The Karate Kid series (fight 5 of 5)

Let’s get it out of the way up front: screw this movie.

In fairness, the movie started it. I mean.. COME ON.

Also up-front, I’ll admit I haven’t seen it, not completely. I know what I do of it by watching the relevant clips (and a few others) online, as well as reading reviews, talking to people and reading summaries on websites. I’ve never subscribed to the absolutist stance that you can’t make reasonable judgements/guesses about a movie’s quality unless you’ve seen 100% of it yourself (“how can you say Hitler was evil, you never met him!”), but everything I’ve seen about this remake tells me they got it wrong. They missed the point.

The original Karate Kid was and is wonderfully awkward– as played by Macchio, Daniel LaRusso is gangly and uncool in a very believable way– and is in fact endearing in large part because of that awkwardness. The honest clunkiness to it makes the crowd-pleasing/wish-fulfillment part of it not ring false. The remake, however, is a vanity project custom-made for the anointed pre-teen spawn of Hollywood superstars (actually, one superstar and one normal-sized star). In addition to cashing in on a name recognition it doesn’t earn, it’s way too self-consciously slick and over-produced.

Tons of imagery from the film is meant to paint Jaden Smith as a junior badass, a pint-sized crouching tiger; except for maybe the image of practicing crane kicks at sunset, how many times do you look at Ralph Macchio in the original and think “Wow, he’s SO cool!”? He’s an EveryKid, not a SuperKid. Switching from humble 1980s karate to a very showy, acrobatic and complex type of kung fu is somewhat understandable (it’s all the rage these days), but that mixes terribly with making the players even younger: watching this wannabe-Bruce Lee stuff play out with pre-adolesecents only further highlights how silly & phony it all is… and that goes extra for the drama behind it. Of course teen drama is not exactly super-serious either, but teens are significantly closer to adulthood than children are. Such a difference puberty makes. This movie is like the episode of Arrested Development where grade-schoolers act out a bleak prison drama.

“Ooh, we’re the totally evil super-scary antagonists! Please ignore how our voices haven’t cracked yet.”

And of course this problem is only a symptom of the wrongheadedness that drove the movie’s creation. Why is the character 12 instead of 17-18? Because that’s how old Jaden was when Daddy decided to make him a star.

But even as the remake misses the real point, it recreates the superficial stuff– doing its own version of the original, plot beat by plot beat, with the occasional substitution (fire-cupping instead of mysterious massage, a bucket of water on the bully instead of a hose, etc). The movie would have been better served if they’d struck out on their own a bit, and gone with the more accurate title (and by most accounts, their proposed one) of “The Kung Fu Kid.” Such a seemingly minor change would have done a lot to imply that while this is clearly inspired by the Karate Kid (most people would understand the reference, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone who didn’t), it was its own animal and not a strict remake, so expectations can be adjusted accordingly.

The Karate Kid (2010): Dre vs Cheng

The Fighters:

  • Andre “Dre” Parker, a 12-year-old American recently relocated to Beijing along with his single mother. One interesting twist the remake attempts is to make its protagonist even more of an outcast: whereas Daniel is an outsider because of his poverty and regional upbringing (and arguably his Italian-American heritage), Dre is a whole different race and nationality from his new peers. Played by Jaden Smith.
    • Trained by: Mr. Han, the superintendent at Dre’s building who’s secretly a kung fu master. Whereas Miyagi’s reclusiveness was as an apparent result of his humble & peaceful nature, Han’s seems borne out of grief for losing his wife & child. It’s another telling symptom of modern Hollywood that the new version of Miyagi was inadvertently responsible for his family’s death (car accident while he was driving and arguing) whereas the old one’s died in an internment camp while he was off at war. Nowadays heroes must be haunted by something they did rather than something that happened to them; they must have an Original Sin. Played by the great Jackie Chan, in what’s actually a clever bit of stunt casting, though of course putting a Chinese actor in the role undoes the element of the original where the student & mentor are both outsiders.
  • Cheng, this movie’s pre-pubescent Johnny. Same deal as before: he’s the star pupil of the Bad Master and keeps beating up Dre over a girl (who was three years older than Smith in real life, and looks even more so). Played by Zhenwei Wang, who’s no William Zabka. But who is?
    • Trained by: Master Li, the Chinese Kreese but without any of the oily menace. Same “no mercy” philosophy and dishonorable tactics, though presumably he doesn’t share Kreese’s racism against Asians. Played by kung fu movie veteran Yu Rongguang.

