There are certain ‘80s films that will always be a part of the pop culture lexicon. In fact, as proven by homages in nostalgia-driven shows like Stranger Things, there are dozens. The Karate Kid is easily one of the first that immediately comes to mind. It’s become one of the most homaged movies of the past three decades since its release and has returned to the limelight thanks to the success of the YouTube Red series Cobra Kai. The new show cleverly looks at the characters and their world 30 years later. With so much focus on how things have changed and been updated for the critically acclaimed revival, it’s worth taking another look back at the original film and just what a strong, innovative, sincere coming-of-age movie that it actually is.
It’s amazing, in some ways, that The Karate Kid even became as popular as it did, considering that the ‘80s was basically the decade of the sports movie. Rocky pushed forward into a franchise, teen sports flicks from Rudy to Hoosiers really became instant classics. It was especially a huge decade for baseball, with things like The Natural, Field of Dreams and Major League coming out just about every single year. The Karate Kid immediately stands out as a sort of oddball choice, tough to compete with the major hits of the decade. First and foremost, it’s not a team sports movie, and plenty of people wouldn’t consider it a sport at all.
It definitely fits the bill, though, not only in that it is centered on a competition, that there’s a trophy at stake and all of the traditional sports movie rules still apply. But it’s even better for the fact that it’s a film that acknowledges all of these tropes and the very specific ways these features can often play out, and inverts them in some clever and surprising ways.
More than anything, the sports franchise that Karate Kid reflects most clearly is naturally Rocky. After all, the two are similarly structured and both focus on a one-on-one fight. It’s also obviously incredibly important to note that the two films have the same director in John G. Avildsen. That, if anything, might truly be what helps to push this feature into being such a unique thing, even if it follows very similar beats, because Avildsen most likely just didn’t want to repeat himself. Karate Kid can almost be seen as “Teen Rocky,” but that’s honestly one of the best things about it. The heart of The Karate Kid is that it’s as much of a teen movie as it is a martial arts tournament movie. Daniel is a young protagonist with a huge chip on his shoulder. He lives with a single mom and he’s not even that likable at the beginning. And it largely feels like that’s the point. He’s trying not to be. He’s an awkward teenager who tries to carry a “I don’t care what anybody thinks” attitude but at the same time has a desperate need to prove himself. He’s unfocused and undisciplined and that’s obviously where karate comes into play. It’s not something he’s looking for, but it’s something that can help him get over this crushing anxiety and this conviction that the whole world is out to get him.
Mr. Miyagi is largely considered to be one of the most prominent, wise role models in the history of this type of film. But one of the most interesting things about him is just how long it actually takes him to step into that mentor role. He notices Daniel right away, but he doesn’t do anything. This is a gradual friendship that builds over the course of the feature, and the bond between them is truly the core of the movie itself. One of the best things about Karate Kid in general is what information it decides to reveal and when. Miyagi clearly has a past that even when he’s prodded about, he refuses to speak of. It sits there without being addressed for most of the runtime. Pat Morita gives one of those iconic ‘80s performances that is recognized around the world while still not quite getting the recognition that it deserves.
In possibly the best scene in the film, Miyagi and Daniel drink together and actually bond as friends rather than simply sensei and pupil. Miyagi gets noticeably drunk, and the scene turns in an instant as he is loosened up enough to explain what happened to his family, the harrowing death of his wife and son in childbirth, in an internment camp when he was stationed in Europe in World War II. It’s not just the story itself, but the way it’s revealed that makes the scene so heart wrenching. Miyagi is drunk, he would never just tell Daniel any of this information, and even in this scene, he’s not. He’s recounting it as if he’s there, as if h’s reliving it, clearly expressing a great deal of post-traumatic stress as well.
Elisabeth Shue’s Ali is also an important character to note as she is so much more than the arm candy, she’s not just there to be Daniel’s emotional support or to cheer him on. Daniel’s scenes with her feel much more like an authentic coming-of-age movie, more than what you’d typically expect from a sports drama. Ali is there to call him on his shit. She doesn’t even necessarily get why this is important to him, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have her support.
Johnny is one of the most interesting characters in the film in retrospect, having basically been the focus of the Cobra Kai series. In some ways, he’s the quintessential ‘80s bully. He’s one of the very first that comes to mind, easily, when thinking of that kind of character. But even in the original movie, there’s a little more going on with his character. First and foremost, there’s a genuine fear of his Cobra Kai sensei, John Kreese, and intense and hard man who not only has no regard for the rules, but has a genuine disdain for them as he believes them to be nothing more than barriers standing in the way of true victory. There are moments when it is very clear that Johnny realizes that he’s being told to do the wrong thing, but that he buries and does anyway because of that fear and a desperate need for Kreese’s approval.
When Daniel wins at the end, even though it’s a small moment, it’s a crucial one. So many ‘80s bullies have to be humiliated, have to be beaten miserably. That’s something that was really cemented a year later with Back to the Future’s Biff, the quintessential ’80s bully. Sports villains in particular tend to be the ultimate heel. They’re relentless tormentors with surprisingly thin skin. Johnny embodies these tropes so much through so much of the movie, but when it comes down to it, he accepts his defeat and congratulates Daniel on his victory. If anything, Daniel kicking his ass is what earns his respect. But there’s also the fact that he clearly knows that his Cobra Kai sensei does not want him to accept defeat, will not tolerate his losing and would be genuinely offended by him congratulating Daniel on his well-earned victory.
The biggest way in which Karate Kid inverts ‘80s sports flick tropes, though, honestly boils down to the entire structure of the film itself. If there’s one thing that defines this type and era of movie, it’s the training montage. Thanks to Rocky, especially, just about every single film that followed needed one. Needed so instrumental power ballad, some shots of training, of putting in the work, of rising to the occasion in order to be ready enough to do what it takes. What’s interesting about this, though, is when you really lays the basics of the montage out, these moments being glossed over sound like the core of the movie.
That’s what makes The Karate Kid so special. It is a true, complete inversion of the ‘80s sports movie because the entire film is the training montage. Everything is about getting Daniel to that point. Getting him ready. Not just for the tournament, but for generally being a responsible person who can get over his troubles and honestly get over himself. Everything’s about getting that chip to finally roll off of his shoulder. The training, the one thing that would be glossed over in so many other features of the type, is the heart of the film. The movie hinges on the friendship and mentorship between Miyagi and Daniel. Every single training scene is crucial, everything is given proper focus. And it’s all important to the tournament, too. Sometimes absurdly so, like the “wax on/wax off” scene teaching Daniel how to block. But you buy it because you buy into the unlikely but sincere bond that is formed between these two characters.
Conversely, while Daniel’s training is given focus and dealt with throughout the movie, the actual competition is in essence a montage. It’s handled in exactly the way a training montage would be, quick shots of Daniel rising through the ranks, even set to a power ballad with Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best.” It’s such a clever inversion of exactly what we’ve come to expect from this kind of feature. The whole tournament is over in minutes and when it’s over, so is the feature as a whole.
That is, of course, the whole point. The fighting isn’t the focus, getting Daniel emotionally and mentally ready for it is. Once The Karate Kid gets to that point, it’s told the story it set out to tell. This is, on paper, almost the exact same story as Rocky and so many other sports/competition flicks of the era. The thing that makes The Karate Kid so successful and such an iconic, standout film is the way it manages to take such a different approach to the exact same material audiences were seeing so much of at the time. It’s a very clever inversion of a very simple formula, but that partnered with the sincere heart and character work are what make it, simply put, the best around.