Strike hard, strike first, no mercy. But enough about my dating rules.
Time for another 80s staple. Being that you have found your way here to this fine site I trust you are reasonably familiar with such classics and will not need *too* much background, at least at first. And you also probably know that much of the “action” in this franchise is not terribly, well, action-esque. Due to a mix of both realism and cinematic clumsiness much of the non-climactic fight scenes in the Karate Kid films are short and underwhelming. So, much as we did with director John G Avildsen’s other signature series (or at least the series he started), Rocky, we’ll be covering only each film’s ending fight sequence. Though unlike with Rocky this won’t be a retrospective; as dear as the Karate Kid franchise is to many of our hearts, it’s not weighty or cohesive enough to merit an enormous blog tome, and is better broken up into individual pieces. You have a problem with that?
That’s what I thought.
1) The Karate Kid: Daniel vs Johnny
- Daniel LaRusso, a Jersey kid recently transplanted to California along with his single mother. Awkward & moody but basically decent, a crash course in karate from his martial arts master of a superintendent has (barely) prepared him for the grueling gauntlet that is the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament, where he is to face down his tormentors. Played by Ralph Macchio with endearing awkwardness.
- Trained by: Kesuke Miyagi, an Okinawan immigrant, karate master, and U.S. Army war hero currently living out his days as a quiet handyman. Because, rather than despite, of his great proficiency for violence, Miyagi is very peaceful, and teaches Daniel-san the essence of his family’s awesome karate style only because he sees no other way to end the boy’s torment. And also because he needed someone to do his chores. It’s win-win, really. Played by the late great Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who was actually a stand-up comedian and American native with no karate skill whatsoever. Acting!
- Johnny Lawrence, a handsome and hotheaded rich kid who’s tore up at LaRusso over a girl. The alpha male of his peer group and prize student of his dojo, Lawrence is an old-school bully who has plenty of skill to back up his bluster. Played by William Zabka, who was like the William Atherton of school movies for a little while.
- Trained by: John Kreese, a sadistic & ruthless karate instructor who was a Green Beret in Vietnam. He runs the Cobra Kai dojo where Johnny and his pals learned their skills. Though almost cartoonishly evil– he’s openly racist, encourages dishonorable & petty conduct, and is a generally Might Makes Right sort of guy– he’s no less intimidating or effective for his two-dimensionality. As Miyagi says, “no such thing as bad student, only bad teacher” and it’s clear that Kreese is the reason Johnny is turning out so bad. Played by Martin Kove, who should have been in more stuff.
[Note: most former Special Forces vets would likely object to Kreese’s characterization, not just for his immoral behavior but for how his highly rigid and regimented lifestyle is unlike the easy professionalism that is the trademark of the real SF community. Also, it’s oddly never brought up how each kid’s mentor is a veteran and they never try to appeal to each other that way; if Miyagi had rolled into the Cobra Kai dojo wearing his Medal of Honor, Kreese likely would have backed right the heck off, racist or no.]
The Setup: Shortly after relocating to sunny California, Daniel LaRusso’s young heart got him into some trouble, when he started a romance with Ali (Elisabeth Shue), the former girlfriend of Johnny. Since then, Johnny and his pals had given Daniel a very cruel summer, from which he could find no shelter until he was taken under Mr. Miyagi’s wing. Miyagi bought Daniel a few bully-free months by having Kreese agree to wait until Daniel’s entry in the local karate tournament, during which time he gave Daniel some unorthodox training in his family’s style of superior martial artistry. The contest is Daniel’s moment of truth to find out if he’s the best… around.
After arriving in the tournament and finding his groove, Daniel did quite well against the Cobra Kai underlings and some other competitors. But on Kreese’s orders, Johnny’s friend (and relatively nicer bully) Bobby reluctantly takes Daniel out with an illegal, crippling shot to his knee.
Discount Mark Hamill Bobby is disqualified but Daniel seems out of commission, Kreese having cruelly denied him his shot at dignity.
Daniel, though, rallies and convinces Miyagi to use some sort of nebulously defined massage technique (Asian people are magic, don’t ya know) to suppress his pain just enough to limp back out to the mat. Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight!
The Fight: A classic. Everything comes together almost perfectly. Just real enough to be believable while not losing an ounce of excitement– and of course a good bit of that excitement comes not so much from the choreography but from the characterization. This is such an identifiable struggle it makes us really care about the outcome.