The Setup: You know the drill. Kid moves, meets girl, jealous bully, kind old man, montage, tournament, hurt knee.

Train on top of landmark visible from space, etc.

The Fight: The key difference between this and the original are glaring right away: the fighting here is extremely slick and highly complicated. Whereas the first film choreographed karate that some well-trained teenagers could conceivably engage in, the extremely complex staging here is like something out of a legitimate kung fu movie– it’s not something you’d believe adults could pull off in real life, let alone pre-teens. Dre power-slides on his knees under high attacks not once but twice, the combatants pull off crazy flips & tricks, one combatant goes flying several feet through the air when a blow knocks him out of the elevated ring (why is it elevated? Is safety not a concern?). Possibly most ridiculous is the time Dre scores a point by leaping onto Cheng’s shoulders and flipping him over. Come the f**k on.

Just think how skilled he’d be if he trained for MORE than a few months!

Other than that, the main structural change-up here is the two kids alternate scoring each point against each other, rather than each winning two consecutive rounds. But they even reproduce the moment where the bad kid gets a timeout with the bad master and is instructed to be extra nasty– right down to the part where the teacher grabs the kid’s face. Oy. It’s made worse by the fact that Cheng telegraphs it so hard, glancing at Dre’s wounded leg every couple seconds before he finally strikes it. Maybe Han should have spent less time teaching absurd flips and more time about reading one’s opponent? Nah.

When it comes down to the final round, this movie’s answer to the Crane Kick is… odd. Apparently it’s some sort of Cobra/”reflection” technique that involves mimicking your opponent’s movements before they attack, so they’ll change their stance. Which doesn’t make sense when you think about it, but the finishing moves in the Karate Kid series have a long history of not making sense, so it’s hard to be extra mad about it. Really, the “secret attacks” used in fictional stories are almost always dumb, because if there really were some sort of special unbeatable move that could be used in that context, an actual martial artist, rather than a fiction writer, would have thought of it already (this is kind of why Quidditch has idiotic rules).

Anyway, when an unnerved Cheng rushes in, Dre does this crazy slow-mo flip that’s so perfectly executed and timed he kicks Cheng on the BACK of the head. It’s ridiculous, like Jet Li-level stuff. But the crowd goes wild. Movie’s over.

(Incidentally, the movie’s imitation of the original did also lead to them filming, and then deleting, a follow-up where Mr. Han defeats Master Li. It’s as misguided as the rest of the film, because it’s not as simple as Miyagi’s effortless deconstruction of Kreese; it’s just a straight-up Jackie Chan fight, full of lots of furious movement and prop usage. And Han actually almost does kill Li, but Dre has to talk him out of it. Ugh.]

So, there you have it. Daniel LaRusso re-purposed from awkward teen underdog to superstar action hero, played out in miniature. Rarely does a film’s choreography suffer so much from being too good.

Grade: C-

Coming Attractions: Wouldn’t you know it, I’ve exhausted my supply of bubblegum.

You know what that means.

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The Karate Kid series (fight 4 of 5)

Mr. Miyagi faces his greatest challenge yet: two X-chromosomes.

It was very tempting to just let this image serve as the entire review.

The Next Karate Kid is a weird movie. Made five years after the last entry and ten years after the original, it’s really more of a spinoff than a sequel. In fact with a little re-jiggering the script could have been made without Mr. Miyagi (just replace him with another wise old character) and it wouldn’t even have looked like a Karate Kid rip-off, or at least not as much as Sidekicks did. Plus, audiences could see the dopey attempt at edginess behind the whole “Miyagi’s new student is… A GIRL????!!” [cue record scratch] a mile away, even in 1994.

It’s odd in execution as well as in concept. The script takes those aforementioned detours from the franchise yet goes back to the well for its villains in an extremely half-assed way. It’s light on action even by this series’ standards. Hilary Swank was an interesting choice for the lead: she’s pretty but not conventionally so (to the extent that that means anything), and any feminist ground gained by her casting was canceled out by the way she’s arguably used as eye candy, what with the amount of midriff and leg she shows.

