Sweep the mother fucking leg! I could have pulled a ton of quotes from this film and incorporated them into the title, because I had not really realized how much of the iconic catch phrases of the 80's were lifted from this film, perhaps one of the most eighties of all films. Between its language, style and general penchant for the excessive, The Karate Kid is everything I have come to expect from a classic genre film, particularly one that incorporates a distinct coming of age narrative. It is also yet another reminder that when it comes to films involving kung fu and/or ninjas that are also set in the eighties, it is easiest to distinguish the good guys from those who are bad, in that the villains always possess motorcycles, while seeming to lack any piece of clothing that includes sleeves. Also, The Karate Kid is the rare movie that manages to exude such a self-awareness about its eventual datedness and place as immediate nostalgia that some of the more pseudo-racist and narratively problematic through lines are present, but capable of being overlooked. In fact, I would be willing to place The Karate Kid as one of the moments of before/after in 80's cinema, a time where simplicity, earnestness and stylistic over-exuberance trump cultural critique and the lavish as a means of social critique. Indeed, compare this and a work like Top Gun with later works from the same decade like Robocop or Pretty in Pink and you will realize a sharp contrast in seriousness of subject matter, even in regards to genre works or coming of age tales. While I know that a lot of this can be chalked up to simple escapist cinema and a changing landscape in the rise of independent cinema, but I would also extend the consideration that much of The Karate Kid narrative feeds into the hyper-idealisim of a Reagan era America where even the most impoverished of persons can pull themselves up by their boot straps and contest the greatest of foes, despite being cheated and denied equal class access. Indeed, The Karate Kid depicts a world where its main character gets fortunate break after fortunate break, thus allowing him to move outside of his class othering at such an instantaneous rate that it would appears as though Reagan's misguided assumption about trickling down economic benefits did indeed reach one of the lowest rungs. This idea failed in reality, but certainly seemed quite plausible in the narrative of The Karate Kid.
The Karate Kid begins with Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother Lucille (Randee Heller) making the long trek from New Jersey to California, Lucille believing that by taking herself and her son to a completely new space that they will both be able to prosper in the wake of what the film suggests to be an unfortunate past with her spouse. Daniel is incredibly reluctant to embrace the new space, particularly since California is decidedly different from his close-knit New Jersey block, although, he lucks out in getting invited to a beach party on his first day in the town. It is during this party that he meets Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) a wealthy girl who seems to take a liking to Daniel for his earnest, down-to-earth attitude. Yet, it is also during this night that he meets a group of biker kids whose ties to the infamous Cobra Kai dojo have made them into maniacal karate experts whose ruthless attitudes make fighting them a less than stellar affair. The Cobra Kai's leader is Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) whose previous relationship with Ali, causes him to immediately dislike Daniel and attack him in a push to establish his authority. After being beaten up, Daniel returns home, and in an attempt to hide his bruises from Lucille instead gives away his secret, causing her to express concern, although she cannot exact the effort she would like considering that she is busy working to make their lives in California sustainable. At this point, Daniel meets the apartment complex's maintenance manager Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) who admits to knowing karate, although he is hesitant to teach it to Daniel who he thinks only want to use it to pick fights, however, Miyagi does take Daniel under his wing, seeing that he is lacking a consistent parental figure. During the night of a dance at his school, Daniel is attacked by a group of students from the Cobra Kai school, at which point Miyagi defends the young man and in the process realizes the seriousness of his situation and after confronting the dojo leader, suggest that Daniel and Johnny meet in the the regional martial arts tournament. At this point Daniel's training is more intense and his relationship with Ali evolves, after a minor setback. On the day of the tournament, Daniel's training pays off, although he learns in the process that it often takes overcoming cheating, physical and mental adversity and occasionally changing a course of action to complete a task successfully.
I should preface this paragraph by saying that I fully understand that The Karate Kid is made for a particular audience of youth and that it serves primarily an escapist function. Yet I also want to note that intended audience/level of cultural popularity has never stopped me from over analyzing a film before, nor will it now. Indeed, after I finish this post I intend to wildly throw some theory to a rather popular contemporary film trilogy in hopes of publication. However, I digress. I want, to posit that The Karate Kid is very much a film that suggest that class is something that can be transcended by the graciousness of those with privilege passing their wealth downward to those without. Indeed, Daniel and his mom are clearly to be of a working class status in the opening moments of the film, when they arrive to California and are located in a run down apartment complex that boasts a pool barely containing any water, which of what is available is grossly stagnant. Furthermore, Lucille must play into the gimmick of moving up through lower level management by "taking classes" as a means to succeed economically, when much of this requires her to sacrifice the possibility of making money, because she must spend what ever extra earning she makes to pursue these endeavors. The signifier for Daniel's poverty then becomes his bike, which is mocked and destroyed by Johnny and his friends whose privilege drives them to destroy his poverty merely out of humor and out of a jealously that he could attain one of their points of status in Ali. The really bizarre thing about the film, and the way in which it affirms a Reagan idea of trickle down economics is that when Daniel is in the presence of Ali he is suddenly in possession of money, most notably in the lunch scene where he retrieves enough money to pay for both of their meals, despite being clearly lacking in earlier moments. Furthermore, Mr. Miyagi, while primarily a sensei to Daniel, seems to also be a point where money/property passes towards Daniel, in his case fixing his bike signifier to be less poor looking and eventually replacing it with a classic car. These gifts are an implausible thing to most people of a lower class space, but this is one of the faults of trickle down economics, is that such occurrences are suggested to be quite frequent. It is worth acknowledging Miyagi's identity as other, but that is not the reading I am going for so it shall not be elaborated upon. Daniel's class thus becomes less and less evident to the point that once he arrives at the tournament he is destined to win, attaining a golden trophy, perhaps a signifier of wealth, or a false idol intended to provide him a delusion of access to that which his lower class status will probably never officially attain.
Key Scene: SWEEP THE LEG!
This is a fine film considering its dated 80's nature. However, when approaching it be aware that its dated features also come with some problematic depictions of Mr. Miyagi as an Oriental body. Other than that feel free to buy this, although renting is the route I would go.