“Fear does not exist in this dojo.”
Here’s a crane technique of nostalgia to the face. The Karate Kid series generated a boatload of pop culture vernacular during its run. You got your “wax on, wax off,” and your “Daniel-san,” and “Put him in a body bag Johnny!,” and every little kid in the mid ’80s trying to emulate Mr. Miyagi’s speaking pattern — “You want trade Large Marge for Still Jill?”
With this three-disc, four-film set, you can now relive all your long-lost memories — or, in the case of the last two installments in the series, see why you blocked them out. The Karate Kid, The Karate Kid II, The Karate Kid Part III, and The Next Karate Kid are coming to a Cobra Kai dojo near you!
The Karate Kid
Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio, My Cousin Vinny) and his mother have recently moved from New Jersey to the West Coast, and he just doesn’t fit in. Daniel is a temperamental little bastard, quick to inject himself into other people’s business and stick up for the downtrodden — as long as the downtrodden is Elizabeth Shue. But Daniel’s real talent lies in taking a beating. After he gets on the bad side of Johnny Lawrence (perennial movie jerk William Zabka) and his gang of thugs, Daniel is subjected to much physical harm. Johnny and his boys train at the Cobra Kai dojo under the tutelage of borderline psychotic John Kreese, who preaches “no mercy.”
Even the advances of the bodacious Ali Mills (Shue) do not quell the despair Daniel is mired in. However, his luck changes when Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), a soft-spoken handyman, agrees to train Daniel for the upcoming karate tournament, and help free himself from the torment of the Cobra Kai boys.
The Karate Kid Part II
Six months following Daniel’s showdown at the tournament, Mr. Miyagi receives a troubling letter from his home in Okinawa: his father has taken seriously ill and will die soon. Miyagi immediately sets out for Okinawa, and Daniel, eager to support his best friend, joins him.
But it’s evident from the moment they arrive that they aren’t welcome. Miyagi is returning to face his former best friend, Sato, who harbors a fifty-year-old grudge and is looking to battle Miyagi to the death. Daniel is dragged into the conflict when Sato’s nephew and best pupil, Chozen, targets him for a beat-down.
Despite some love interests for both Miyagi and Daniel, the two realize that things are growing too out of control for them to stay. But before they can leave, Sato delivers an ultimatum to his old friend, and The Karate Kid will again have to square off against a dangerous opponent and uncork his newest special move.
The Karate Kid Part III
Daniel is preparing for college, but has reservations. When Miyagi and Daniel return home from Okinawa they are stunned to discover that the apartment complex has been closed: Daniel is without a home and Miyagi is without a job. Flush with cash, thanks to a wager that went his way, Daniel decides to go into business with his mentor and open a bonsai shop. A quiet existence is all he wants now, even opting to forgo the defense of his karate title at this year’s tournament.
However, a corrupt mogul name Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who is best friends with the disgraced former Cobra Kai master John Kreese, has decided to exact some revenge on the Miyagi-do dojo while opening up Cobra Kai franchises around the area, presumably to corrupt the area’s youth forever. He brings in karate expert and all-around bastard Mike Barnes to defeat Daniel in the tournament. And as a rift grows wide between Daniel and Miyagi, the bad guys capitalize, isolating The Karate Kid from his master and leading him towards the dark side.
The Next Karate Kid
Mr. Miyagi house-sits for the wife of an old war buddy, and encounters a short-tempered 17 year-old girl named Julie (Hillary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry) who we learn, thanks to an out-of-the-blue chunk of exposition, recently suffered the tragic death of her parents.
Underachieving in classes and ostracized by peers, Julie floats along day-to-day in school, finding her only anchor in caring for an injured falcon. But her biggest problems are the Alpha Elite, a ROTC-knock-off group led by the mentally unbalanced Colonel Dugan (Michael Ironside) that has taken pleasure in tormenting her.
Eventually, Julie turns to Mr. Miyagi for guidance, and the old sensei agrees to train her in karate, and channel her anger. Just in time, too, because a violent face-off certainly awaits her at the end of the movie.
Not many films have spawned as much pop culture history as The Karate Kid. That whole crane technique — a fictional move created by the filmmakers — is the universal party gag for unoriginal class clowns. There was a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon that I remember vividly, and a load of merchandising. I recall the ice-block karate-chopping-action Daniel-san figure from The Karate Kid II — now there was a toy that had limited options for play. The impact these movies on me was clear: anytime I’d watch these films I’d feel compelled to go outside and karate-chop icicles or skinny tree branches with a squeaky Hi-Ya!.
Revisiting these adventures, I of course wondered if my memories have outperformed their source material. Would the exploits of Daniel-san still impress, or should they be relegated into that dusty old chest of reminiscence and locked in the attic for good?
No, the magic is real. The Karate Kid is a great, great family film. It’s got charm and a message, and the chemistry between Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio is real. For all the flak Macchio’s Daniel may get as an oft-whiny puke who takes way more punishment than he dishes out, it is hard to imagine another actor pulling it off. Well, maybe Wil Wheaton, but that’s it. Macchio’s Daniel is a lanky, regular kid, with a quick mouth and bad luck, and in each movie he adds a little something to the character. The first film finds him an alienated new kid; the second, a stranger in a strange land committed only to helping his friend; the third, a kid who loses his way.
