The fact that I didn’t see John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid until I was out of college has put me at a major disadvantage, apparently. For many people, the film, so sweet-natured and harmless, is a source of immense nostalgia, but it ultimately strikes me as little more than a compliant product, spawning three abysmal sequels, one truly absurd Oscar nomination, and a promotional campaign that plastered its teen star all over several issues of Teen Beat. In this sense, the popularity of something as stupendously ineffective as The Karate Kid is only an enigma in so much as Hollywood’s condescending attitude toward teenagers and children remains a mystery.
Relocated from New Jersey to a Los Angeles apartment complex thanks to his mother’s on-a-whim career change, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) quickly finds himself in hot water on the West Coast when he flirts with Ali (Elisabeth Shue), the ex-girlfriend of ace karate student and major-league heel Johnny (William Zabka in essentially the same role he played in Back to School). Following two encounters that leave Daniel with blackened eyes and bruised ribs, a savior and mentor appears in the form of Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), the apartment complex’s handyman. Awash with training scenes and montages, the film charts Miyagi and Daniel’s preparation for a climactic karate tournament that pits Daniel against Johnny and his cronies of the dreaded Cobra Kai dojo.
Incorporating a budding romance between Daniel and Ali, The Karate Kid might have been more endurable, maybe even endearing, if its runtime had been trimmed of a solid 30 minutes. Character development is one thing, but Avildsen elongates even the most obligatory and useless of scenes, hitting an intolerable peak midway when Daniel gets jealous over a perceived kiss between Johnny and Ali. The result is that the scenes that are essential to the film’s charm—namely, the ones between Morita and Macchio—are less impactful and seem to come in clusters rather than threaded throughout the film. Avildsen’s fully realized and moving crowd-pleaser Rocky built on similar neighborhood relationships, but unlike The Karate Kid, incorporated these relationships into a realistic landscape.
Generally overacted and scored by a batch of ‘80s pop jams, The Karate Kid didn’t create its structure, but it certainly popularized it. In fact, Avildsen’s film seems to include a dozen scenarios that are now, for better or worse, given their own films in which to play out. In purely cinematic terms, it could never be labeled objectionable or offensive: That would suggest that a risk was taken or that an idea was being conveyed that couldn’t be expressed with a jumbo-size banner with “Go for It!” printed on it. Even Miyagi’s drunken reminiscing of fighting the Germans and losing his wife and child during Japanese internment is quickly glossed over—an interesting tidbit considering Morita and his family were sent to internment camps for the duration of World War II. The Karate Kid and its ceaseless progeny are not very interested in the tough parts of cultural assimilation, which can be viewed as a plus to a certain degree, but the fact that historical crimes are used as little more than window dressing for a cheesy teen drama is nevertheless disquieting.
The film's original 1.85:1 framing has been transferred admirably with a 1080p picture quality. Smudging, blocking, and banding are negligible at moments, but overall, the picture retains a crisp presentation despite the unavoidable graininess of the image. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is most noticeable in the film's unyielding barrage of '80s pop, but both dialogue and atmosphere have been retained cleanly and with little sonic clutter. A handsome package overall but lacking bells and whistles.
A playful, charming audio commentary by John G. Avildsen, screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, and stars Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita is the strongest thing here, seriously outweighing a handful of featurettes. A few interesting stories come out during the multi-part making-of featurette, but the fascination in composer Bill Conti's choices in music and influences completely eludes me. Lastly, there's the brand-spanking-new "Blu-Pop" feature that dispenses random bursts of information throughout the film, none of which adds any detail that changes the forgettable nature of the film.
Stripped of its nostalgic value over a quarter-century after its original release, The Karate Kid looks and feels as innocuous and thoughtlessly conceived as the dozens of films its influenced.