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Summer of ‘84 Waxing on Nostalgia: The Karate Kid

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Summer of ’84—Waxing on Nostalgia: The Karate Kid

I. On the Move

One of the oddest elements of The Karate Kid, a quintessential “go for it!” rouser with a script reportedly taught in screenwriting classes as a model of structure, is its first few minutes are the polar opposite of beginning with a bang. Instead, the picture opens with a simple overhead shot of a shitty car loaded up for a long trip. Without any close-ups, we are left in the distance watching a cluster of people wave their hands and hearing New Joisey accents saying goodbye, followed by a leisurely montage of unspectacular vistas as the car wheezes westward.

Looking back, I think this humdrum opening struck a chord in a way of which I wasn’t fully cognizant at the time. In the summer of 1984, my parents and I returned temporarily to our home in Phoenix, AZ after I completed the eighth grade down in Tucson, where my father had found employment. Tucson was only a two-hour drive away, but it might as well have been on Mars. I hated my new school, I hated living in strange quarters, and I hated moving from place to place. By the time I saw The Karate Kid, I was fully prepared to identify with Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), its stringbean teenage protagonist, from the moment his journey from Jersey ends in California and he glances out of the car at his new digs—a dilapidated apartment complex—in disgust. When his relentlessly upbeat mother chirps, “This is it—the end of the line!” Daniel takes the words right out of my mouth: “You’re telling me.”

Our house in Phoenix, while relatively modest in scale, occupied an enviable corner in a neighborhood that I remember mainly for its high weeds, long winding alleyways, menacing dogs on the prowl, and petty squabbles with local yokels over irrigation schedules. We had moved here from a different side of town when I was about three or four, and my parents wasted no time fixing up the place. On the outside they greened up the front and back yards, bricked a portion of the fence, cemented the gravel driveway, and placed several large boulders around the edges of the front to prevent young hooligans like The Karate Kid’s Cobra Kai from taking a short-cut through our yard with their hot-rods and motorcycles. On the inside my folks got rid of most of the ugly carpeting and put in its place several feet of parkay flooring. With 115-degree summers and without a pool, I loved the feel of the cool tiles beneath my feet. Most of all I loved walking two blocks to the local mall and going to the movies.

II. Friends and Enemies

1984 was a memorable summer for movies. I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins and Ghostbusters several times each. A child of the Star Wars generation, I enjoyed big special-effects blockbusters as much as the next kid and I frequently attended them with the closest thing to the next kid from the neighborhood, a tall, lanky guy named Lance, whose lack of physical coordination found respite in Tae-Kwon-Do and who often tried out his lessons on me (arm-twists, neck-grips, leg-sweeps). In addition to differing perspectives on casual sadism, we parted ways on the fact that I was developing an interest in other kinds of movies as well. I remember watching and being traumatized by the edited-for-television versions of The French Connection and Deliverance, but I found them riveting too, and I wanted to see more.

That Christmas I got a VCR, and among my first rentals were The Right Stuff and Terms of Endearment, a pair of films that had battled for Best Picture in the early Spring. 1984 was the year I was becoming aware of the Oscars, growing cognizant that movies were directed (in The Karate Kid’s case, by John G. Avildsen) as well as written (Robert Mark Kamen penned the original screenplay), and evolving a critical consciousness by watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert square off on their TV show every week. (It was still called At the Movies at the time.) What made Siskel and Ebert essential viewing was not only did they like movies, but they liked all kinds of movies—some were big hits, yes, but they also threw their support behind foreign films, independent features, and the altogether unconventional. They were open to the possibilities of each moviegoing experience, and it was this openness that made a relatively low-sell movie like The Karate Kid an out-of-nowhere sleeper.

While Siskel, as I recall, liked The Karate Kid (he was always a sucker for go-for-it pictures, even Rocky IV), Ebert unequivocally adored it. Around this time I began reading film criticism as well and would spend hours in the library leafing through each Friday’s Chicago Sun-Times, going home with print smears on my fingers. I probably found Ebert’s written review during this time, which described The Karate Kid as “an exciting, sweet-tempered, heartwarming story with one of the most interesting friendships in a long time.” He gave it his customarily overgenerous four stars, but wasn’t wrong about the friendship at the center of the film (no stranger to strange friendships himself), as fulfilling as my own real-world relationships were lacking.

The Karate Kid is, at its cornball heart, about what friendship really means. The dudes whom Daniel initially befriends abandon him after he gets savagely beaten on the beach by black-belted ass-kicker Johnny (William Zabka) and his karate-chopping, bike-riding band of Aryan goons, and don’t rejoin his side until he conveniently starts winning in the karate tournament that encompasses the movie’s final act. Daniel’s non-pals are blandly nondescript, whereas the Cobra Kai sneer and strut and like to dress up as spooky skeletons on Halloween. They are patently absurd and wear out their welcome quickly. Oddly enough, they are true BFFs to each other. Beating the shit out of Daniel every day becomes—like karate, motorcycling, and wearing stupid costumes—another community-building activity. It’s good for friends to share things.