But while it’s certainly a weak movie, it is so in a generally inoffensive way. The world saw ads for this movie, said to each other “sounds like a bad idea,” were proven right, and kind of agreed to forget about it. It would be even less-remembered if its star hadn’t gone on to win not one but TWO Oscars. If Karate Kid Part III was hot garbage, this is just cold garbage. I only even saw it myself the one time on cable decades ago, and looked up the relevant scenes online for this review.

4) The Next Karate Kid: Julie vs Ned (and Miyagi vs The Colonel)

The Fighters:

  • Julie Pierce, a willful teen girl who Miyagi has taken under his wing. She used to be moody & troubled, but Miyagi straightened her out with the combined power of karate, vaguely Buddhist philosophy, and montages. Thanks to lessons given by her dad years ago (who learned it from Miyagi, indirectly) and some follow-up by Miyagi himself later, she’s also pretty awesome at karate. Unlike Daniel, her main problem isn’t so much learning to defend herself as it is learning not to be a rebellious spaz. Played by future megastar Hilary Swank.
    • Trained by: Kesuke Miyagi, America’s favorite quiet karate handyman. Miyagi was pals with Julie’s late grandfather during the war, which is why she’s already got a decent grounding in Miyagi family karate. Daniel-san is nowhere to be found and merits only a passing mention, but we do discover that Miyagi has a bunch of oh-so-wacky Buddhist monk friends. Played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, in his final (cinematic) turn at the role.
  • Ned (no last name, which makes it even funnier), the prize student of the school’s hilariously named “Alpha Elite”– basically a JROTC program on steroids and run by a psycho. He’s this movie’s Johnny, but if Johnny was a lot less interesting and would hit on Daniel instead of just hitting him. But his main quarrel is with Julie’s quasi-boyfriend, Eric (Chris Conrad), a former Alpha Elite member who got sick of their crap. Played by Michael Cavalieri.
    • Trained by: Colonel Dugan, the leader of the Alpha Elite and yet another Special Forces weirdo, only his military fetish goes waaaaay deeper (seriously, what is it with this series and vets?). He’s the imitation Kreese to Ned’s imitation Johnny, and as such is all generic rumblings and cheesy intimidation. Unusual for JROTC-type programs, he gives his charges a heavy focus on karate. Played by Michael Ironside, a great character actor who’s not doing his best work here.

The Setup: Ho hum. Frustrated with Julie’s increasing rebelliousnes, Julie’s grandmother turned her over to Mr. Miyagi, an old family friend, in the hope that he’d straighten her out. He does, because he’s awesome.

Along the way, Julie falls for Nice Guy Eric and they go to prom together. Everything is hunky dory until the Alpha Elite do this weird rappelling stunt into the dance and one of them hurts himself, which ticks Eric off and kicks his rivalry with Ned into overdrive: the bully follows the couple and smashes Eric’s windshield with a baseball bat.

Eric is no hothead but he’s looking to end this, so he accepts Ned’s challenge to a fight at the docks– ooh, “the docks.” Was “the construction site” taken? Unfortunately all of the other Alpha Elite (that name gets stupider every time I type it) are also present, and they gang up on Eric, beating him real good. They also set fire to his car, because why not. Colonel Dugan, demonstrating the values that made him one of Uncle Sam’s finest, instructs the other Elite members to finish the job, i.e., kill Eric. Straight-up murder him. Which is something even the Elites are hesitant about. How was this man allowed to instruct minors? I know the teachers’ unions protect some shady SOBs but this is ridiculous.

Anyway, Julie & Miyagi show up and put a stop to this. They attempt to leave peacefully with a bloodied Eric, but Ned keeps harassing Julie. So she bugs Miyagi until he gives permission for her to go give him an attitude adjustment.

The Fight: About as inconsequential as the rest of the film.

Ned, cocky as ever (there’s no way he’d ever lose to a GIRL, haw!), starts things out by standing still and inviting Julie to take a free swing. He barely waits before he tries to cheap shot her, instead, which… seriously? He thinks that will make him look cool in front of his friends? “Hey guys, remember the time I tricked that girl so I could punch her in the face? I’m the man! Up top!”

