Starring debuts #15: Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid (1984)

Film Title

The Karate Kid

Synopsis

A bullied teenager must channel his inner Rocky to defeat the odds

Director

John G. Avildsen

Cast

Ralph Macchio
Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita
Elisabeth Shue
William Zabka
Martin Kove

There are wish fulfillment movies and then there’s the fucking Karate Kid.

Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso, a wholesome, 17-year-old kid who’s arrived in LA with his upbeat mom. A five-strong gang of bullies, who’ve been taught ‘no mercy’ by their evil karate teacher, zero in.

Well, big deal.

Daniel still gets the buxom, high-class girl (a blonde cheerleader, no less) before whipping his chief tormentor’s ass fair and square in public. It doesn’t matter he’s so ill-prepared for the climactic tournament that he’s spent two months painting fences, waxing cars and kicking ocean waves rather than going anywhere near an actual sparring partner or even learning the rules of engagement.

Not only that but the beaten bad guy (whose girlfriend has already been stolen by Daniel) then happily tells him he’s ‘all right’ and gives him the trophy, the equivalent of rolling over and showing his belly.

It’s pie in the sky stuff. Christ, the last shot should have been Daniel humping the cheerleader doggy style while smugly winking into the camera.

So why don’t I hate Daniel, this clean-cut kid who doesn’t drink, smoke or swear? Especially as the little fucker shows so much character, discipline and bravery to overcome his problems, traits I routinely eschew in favor of cynicism and a dive into the nearest bottle of Jack Daniels.

I guess because Macchio puts in such a winning performance. He’s 22 here, five years older than his character, but looking two years younger. It’s a perfect piece of casting and he displays engaging range whether talking to himself, trimming bonsai or coming over the cheerleader’s tits. Sorry, I made that last bit up, and shall promise not to make any more sexual references to Ali (Elisabeth Shue) and her curiously erotic fondness for sweaters and tank tops.

Still, Macchio does prove himself a good actor. I like how he gets beaten up on the beach and spits out “Just leave me alone!” as Ali offers comfort while he lays face down in the sand trying not to cry. Better still is the way his face does all the acting as he slowly realizes Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita) has been slyly training him through a series of back-breaking menial tasks (‘wax on, wax off’) rather than exploiting his youthful labor.

Daniel barely gets any good lines, though, and isn’t the movie’s most interesting character. That honor goes to his elderly mentor, a war hero who can slice the necks off four standing beer bottles with one karate chop. Miyagi is terrific, but it’s the way the wide-eyed Daniel meshes with him that produces one of the decade’s greatest double acts.

Nevertheless, it remains surprising how often Karate Kid slips into fantasy. Witness Mr. Miyagi sparking out five teenage aggressors despite being four feet tall and in possession of a bus pass. This should be a Graham Chapman moment but by this point the movie has already banked so much good will that I’m happy to let it slide. Then there’s the way he fixes Daniel’s shattered leg by briskly rubbing his hands together to produce some sort of Oriental equivalent of a Deep Heat bath.

Not that such nonsense matters a jot. Karate Kid works. It’s a memorable, feel-good classic that oozes charm like those other 80s winners Splash, Back to the Future and Crocodile Dundee.

Still, I would have preferred Mr. Miyagi’s unorthodox training regime to have been nothing more than an elaborate grooming exercise, resulting in a disillusioned, embittered Daniel joining his tormentors’ gang through some gruesome initiation ceremony before putting Ali on the game. Movies rarely go the way I want, though.

Then again, perhaps I need to ditch the tedious cynicism and take greater note of Mr. Miyagi’s enduring wisdom: A man who can catch a fly with chopsticks can accomplish anything.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.