The Karate Kid: Waxing Enigmatic

Was it just my age, or did there seem to be an abundance of bullies in 80’s movies? Anyway, the Cobra Kai, headed by William Zabka, of “The Karate Kid” definitely took the prize for the most psychotic. Not only that, but they had the scariest leader – who the viewer at first believes is the WZ character, but who actually turns out to be an unhinged karate master, given to yelling things like, “Kill!” and “No mercy!” in case you had any doubts that he might not be a bad guy. At which point – not that this in any way excused them repeatedly trying to pulverize Daniel – I felt a little sorry for the Cobra Kai themselves. They were obviously suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, though I couldn’t have put it quite that way at the time.

“The Karate Kid” opens with the young and decidedly un-thrilled with the movie from Jersey to California Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) checking out the promised and much hyped by mom pool in their new apartment complex, which turns out to be a disappointment. Mom promises earnestly to get the apartment’s handyman to fix it. Unbeknownst to son and mother, the handyman, Mr. Miyagi, (Pat Morita) will wind up fixing a lot more than just the pool.

In teen movie tradition, Daniel almost immediately makes a pal who, impressed by Daniel’s burgeoning karate moves, invites him to a gathering on the beach that night, where he meets a pretty girl (Elisabeth Shue); unfortunately (also in teen movie tradition) she turns out to be spoken for, by no less an personage than Johnny (William Zabka) who really knows karate. After Daniel gets into an “altercation,” which unsurprisingly alarms his mother the next morning, he sets off for his first day of school….

…where things go from bad to worse because he insists on talking to Shue yet again. After an incident at a Halloween dance, in which he is nearly beaten into a coma/pulp by the Cobra Kai, who have a poor sense of humor and don’t take well to being pranked, Daniel is rescued by Mr. Miyagi, whose solution is to arrange with the psychotic karate teacher to have his disciples cease and desist, until the teens can face off in a few weeks at a karate tournament. Meanwhile, Mr. Miyagi begins to school his new pupil in the art of not just karate, but – wait for it – life.

Mr. Miyagi begins by giving Daniel a set of tedious and seemingly random chores, which Daniel at first assumes is meant to compensate for the fact that he can’t pay for the karate lessons. However, as it turns out, the physical motions that become engrained at this time also prove useful for say, deflecting punches. His teacher also shows him how to break a board with his bare hand. So the prospects at the upcoming tournament don’t appear entirely grim.

Daniel also manages to go on a date with the Elisabeth Shue character, although since he only has a learner’s permit, he has to take his mother along.  There are the inevitable teenager-in-love miscommunication high jinks, but eventually, they wind up together and attend the tournament with Mr. Miyagi.  Daniel gets to do what every eighties hero dreams of, which is kicking ass in a montage to a cool song before eventually winning.  (My question about these types of sports movie is: if winning doesn’t ultimately matter, why does the underdog always win?)

This movie spawned a sequel, in which Daniel and Mr. Miyagi travel overseas to learn the essentially same life lessons they learned in the first movie, plus a third one, in which there is more violence from unhinged karate masters back in America.  These were followed by “The Next Karate Kid,” which is not about Daniel (who must be getting pretty old by now) but another troubled teen, this time a girl!  Before she got into playing gritty heroines based on real life figures, Hilary Swank starred in this sequel of sorts, playing the new kid at a high school that closely resembled a police state/Nazi Germany.  She also gets to – symbolism alert – rescue a wounded bird.  Then there’s the Jaden Smith update which I haven’t seen, but I’m sure features plenty of timeless life lessons for a new generation to learn.


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