Anyway, she dodges. And she basically just punks him out from there, over & over. It’s one-sided and not very interesting or exciting in any way, even though she does Sweep The Leg at one point. From the sidelines, Dugan draws upon his deep well of military tactics to advise Ned to “slow down, use your strength.” Which doesn’t work.

What does work, briefly, is when Ned picks up some sand and chucks it in Julie’s eyes. While she’s temporarily blinded, Ned scuffs her up a bit but doesn’t really hurt her (our pal Chozen remains the only villain in this series who’s for real punched a woman). Miyagi tells her to focus and whatnot, so she kneels in a praying position, and when Ned rushes in to kick her she catches his leg, and counters with a slow-mo jump kick that lays him out.

That’s it, Ned’s done. It’s pretty weak all around. There’s no stupidly special “secret technique” she uses to defeat him, just focusing hard enough to fight while blinded (it may well be a callback to some kind of training she had earlier in the movie, I don’t remember/care). That in itself is kind of admirable, even though it is, again, all pretty boring. I can’t really even find any pictures of their throwdown, such a non-impression did it make.

Ned’s beaten, so Dugan tries to rally the other Elites (including a young Walton Goggins in the Bobby-esque role) to pick up the slack, but between Dugan’s revealed insanity and Team Miyagi’s mad skills, they’re all pretty dispirited. So when the Colonel gets rough with Ned, the old man intervenes, and almost as an afterthought we get Miyagi vs Dugan.

miyagiside

“See you at the party, Richter.”

It goes about as well as you’d expect. Dugan keeps lunging in with amateur crap and the old man takes him down with a few gentle-looking counters. Ho hum. Then Miyagi does the “oooh I’m gonna kill you” fake-out again, only this time he blows on his face rather than honking his nose. What a curveball.

So… yeah. Even with the obligatory good master vs bad master bit, it still tweaks the KK formula in some significant ways, with no flamboyant finish, the love interest being more involved, and… a car on fire, I guess. But it’s still very uninspired in pretty much every way.

Grade: C-

Recommended Links: A very humorous rundown of The Next Karate Kid’s many peculiarities.

Coming Attractions: Sigh.

No, Hollywood: screw YOU.

The Karate Kid series (fight 3 of 5)

Like Mr. Miyagi might say: “Never put sequel before principle. Even if win, you lose.” Indeed.

Where’s Swayze’s ghost when you need him?

If Karate Kid Part II was an example of the right way to do a cash-in sequel, Part III is a great example of the wrong way. It’s ugly, overlong, boring and repetitive. It takes the characters to pointlessly unpleasant places and just has them wallow there. And its fight, well….

3) The Karate Kid Part III: Daniel vs Mike

The Fighters:

  • Daniel LaRusso, the Jersey transplant and amateur karate enthusiast. The film takes place six months after the second one and nearly a year after the beginning of the first one (and it opens with the two heroes getting off the return flight from Okinawa, so does that mean they hung out there for like six months? Nice), so he’s idling around while he saves up money for college. He shows renewed interest in competing at the tournament level again now that they’ve instituted a rule where the reigning champion doesn’t have to fight until the very end (seems unfair to the contenders, doesn’t it?), but Miyagi shoots that right down and initially opts not to train Daniel-san any further. Played by Ralph Macchio.
    • Trained by: Kesuke Miyagi, now starting his own business selling bonsai plants. Played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita.
  • Mike Barnes, a rising martial arts star who’s earned the absurd nickname of “Karate’s Bad Boy.” Whereas Chozen offered an interesting contrast to Johnny, Barnes is basically just another Johnny, only more so: stronger, better, meaner, louder. And without any of the depth that made Johnny interesting. Played by Sean Kanan.
    • Trained by: Nobody, actually, at least not who’s mentioned. But his benefactors are the absurdly wealthy and hilariously named Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffiths, who is actually four months younger than Ralph Macchio) and the returning John Kreese (Martin Kove), so they roughly fill Barnes’ “mentor” role. Silver is a longtime friend of Kreese’s: they served in the same unit in Vietnam, with Kreese having saved Silver’s life numerous times. The bonds men form in wartime are some of the most deepest and most indelible of all, and are frequently mined as a source of good drama… but in Karate Kid Part III such bonds only exist as an excuse for one jackass to have a rich jackass friend who’ll help him to be an even bigger jackass, because Karate Kid Part III is a jackass movie.

