By Marc S. Sanders
Though it may feel like an After School Special at times, there’s always been a charming quality about The Karate Kid, and that stems from the relationship between Daniel LaRouso (Ralph Macchio) and his elderly Asian mentor from Okinawa, Mr. Miyagi (Oscar nominee Pat Morita).
John G. Avildsen, director of Rocky, is harsh in the expository bullying that Daniel endures when he moves from Newark, NJ to California. The Kobra Kai kids led by William Zabka (your go to bully for 1980s films) are brutal in their fighting skills as they use Daniel as a means to exercise their Sensei’s philosophy of “No Mercy!” The Sensei is played very frighteningly by Martin Kove.
What’s hard for me to digest with The Karate Kid is that Macchio is not very good in the role. He kind of comes off as a kid I’d never want to hang out with. He tries too hard to be cool, but he doesn’t look cool. His sense of humor is really never funny. It’s too hokey really when he puts the charms on his crush Alli (Elisabeth Shue). While Shue is fine her in her sweetness, Macchio is really why I never found any chemistry between the two actors. He comes off like Shue’s little brother more than a high school crush. He’s a twerp. What saves me from giving up on Daniel, or Macchio in the role, is the maintenance man who steps in to rescue Daniel from another beating.
Pat Morita is excellent as Mr. Miyagi and has truly created one of the most pop culturally significant characters in film from the last forty years. There’s an authenticity to his role. Most importantly, he’s a veteran of World War II who suffered loss. A great scene occurs mid way through the film where Daniel finds a drunken Miyagi commemorating the death of his wife and newborn both lost due to complications in childbirth while he was away in service. Screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen brought a depth to the Miyagi role. Along with Morita’s performance, he allowed a likability in Daniel that eventually catches my interest. Daniel eventually appreciates the elderly man beyond his devotion of karate. When Macchio is responding to Morita, I like him. When he’s responding to any other character in the film, I don’t like him.
The centerpiece of the film is the mundane training that Daniel endures. “Wax on. Wax off,” and so on. It’s hardly forgettable but it’s also a little slow moving. Still, I like the lesson. Miyagi demonstrates that the best way to learn karate is ironically when you have no inkling that you’re learning karate. Use the fundamentals of any skill and apply it to the art of karate. Karate doesn’t stem from an urge of violence. It comes from something more intrinsic. Karen’s script with Avildsen’s direction never forgets that.
The payoff moment is when it dawns upon the very naive Daniel of what Miyagi was teaching him all along. Daniel might be painting the house and sanding the floor and waxing the cars on Miyagi’s property, but is that all he’s doing? Soon we discover the significance of this drawn out sequence. Morita opens your eyes when he throws punches and kicks at a frustrated Daniel, and it dawns on the kid that he suddenly knows how to defend himself. Avlidsen films a hair raising scene at this moment. Its like when the frail Yoda uses the Force to lift Luke’s X-Wing fighter out of the swamp. It’s another layer revealed in the Miyagi character.
So, without Mr. Miyagi The Karate Kid plays like a cheesy home room, early 80s lesson film. When a scene includes Morita, the wow factor is front and center. Often I talk about the best characters are the multi dimensional ones. Mr. Miyagi is the perfect example. We see him as the quiet maintenance man, then he’s the master fighter, then he’s the guy with a healing skill, then he’s the guy who’s got the secret crane technique for delivering a kick, and then he’s the guy with a sorrowful past and finally he’s the mentor and most importantly, he’s the friend. All of this crammed into one little old man from Okinawa. Pat Morita is the reason to watch The Karate Kid.