Due to differences in age, culture and temperament, Daniel and Miyagi’s friendship is more unusual, and (as Ebert observed) more interesting as a result. It begins as teacher/student relationship, a mentor/protege dynamic out of which kindness, generosity and respect slowly grow. It’s convincingly prickly too, thanks in part to Kamen’s take on the characters and largely to Macchio and Pat Morita’s committed portrayals. Individually, each has beguiling eccentricities. Macchio gives Daniel an off-the-cuff likability, an appealing habit of talking to himself that underlines the character’s loneliness without asking for pity. Miyagi is a trickier case: at first it looks like Avildsen overplays the man’s exoticness (cue that pan flute!), enforced by Kamen’s questionable emphasis on the character’s me-no-likey phonetic third-person English. (“Miyagi this, Miyagi that…”)

Fortunately this is defused by Morita’s approach—whether trying to catch flies with chopsticks or taking the air out of Daniel’s cockiness, Miyagi is just damn funny. He’s deeply human too, flawed and haunted by a Dark Secret From The Past that the actor sells with utter conviction. (I’ve never seen a drunken breakdown scene quite like the one in The Karate Kid, a pivotal moment in the film that likely earned Morita his Supporting Actor nomination.) By emphasizing Miyagi’s idiosyncrasies, the character comes across as a distinct individual rather than a stereotype. Additionally, by slowing down his pattern of speech, Morita, who could speak English as well and as fast as Macchio, establishes another source of tension with the younger actor in their scenes together.

The Karate Kid is bracingly honest about dealing with bullies. Merely standing up to them doesn’t work, as I discovered a few years earlier on the playground of my elementary school, and as Daniel learns from the beach brawl thereon. You have to draw blood, as Miyagi does when he comes to Daniel’s aid the night of the Halloween party. (I like that Daniel initiates this particular pummeling, with his ballsy prank on Johnny in the restroom stall.) Then, in one of the movie’s best scenes, Miyagi brings Daniel to the Cobra Kai dojo and shrewdly negotiates terms to buy time for training before the tournament. Despite some hammy posturing from Martin Kove as Johnny’s sadistic sensei Kreese (there’s a priceless moment on the DVD commentary when Macchio mimics Kove’s finger-wagging reading of the line, “You’re a pushy bastard, ain’t cha? But I like that! I like that!”), Morita controls the space and the tempo without moving a muscle or raising his voice. The result is relief not only for Daniel but the audience: the bad guys vanish for most of the rest of the movie, allowing its more appealing elements time to flourish.

III. First Crushes

There was a period in the mid- to late-80s when adolescent boys everywhere had a collective crush on Elisabeth Shue. Her performance as Ali, the rich, yet down-to-earth blonde Daniel falls for, is the type that offers hope to legions in geekdom. Ali is an ideal whom Shue portrays with genuine feeling. (As with her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold in Leaving Las Vegas, she has a gift for doing this.) Smart and pretty, warm and witty, Ali is the kind of girl worth getting your ass kicked over, as Daniel does willingly over and over again.

Macchio’s chemistry with Shue is as palpable as it is with Morita, though needless to say it plays in a different rhythm and key. She’s so curvaceous and he’s so reedy that when they embrace you almost fear for the guy, yet there’s an authenticity to their relationship beneath its unlikelihood. Avildsen’s films are frequently attuned to class distinctions (Joe, Rocky, Lean on Me), and the differences in social status (which bothers Daniel more than they do Ali) create some interesting friction between the characters. It’s very funny when Daniel, nervously making small talk with Ali’s yuppie parents before their first date, accidentally knocks a brick off their front porch with his foot. But there is a lot of truth to a later scene when Miyagi, retrieving a photograph of the two that falls out of Daniel’s wallet, notes that they are “Different but same,” and Daniel replies, “No, different but different.”

Never meeting a girl in high school like Ali (though not for lack of trying), I lived vicariously through their relationship in The Karate Kid. What I could relate to were moments like the lovely early scene at a restaurant booth when Daniel’s mother (wonderfully played by Randee Heller, who unfortunately also disappears for the entire second act and nearly all of the third) asks if there’s anybody he has his eye on, then has to leave the table as Daniel keeps right on talking. “She’s beautiful…I say she’s beautiful…I think she’s beautiful,” Macchio says out loud to himself. He’s not exactly Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but Daniel, too, has poetry in him.