“Just like when we bullied kids together back in ‘Nam!”

The Setup: Kreese pretty much hit rock bottom after his team’s defeat at the end of the first film, a situation he blames entirely on Miyagi and LaRusso, somehow. But that changes when he re-connects with Silver, who cleans him up and helps form an epically petty plan to not just rebuild the Cobra Kai brand (shady businessman Silver actually owns the dojo) but also take excruciating revenge on Team Miyagi.

The bulk of the movie is Silver pretending to be Daniel’s friend and training him in punishing techniques that wrack his body and drive a wedge between him & his surrogate father. Meanwhile Silver also covertly hires Mike Barnes as a ringer to compete in this year’s All Valley Tournament, and Barnes continually harasses and finally blackmails Daniel into signing up for the tournament so they can fight it out. After the trio’s plans are revealed (and Miyagi beats up all THREE of the bad guys at once, because Miyagi is invincible), Miyagi agrees to train Daniel, but his “training” involves just a short montage of the two practicing the same kata together, over and over. Little wonder things go the way they do.

The Fight: Execrable.

Just before the fight, Silver and Kreese go over their plan with Barnes, counseling him to score a point on Daniel and immediately lose it with some illegal (but not disqualifying) shot then rinse & repeat; this way there’s no clear winner but Daniel is thoroughly worn down and humiliated. This is to continue until time runs out, and Mike scores the final blow in sudden death so that Daniel is not just beaten but destroyed.

The two battle buddies’ faith in their “Bad Boy” is not misplaced, because that’s almost exactly how it plays out. Between his superior skills and Daniel still being rattled, Mike is so far above Daniel it’s not even fair, let alone entertaining. Daniel does indeed get repeatedly abused and embarrassed. He has some success in dodging a few of Mike’s relentless blows and at one point trips his foe up a bit, but he never does land a solid hit. (Daniel’s only cool moment during the main match is when he punks out Barnes’ friend who’d leaned in to jeer him.) Where’s the Drum Punch when you need it?

This continues until sudden death, when Daniel doubles over in pain and breaks out crying front of everybody like a little girl. This is a surprisingly strong reaction from a guy who faced MUCH higher karate stakes in his previous film. Miyagi comes over and gives him a pep talk about true karate being inside and blah blah blah, then Barnes runs over to give him an anti-pep talk by aggressively taunting him, calling his karate “shit” and his master a “joke” (and a “slope,” a racial slur that gets a lot of use in this film).

“You can stop yelling, I’m right here.”

LaRusso finally finds the motivation to get up, but as the round begins Daniel instead just goes into his favorite kata. This perplexes Mike for a moment, but he rushes in when Daniel finishes up and assumes a ready stance. When he does, Daniel flips him over bodily and, taking more than enough time for Mike to block, pops him in the chest and wins the final point.

Daniel wins! For some weird reason. I suppose it… relaxes Daniel enough that he’s able to get the drop on Mike? Sure, whatever. Really, the kata thing is not all that much sillier than the Crane and Drum techniques, but is a lot less iconic than either. Plus, the whole “at the last second Daniel returns to a specific move that had been foreshadowed earlier” thing was already quite played out by this point, and certainly wasn’t rejuvenated by being done again only lamer.

This fight is barely even a fight. It’s a joke and an embarrassment for all involved. The Karate Kid series didn’t really need to be re-visited at this point, and definitely not like this. This whole movie can just wax off.

Grade: D

Coming Attractions: The series takes a swanky turn.

No, not this, sorry.

The Karate Kid series (fight 2 of 5)

This not tournament. This for real.

karate-kid-part-ii-final-fight-daniel-scorpion-costume

You can tell by the very commonplace setting.

The second Karate Kid is sort of goofy (in ways the first one isn’t, I mean) and it definitely veers into hard melodrama by the end, but for the most part it works. The two main protagonists get uprooted to a whole new environment, much of the character focus gets shifted from student to teacher, and all the stakes are raised. It’s a bit of a cash-in but for the most part its heart is in the right place.

