was deemed to confusing for those easily-confused US test-screen audiences). But what about the original? Finally hitting UK Blu-ray, does it still stand up after 26 years?
    After his single mum drives them all the way from Newark to the West Coast to start a new life, teen Daniel Larusso finds integration at his new high school more than a little difficult. Although he catches the eye of a pretty young girl, Ali, he also gains the unwanted attention of her bully of an ex-boyfriend, Johnny, who promptly kicks his ass. Determined to refine his limited Karate skills, he is shocked to discover that Johnny also happens to be head pupil at the local Karate dojo. But after Johnny and his wayward Karate-infused gang take things one step too far with Daniel, he suddenly finds himself saved by the last person he expected: the diminutive old Japanese maintenance supervisor for his apartment block. Easily defeating the teenage thugs, Mr Miyagi proves himself to be exactly what Daniel needs: a mentor for both honing his Karate skills and - like a father would - training him in the very ways of life. Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life.
    Having not seen The Karate Kid for easily more than a decade, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the movie does actually stand the test of time. Sure, it is plagued by a plethora of 80s trademarks - terribly outfits, hair and music being the most obvious staples - but it also tells a timeless underdog story, seamlessly setting the basic Rocky premise within the realms of one of the most popular sub-genres in that era: the coming-of-age drama. Some might regard it as trading in clichéd dialogue and stereotyped characters, but in 1984 this was all still relatively fresh, with many ideas within it later going on to be absorbed into later classics like Back to the Future.
    These two movies also share one other major thing in common: they both cast youthful-looking adult actors in the roles of teenagers. Now, I'm glad that this is no longer a trend in movies (as is evident from the casting of Will Smith's 11 year-old son as the new Karate Kid) but, that said, I can honestly think of nobody who would have better suited the role of scrawny teenage underdog Daniel-san, than then-22 year-old Ralph Macchio. Even if he was never very good at being anyone else, Macchio was a great Karate Kid (at least up until the 3rd film, where his age started to become more noticeable), perfectly embodying the 80s icon and imbuing him with enough energy, anger, charm and playfulness to make him as memorable as Fox's Marty McFly or even Stallone's Rocky.
    Accompanying him we have the lovely Elisabeth Shue (why didn't she do anything better off the back of her tour-de-force performance in Leaving Las Vegas?) who looks a bit too old to be a perfect love interest for Daniel (even though she was younger than Macchio, she was still 21 at the time and - more importantly - looked her age). Still, she offers up the kind of freshness that only comes from being new to Hollywood, and would later continue the trend opposite Fox in Back to the Future Part 2. And then there's the guy who plays the bully of the story, Johnny, William Zabka. He may not have gone on to do anything else in particular, but here he was perfectly cast as one of the best teenage bullies ever captured on celluloid - up there alongside Thomas F. Wilson's Biff from the Back to the Future movies.
    Of course the true star of the piece, whose character name has become synonymous with Confucian-styled pseudo-philosophical musings, is the late Pat Morita: the legendary Mr Miyagi. As much as Karate Kid will be remembered for that iconic crane-move that Daniel learns (Who hasn't tried that pose as a kid - or adult - at least once in their lives? Ironic, considering it was a technique invented for the movie) it will also be remembered for Miyagi's famous wax on, wax off line. Unfortunately Morita's contribution became somewhat devalued over the years. Back in '85, his performance earned him a well-deserved Oscar Nomination. It was a well-rounded, subtle and often underplayed rendition of a character that, at best, now sits somewhere between old and new-movie Yoda. His words of wisdom, and life teachings to Daniel-san, however, still deserve more attention than they have had in the subsequent decades after the movie was first released. Man who catch fly with chopsticks, accomplish anything.
    The Karate Kid is up there with Rocky in terms of classic underdog movies. It is often less well-regarded than Stallone's journey into the ring, but it has all the same motifs (right down to both having classic 80s pop tracks by Survivor), the only difference being that 'Kid was clearly tailored for a younger audience. Clearly the Director, John G. Avidsen, had figured out exactly what had made Rocky a success for him 8 years earlier, bringing us the same against-all-odds underdog theme, only now it was infused within a perfectly-tuned coming-of-age story. Whether you are young or old, there is something great to appreciate within this film: a sense of spirit and inner strength that can be inspiring to all. However enjoyable the Jackie Chan remake may well be, this Karate Kid will always be an undisputed classic.