The original run of The Karate Kid series coincided perfectly with my own middle school-aged dalliance with karate, which is probably why the series has an outsized place in my memory to this day. I didn't last long in karate -- green belt, I think, whatever that means -- but I liked the idea of karate, which was better represented on the big screen than in the nerf-chucks I had to make do with, or by my pot-bellied, Bob Guccione Jr. look-alike karate teacher. For me, the word karate will always be synonymous with John G. Avildsen's lightning-in-a-bottle film about a dumb Jersey kid who moved out to California in the mid-80s, just as it was having trouble reintroducing a large population of unstable Vietnam vets back into the workplace. In downtown L.A., Martin Riggs was taking out his sniper's remorse and dead-wife issues on the entire homicide division of the LAPD, while over in the Reseda neighborhood, the war was still going on inside the Cobra Kai dojo, run by a sadist who probably invented the ear necklace.
The character of John "this is a karate dojo, not a knitting class" Kreese was said to be a burden for actor Martin Kove. He apparently had a real problem playing a guy who corrupts a bunch of kids, teaching them the "way of the fist" and generally preparing them for what could seemingly only be a life of organized criminality. We're not talking about poor kids off the street, remember -- we find out late in the film that Johnny (William Zabka), LaRusso's chief rival, is actually country-club rich -- we're talking about young men who are going to take their Cobra Kai misteachings with them into higher education and then the upper crust of the workforce, causing us who knows what kind of damage. The much-maligned third film in the series will take a stab at exploring this angle -- what exactly the Cobra Kai financiers were trying to franchise -- but not to any satisfying degree. For our purposes, the Cobra Kai dojo is the equivalent of a biker bar that our hero innocently wanders into and asks for a Capri Sun.
On first viewing, it never occurred to me that Ralph Macchio was too old to play teenage LaRusso or that Pat Morita was too diminutive to be believable as his karate master, so I've never given that consideration, no matter how often I hear it. The definition of good direction -- one of them, anyway -- is successfully keeping our minds off things like that, and since that's accomplished, I consider it a closed issue. How LaRusso-Miyagi mesh on screen is more important, and that never falters as long as the teacher-student barriers stay in place. By the time KKIII rolls around, exhausted screenwriters will have LaRusso going into business with Miyagi so that the alcoholic super and impressionable high-school boy will have an excuse for staying together on-screen, but here in the first film, it's a constructive teaching relationship. The teaching dynamic also sets up my favorite scene in the film, when Daniel is press-ganged by Miyagi into providing a variety of free landscaping services, which he'll later learn are toughening his wrists for defensive blocks. Wax on, wax off!
My second favorite scene -- a close second -- is one of the few scenes in the entire series where Daniel actually takes some kind of mental initiative, as opposed of having to have some lesson beaten into him. When Miyagi gifts him with a wrap-around polka-dot shower curtain as a Halloween costume, Daniel uses it as a cloak for a revenge mission, sneaking unnoticed into a Halloween dance where various members of the Cobra Kai have assembled to relax after a long day of indoctrination and mayhem, and running a water hose down over the head of his nemesis, Johnny. Since we're talking about dumb Daniel here, he hangs around long enough for the entire Cobra Kai to put two and two together, and they give chase, catching up with him and beating him to a bloody pulp. Before they can finish him off -- which Kreese would presumably approve of -- they are interrupted by a muscly stuntman who bears a faint resemblance to Pat Morita from behind, and said stuntman kicks every one of their asses.
I've neglected to mention "Ali with an i" up to now, but I don't think there's really that much to say about Elisabeth Shue's one-off appearance in the series except to note the obvious, which is that her character was slumming, a tease, and obviously using Daniel as a quick way of getting back at her recent boyfriend, Johnny. The best evidence for this is the brief but all-too-important scene at the country club, where the assembled WASPs, Ali and Johnny among them, watch as the out-of-place Italian guy gets a big plate of spaghetti (!) dumped on him and then runs out of the club in shame. You tell me -- does Ali really seem upset during that scene? Or is it the kind of thing over which she and Johnny, two birds of a feather, will eventually share a private laugh? For all we know, Ali may have been a kept woman of the Kai, sent to keep Daniel's mind focused on Golf n' Stuff and her ass instead of practicing for his confrontation with Johnny.
By the time the big All Valley tournament rolls around, the best parts of The Karate Kid are over. There's never any real suspense about the outcome, unless you assume that, given the sheer number of Kais represented in this tourney, they may have found a way around having a disinterested referee. Nothing like that happens, though. The tournament is where we get the first of three made-up karate moves that will cap each episode of the canonical trilogy. Each of them was created out of thin air for dramatic purposes, but they are all ludicrous in practice. If you don't believe me, try doing the crane during your next bar fight. Better yet, try using the "drum technique," which is tantamount to trying to beat someone up with your elbows. Despite Kreese sending in one of his own to fall on his sword with a highly illegal move, Daniel still prevails in the end, thanks to a healing massage from Miyagi. Don't ask. Overall, The Karate Kid holds up remarkably well all these years later.
Coming tomorrow: The cruel summer is over. A harsh Asian winter is about to begin ...