It also takes place in that weird Hollywood version of a foreign land where all the locals tend to speak heavily-accented English to each other instead of their native tongue, even when no English-speakers are around to be included (or English-speakers are there but the natives have no reason to care about them understanding), but let’s not get into that.

2) The Karate Kid Part II: Daniel vs Chozen

The Fighters:

  • Daniel LaRusso, six months removed from the events of the first film, a high school grad and newly single– after all those beatings, Ali ended up ditching him for some college football player (real nice, lady). Played by Ralph Macchio.
    • Trained by: Kesuke Miyagi, who he has remained friends with, though it’s unclear if they’ve continued karate lessons in the meantime. Even if they have, certainly not at the previous intensity, since the prologue makes clear that Daniel won’t be competing in tournaments anymore– “karate for defense only,” after all. Basically, Daniel’s skill level can’t be that far advanced from where it was at the end of part one. Played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita.
  • Chozen Toguchi, the protege of Miyagi’s old rival. He’s all the worst parts of Johnny but turned up even louder, with an added real-world edge– Johnny was just a mean kid, but Chozen is a genuinely vicious grown-up. He’s not a bully but a straight-up thug and a particularly methodical, clever one at that. Played as completely unlikeable by Yuji Okumoto, yet with an undeniable charisma.
    • Trained by: Sato (no other name given), Chozen’s uncle and Miyagi’s childhood best friend-turned rival. Though they were like brothers growing up, Miyagi’s perceived slight against Sato’s honor turned him into a vengeful, hardened man. Since he and Miyagi trained under the same teacher (Miyagi’s father), they know all the same skills… and so, by extension, does Chozen. Played by the late Daniel Kamekona.

Once again, the bad guys are the snappier dressers.

The Setup: Miyagi has returned to his homeland of Okinawa upon receiving word of his father’s impending death, and Daniel-san has tagged along for the ride. He’s barely stepped off the plane before he re-encounters Sato, whose feud with Miyagi hasn’t cooled in the 50+ years since the latter bugged out rather than fight him to the death over a girl (strangely, in all that time Sato never even tried to get Miyagi’s American address). As Miyagi grieves for his father and reconnects with his old flame, he has to deal with constant harassment from the wealthy Sato and his protege Chozen, who use increasingly unsavory methods to try to goad Miyagi into a duel. One would think that in 1985 even a remote, tradition-bound Okinawan village wouldn’t still be tolerating such things as blood feuds like we’re back in the Shogunate or something and somebody could have called the cops on Sato, but whatever.

However, Sato does a Heel Face Turn after Miyagi selflessly saves him during a typhoon, and realizes how foolish he’s been (this is good character stuff, but it tragically robs the audience of an epic Miyagi/Sato duel. I would pay SO much to see that). Chozen’s cowardice is exposed during that same storm and Sato disowns him. This turns out to be a big mistake, because a few days later as the village is celebrating the O-bon festival in a historic castle, Chozen ninjas his way in and holds Daniel’s rebound Japanese girlfriend hostage at knifepoint in an attempt to reclaim his honor.

"You guys will all like me again now, right?"

“You guys will all like me again now, right?”

Part II does flip the original’s script a bit when it comes to the bad guys: here it’s the student who’s a legitimately irredeemable sociopath, and the teacher is just a misguided fool who needs to see the light. Though in many ways it doesn’t, because Sato surely played a part in shaping Chozen into who he is over the years, and indeed if Johnny had never been humbled he might have grown up into a Chozen himself.

Anyway, the deranged Chozen demands a real fight with his rival LaRusso. Note that before this, pretty much every time the two have skirmished in the movie Chozen has whipped Daniel but good. No small wonder: Daniel’s an amateur and a novice, but Chozen’s a pro. Besides that he was already pretty morally unhinged so he’s willing to do whatever it takes. Also it’s not gay to notice that Daniel could never measure up to Chozen’s totally sick torso.

Regardless, with the whole crowd looking on but separated by the moat (more fights need moats), Daniel squares off against Chozen for his first serious throwdown.

Chozen doesn’t take it quite so seriously.

[It can be argued that Chozen is not, deep down, concerned about “honor,” but rather what he’s experiencing is the violent rage that inevitably follows from narcissistic injury. What hurts him is not any real slight that Daniel & co have done to him, but that he will no longer “matter”– all these people will go on living their lives as if he doesn’t exist, and a narcissist cannot abide that. Deep stuff, Karate Kid!]