Pat Morita is a permanent fixture of celluloid lore. His small-statured, soft-spoken, credo-coining Miyagi is the perfect counter to the brash young kid from New Jersey whom he adopts as a pupil. What powers The Karate Kid is the relationship between these two characters, the juxtaposition of two completely different people.
In the sequel, the filmmakers, largely the same from the first film — Part II was filmed 10 days after the release of the first — upped the ante, bringing Daniel and his sensei over to Okinawa. The tried-and-true formula is still preserved: Daniel makes enemies with the local hard-ass, is subjected to brutal beatings throughout the film, learns a quirky little special move, and then engages in a final face-off, while finding time on the side to court a luscious young female.
The twist in this film is the focus shifting to Miyagi. The little guy takes the spotlight, and we see his background and his breeding. Sure, the sequel is derivative of the original, but I’ll give it up to the filmmakers for crafting an entertaining follow-up that builds on the success of the previous installment. The fights are grittier, the themes are more mature (“stop beating me up!” vs. “life-or-death honor blood feuds”) and the setting is dynamite. A worthy successor in my opinion.
And that brings us to The Karate Kid Part III — an absolutely ridiculous movie. Where Part II could be commended for taking the KK formula up a notch and doing some different things with it, Part III opts to Xerox the script of the first movie and blend in some truly laughable moments.
The entire premise is goofy. A disgraced John Kreese, seeing his Cobra Kai dojo in shambles after Daniel Larusso smoked his ace student a year ago, hooks up with a former Vietnam platoon mate. This clown, Terry, is a mega-rich, over-the-top a-hole who is the head of a company called “Dynatox” — not the most subtle evil corporation name — that specializes in dumping nuclear waste into the ocean. The two men decide to put all their resources into humiliating Daniel and beating him in the next tournament. Seriously, don’t these guys have anything better to do?! They bring in Mike Barnes, who is no less imposing than any of Daniel’s other nemeses, while Terry manufactures an elaborate charade to trick Daniel into becoming his pupil. The lengths to which these losers are willing to go is astounding. Add in a boring, platonic relationship with a redhead and a wildly disappointing end fight scene, and this movie is not worth half a bonsai. Even the rift that forms between Daniel and Miyagi can’t save this claptrap.
Last is The Next Karate Kid, the final entry into the Karate Kid canon, and Mr. Miyagi’s swan song. In an attempt to spruce up the franchise, the filmmakers dissolved the Daniel/Miyagi coupling, and inserted a lively young girl as the successor. The formula, however, remains the same. Kid with problem learns karate, conquers problem, learns a super move, uses it against a jerk at the end, and Mr. Miyagi offers ambiguous sayings.
The Next Karate Kid is a harmless movie that makes no sense. The few elements that are entertaining are Miyagi’s awkwardness around girls, and, inadvertently, the over-the-top shenanigans of the Alpha Elite, the antagonists. About the latter — I don’t know what school board authorized this Dugan guy to take over as security (one of his orders: “If someone drops a wrapper, make them eat it!”), but I’m guessing there were some heavy Puritanical influences there. This whole construct was just ridiculous and unrealistic. These bad kids — who look to be about 25, by the way — have no problem ganging up five on one on a girl, or blowing up someone’s classic Oldsmobile, all while Dugan looks on approvingly. Of course, this being a Karate Kid movie, everyone gets their comeuppance eventually, but in an unimpressive, boring way. Gone are the days of the dramatic crane technique, kids. (I must admit, though, that Hillary Swank in her brief moments of athleticism exhibits far more coordination and skill than the combined efforts of Ralph Macchio. Sorry, Daniel-san.)
The most disappointing aspect of this film is that it ceases to take itself seriously. After traveling to a monastery to teach Julie karate, Miyagi and some tag-along monks horse around the kitchen, prepare Julie for the prom, and then go bowling. Suddenly, the karate so revered in the prior films has been reduced to self-parody. Bowling monks?!
Technically, the final film does outshine the first three. The picture looks better, and colors are sharper. Though all the tracks are 2.0 surround, the final mix is relatively stronger compared to the shallowness of the first three. The first and second film suffer from some grainy patches, and dark sequences in all four are a little too dirty for my tastes. All four films come in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The only film that benefits from half-decent extra features is the first, the “special edition.” Five featurettes — “The Way of the Karate Kid,” “Life of Bonsai,” “East Meets West: A Composer’s Notebook,” “Beyond the Form,” and a making-of documentary — are well done and make nice supplements. But these complement the most entertaining extra, a commentary by Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, writer Robert Kamen, and director John Avildsen, populated by raucous reminiscing and funny anecdotes. These four share an obvious warmth for the material, but are not above lampooning each other (Macchio is particularly hard on his old school fashion sense). A short, fairly useless featurette about the sequel is the only remaining substantial bonus item in the set.
Two out of four may sound pretty lamentable, but the court is willing to forgive the shortcomings of the latter because of the magic of the former. Case dismissed. Now go wax my car.