IV. Training Days

The training sequences are what everyone remembers about The Karate Kid, with memorable lines that have entered the lexicon. (“Wax on, wax off…” ad nauseam.) What made one’s initial viewing of the film fun, though, was not knowing Miyagi’s original intentions. It’s not hard to deduce that Daniel is learning basic karate moves via indentured servitude (waxing cars, sanding the floor, painting the house and fence), but it’s still deeply satisfying when Miyagi tells Daniel to show what he’s learned and we finally see how all the disparate moves come together. It’s also amusing to see Miyagi bucking the selfless mentor archetype by getting something out of the bargain.

Looking at the middle of the movie now, what’s notable is just how much the tone relaxes from all the overwrought conflict that precedes it. While most examples of the genre use training sequences to jack up the audience, The Karate Kid is almost completely devoid of flashy editing, loud pop music (until the tournament) or busy montages. It contains the requisite “unconventional” training methodology (Avildsen being something of an expert on the subject, e.g., Rocky Balboa pummeling slabs of meat). But it also includes scenes like a long, quiet discussion between teacher and student on a rowboat floating idly in a lake.

Daniel: Hey, you ever get into fights when you were a kid?

Miyagi: Huh, plenty.

Daniel: Yeah, but it wasn’t like the problem I have, right?

Miyagi: Why? Fighting fighting. Same same.

Daniel: Yeah, but you knew karate.

Miyagi: Someone always know more.

Daniel: You mean there were times when you were scared to fight?

Miyagi: Always scared. Miyagi hate fighting.

Daniel: Yeah, but you like karate.

Miyagi: So?

Daniel: So, karate’s fighting. You train to fight.

Miyagi (looks at him hard): That what you think?

Daniel (pauses): No.

Miyagi: Then why train?

Daniel (thinks): So I won’t have to fight.

Miyagi (laughs): Miyagi have hope for you.

Daniel learns more than karate from his training; he also starts learning how to live. For the first time since arriving in a new home, Daniel starts feeling safe. Sitting in a movie theater, during a long summer of twisted arms and body slams, so did I.

V. Moments of Truth (and Falseness)

I saw The Karate Kid several times during its initial release (which began on June 22, 1984), a couple of them by myself and once with my parents. That took some doing, however. I had recommended that they see the film together—as a distraction from personal difficulties with finding jobs and figuring out what to do with the house—while secretly planning to surprise them at the theater. When I arrived a few minutes into the film, I discovered that they weren’t there, that they had gone somewhere else in the mall probably to discuss the above difficulties. I now understand why, but the petty adolescent version of me was indignant. After some initial strife over this betrayal of trust, the three of us went to see it together. Like me, they seemed to enjoy the two-hour break from the real world.

Even then, I didn’t see The Karate Kid as a classic film. The first act is numbing. There are inconsistencies in the “characterizations” (and I use that term loosely) of the Cobra Kai, as when Bobby (Ron Thomas) expresses remorse for sweeping Daniel’s leg in the semis, then jumps for joy when Daniel gets seriously wounded in the final match. (I think the idea is these are potentially decent kids being poisoned by a bad mentor, but that gets muddled.) Moreover, I always hated the moment when Johnny grabs the trophy, hands it to Daniel and tells him that he’s alright after all. The point should be that Daniel doesn’t need his validation, that he can stand just fine on his own, no matter how hobbled. Compared to the indelible conclusion of the original Bad News Bears—“You can take your apology, and your trophy, and shove ’em straight up your ass!”—this denouement leaves something to be desired.

Yet I’m still fond of the picture. The charming core relationship, involving a son without a father and a father who had lost his son; the cheesy performances from the likes of Kove, Zabka, and Chad McQueen (whose line-reading of “Points or no points…You’re dead meat!” shows more emotion than anything ever uttered by his father); and the long, unbroken takes from an old-school director (time the length of the unedited reconciliation scene between Daniel and Ali at the fun park) all add up to an experience more satisfying than the diminishing returns of the sequels and, likely, the reported Jackie Chan remake. There is sentimental appeal as well, best illustrated by a chapter late in The Game, Neil Strauss’s 2005 gonzo expose about the (formerly) secret world of pickup artists, when his sensei, an incorrigible narcissist who goes by the name of “Mystery,” has a crisis-of-conscience while watching a VHS copy of The Karate Kid and starts sobbing. “I never had a Mr. Miyagi,” Mystery wails. “All I wanted was a Mr. Miyagi.”

My own Miyagis would come later in life, at work and in college, long after leaving Arizona and moving progressively eastward to several new residences, where among my first acts of reconnaissance upon arrival would be to scope out the nearest cinema. Where I found sanctuary by seeing all the movies I could possibly see. Where I felt at home in the dark.