The Fight: Overall, it’s pretty ugly for Daniel, but he gets in just enough licks to keep it from being one-sided. As with before, the moves are more realistic, or at least the Hollywood version of realistic. Also realistic is that these two get positively brutalized during the brief minutes of this fight– as it goes on, they’re increasingly tired, sweaty, bruised, and bloody. There are no “rounds” like in Daniel’s only other true karate experience, only pauses while the two fighters catch their breath.

In execution it’s actually quite sustained and substantial, but also so straightforward– there is little in the way of scenery changes, fight-altering injuries or extra combatants– that unless you describe it literally blow-by-blow it sounds like there’s not much to it. There are a few stand-out moments: Girlfriend-san rather ineffectively tries to help Daniel by attempting to choke Chozen with her scarf (really? Should have gone for the knife he dropped, genius) but just ends up getting punched in the face for her trouble. Also, Chozen easily blocks the Crane Kick. See?? No move is indefensible.

The basic rhythm is that Daniel takes some serious punishment, then eventually rallies against Chozen, who finally counters before Daniel can put a lasting hurt on him. After a while things are looking pretty dire for LaRusso, until Miyagi removes his ceremonial Den den Daiko drum and starts “playing” it, shortly thereafter joined by Sato and the rest of the crowd (apparently the drums are standard issue for O-bon, sort of like an Okinawan vuvuzela). The cacophony unnerves Chozen a bit, and reminds the exhausted Daniel about the simple pivot/block/counter at the heart of Miyagi family karate.

So as Chozen lunges in to attack again, Daniel uses his body as an anchor while he alternates simple yet deadly swinging punches, each one connecting with Chozen’s face. Again, as with the Crane technique, it’s not really clear why this works in a practical sense– can’t Chozen just attack in a way that doesn’t put his head directly in punching range?– but it does carry a sort of primal weight so that it works in a cinematic sense, even if it’s not as iconic as the Crane Kick. Notably, similar (possibly the same) music plays during each climactic moment in both movies.

Now with Chozen at his mercy, Daniel echoes Kreese’s defeat in the film’s prologue and acts as if he’s ready to deliver a killing blow. Upon hearing the latter after giving Chozen the old choice of Live or Die, Daniel replies “wrong!” and gives his nose an audible honk. It… doesn’t really work. As much as I love Ralph Macchio (everyone does, except Barney Stinson), he doesn’t quite pull off the edgy gravitas required to make the audience, or even Chozen, believe that he was genuinely prepared to kill someone in that moment. And the “honk” bit rings false, both times it’s used in the film. It is of course supposed to be a silly and undignified thing for the victim to undergo in the movie, but it still just comes off as unacceptably corny. They could have found better ways to defuse the tension of the moment while still giving the villain a pathetic finish.

“Stay gold, Chozen Boy. Stay gold.”

Regardless, the crowd still goes wild for Daniel, just like before, and a few moments of joyous celebration later the credits roll.

The fight basically works. As mentioned there’s not much to it in terms of creativity, but it is surprisingly long, reasonably believable and suitably brutal. (Dibs on “Suitably Brutal” for a band name.) Much like the sequel as a whole, the fight manages to take the basic concepts of its predecessor and play them out faithfully in a new environment. And much like how the Drum Punch will never rival the Crane Kick, this fight will never have the same stature as the first. But it’s still a lot of fun. As everyone’s favorite handyman would say, “Karate Kid sequel, you… pretty okay, too.”

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: The best argument for letting Chozen kill Daniel.

“What’s that over there?” “It’s my franchise. Let’s go mess it up!”

The Karate Kid series (fight 1 of 5)

Strike hard, strike first, no mercy. But enough about my dating rules.

Speaking of dating: check out that dreamboat on the far left, ladies.

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?

“… no, sensei.”

That’s what I thought.

1) The Karate Kid: Daniel vs Johnny

The Fighters:

  • 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.]

“You killed HOW many Germans?! Well, you’re all right, Charlie.”

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!

He’s dressed more appropriately this time around.

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.

“You just got waxed off, biatch.”

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!

Grade: A

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.

This, basically.