Macchio as Daniel comes off as every bit the underdog he is, being dwarfed by the bigger & buffer Johnny, who Zabka imbues with just the right amount of aggressive energy. Johnny, after all, is the true karate master here; Daniel has only learned just enough to defend himself in a short amount of time, and that really does come through in Macchio’s performance and the staging. It’s made more believable by the particular rules of the tournament, with every match being less of a “fight” (like a boxing match is) and more a series of short skill contests: the first one to successfully strike his opponent in the correct area scores a point, which ends the round, and the first one to three points the match. If this were a real fight with no rules, Daniel’s chances would have been a lot different, even with two working knees.
LaRusso does indeed come out strong here, winning the first two rounds against Johnny with some simple and quick moves. But when the Aryan bully gets called over to see his sensei (ostensibly to check on the bloody nose Daniel just gave him), Kreese delivers that famous, cold-blooded line:
Pure excellence. Kove comes off like a total snake, and even in the heat of the moment, Johnny can see that all is not right. Zabka’s reaction (see the second image in the post) encompasses so much: realization, crushing disappointment, and perhaps most importantly, panic— Lawrence feels instinctively that he’s on the wrong team but doesn’t know how to do anything else but stay the course. The outcome of the match is now doubly important because it’s not just about helping Daniel but about saving Johnny. Kreese, and everything he stands for, cannot be allowed to win.
Unfortunately, Johnny starts to do just that, winning the next two points after opening up with that unethical sweep to Daniel’s injured leg. In addition to his next two points (which are largely drawn out, with the already-hurt Daniel getting increasingly tired before each loss), he also scores a couple non-points, like when he elbows him in the injured leg.
Daniel is looking pretty ragged as they close into the endgame. But before they can GET HIM A BODY BAG!, he pulls out his secret weapon, the legendary “Crane Kick” technique he’d been practicing ever since he saw his teacher do it.
Now, let’s be serious here: the Crane Kick is, by any practical measure, stupid. It’s basically just a jumping front kick with some unnecessary theatrics that might provide a tiny bit of misdirection to a particularly dumb opponent. Miyagi famously says “if do correct no can defense” but that’s nonsense, there’s no such thing as a move you can’t defend against one way or another; as Miyagi himself says in the sequel (where the Crane Kick is defended against), the best block is to not be there.
But that doesn’t matter. The Crane Kick is just ridiculous and weird enough to work for a movie like this. More important than the concept, though, is how it works spectacularly in execution. Macchio’s excellent delivery and the slow build-up of dramatic music culminating in a loud cymbal clash as it connects (followed by a swell of triumphant music, of course) all do their part, but the most crucial ingredient in making any fake attack memorable is how well the recipient sells it. It’s why you’d never remember George McFly’s one-punch knockout if Tom Wilson hadn’t spun around like a pro, and why even Leonard Nimoy credits William Shatner for ensuring the Vulcan Nerve Pinch worked on-screen (because William Shatner does NOTHING by half-measures). Even the best pro wrestler in the world can look like a doof if he’s in the ring with a guy who can’t sell his moves.
So all glory be to William Zabka here. He charges in attempting to punch, he gets a face full of foot, he gets turned around and thumps to the ground on his chest. Then he crawls around on his knees while still gripping his face in pain. That’s some physical acting, folks.
The epilogue is brilliant in its brevity: a few moments of rapturous celebration, including a humbled Johnny willingly handing the trophy to Daniel as he gets hoisted by the crowd, then a freeze frame on Miyagi’s face as the cheers continue before the screen goes black and the credits roll. The movie should end with him, because for all that the movie was about Daniel’s struggle, it’s Miyagi whose philosophy has been vindicated, and he’s the grieving father who gained a new son. There was, as many know, another ending filmed where Miyagi confronts a deranged Kreese in the parking lot and teaches him a lesson, but that was wisely cut (and even more wisely, saved and used as the sequel’s prologue), as it would have been both gratuitous and anti-climactic. Yo Miyagi, we did it.
The Karate Kid’s climactic showdown is just the right mixture of corny and serious. It’s everything we love about cheesy 80s movies with none of the stuff we hate. It has its share of change-ups, surprises, nice character beats, and a rousing finish. Banzai!
Recommended Links: William Zabka’s highly entertaining interview with the AV Club, where he shares his insights on the role and some behind-the-scenes stuff about the movie. And a cool Rodney Dangerfield story.
The 442nd Regiment the fictional Miyagi served in is a real thing. Every American should be taught about their truly remarkable gallantry. Those guys went for broke.
Blogger Trivia: A couple friends and I once played a drinking game in the barracks with this movie, using rules like “drink whenever there’s a fight” and “drink whenever the Cobra Kai show up.” It was not the best decision I ever made.
Coming Attractions: Daniel versus the Chozen One.