She’s a cruel mistress, time. Just look at what time does to fashions, hairstyles and faces. The trendiest music videos are rendered ridiculous by it ( for proof, see the promo for Ultravox’s Vienna, or the entire output of Duran Duran), while even the coolest, most cutting edge gadgets are eventually mocked by the passage of time. What is today’s svelte, funky iPad is tomorrow’s titter-inducing landfill.
Which brings me to the matter of the original The Karate Kid, presented here on Blu-ray for the first time. A junior reworking of John G. Avildsen’s own Rocky (1976), The Karate Kid is the story of lanky, awkward youth Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his suffering at the hands of a group of spoiled Californian karate black belts.
Under the tutelage of the ageing Okinawan martial arts expert and all-round sage Mr Miyagi (Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita), Daniel is trained in a more spiritual form of the Japanese martial art, and ultimately goes on to defeat his enemies at a local karate tournament.
That’s the plot in a nutshell, at least, since The Karate Kid is at its centre a relationship drama rather than a bone-crunching HK martial arts movie.
First, there’s Daniel’s strained kinship with his well-meaning mother, Lucille. Then there’s the youth’s relationship with upper crust school cheerleader Ali (Elisabeth Shue), and finally, his friendship with Mr Miyagi, whose unorthodox training techniques turn the spindly Larusso into a sinewy, one-man killing machine. Well, sort of.
By now, there can scarcely be a person on the planet who isn’t at least vaguely aware of The Karate Kid. A film endlessly repeated on school holidays and Saturday afternoons, Miyagi’s “sand the floor” and “wax on, wax off” karate lessons have become oft-quoted cliches of 80s cinema.
Watched in 2010, it’s almost impossible not to view The Karate Kid through a muslin cloth of nostalgia, such is its sway over my generation’s collective childhood. Looked at objectively, however, it’s easy to pick fault. Certain members of the movie’s youthful cast turn in a decidedly varied range of performances, from the mildly convincing (Daniel’s main antagonist, William Zabka, is an enduringly spiteful presence) to the downright wooden and all points in between.
And while Macchio’s plucky teen eventually gets the audience on-side, his initial belligerence and ill-advised pranks are curiously at odds with his demure persona. His immediate response to a rough football tackle is to punch the chap who fouled him squarely in the face, and it’s thanks to Larusso’s practical joke with a hose pipe that an already nasty case of bullying gets violently out of hand.
The most glaring fault with The Karate Kid, however, is that it’s clear, seen with adult eyes, that hardly anyone knows any karate. Characters pull off the same tiny handful of punches and kicks, none of which hit their target, and Daniel’s climactic crane technique looks about as deadly as using a rolled up sock as a ninja throwing star.
But, then again, fighting isn’t the true focus of the film, despite the PG-rated violence promised by the title. By today’s standards, The Karate Kid makes the average family action adventure movie look like Ong Bak. No, the point of The Karate Kid – again, like Avildsen’s Oscar-winning Rocky – is its friendships.
Morita exudes true strength and dignity as Mr Miyagi, commanding the screen in every scene in which he appears, and there’s a real chemistry between his character and Macchio’s that is both entertaining and touching.
The movie’s stand-out scene, where Miyagi drunkenly relates the death of his wife and unborn child in a World War II internment camp, is profoundly moving, and it’s this and other moments that lift the movie above merely disposable family viewing.
Avildsen and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen aren’t afraid to hint that Daniel’s starry-eyed relationship with daddy’s little rich girl, Ali, has no longterm future, and there’s something bravely unsentimental about the movie’s depiction of Larusso’s glaring poverty among the wealthy excess of 80s California.
There is much about The Karate Kid that is now horribly dated, of course. The big hair, stadium rock soundtrack and toothless combat now look almost laughably twee. But beneath all that, there’s still the thump of an emotional heart beneath the shoulder pads and cardigans.
Now this is a surprise: The Karate Kid Blu-ray comes with the most generous selection of extras we’ve seen in weeks. Where most features now show up with little more than a trailer and a couple of junket-style interviews to back them up, The Karate Kid comes with a lengthy three-part documentary with contemporary interviews with the cast, a featurette called ‘Beyond The Form’ which relates the cast’s karate training, ‘East Meets West’, which details composer Tom Conti’s writing process for the movie’s memorable score, as well as a lively commentary with director Avildsen, writer Robert Mark Kamen and actors Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita.
The documentary provides a genuinely engrossing insight into how the film was written and filmed, including the mind-boggling revelation that the scene mentioned earlier, where Mr Miyagi talks of his wife’s death, almost ended on the cutting room floor. Without it, the movie would have lost its emotional centre, and Morita would never have earned his deserved Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
Admittedly, much of the content’s a few years old now (Morita, sadly, died in 2005, which makes much of it at least five years old), but it’s excellent value nevertheless, and worth checking out just to see how time has etched itself on the faces of the movie’s once youthful cast.
The Karate Kidis out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.