"I just miss the classics, you know, like 'The Karate Kid' or 'Harold and Maude.'" - Pat Heely (Matt Dillon), "There's Something About Mary"
I'm old enough to have seen "The Karate Kid" in the theater - my dad took me - and then I spent the evening perfecting my own woeful variation of The Crane Kick. I'm old enough to have seen "The Karate Kid" multiple times afterwards on our (cough, cough) Beta VCR. Many is the time I would fast forward that sturdy Beta tape to the All Valley Karate Tournament and watch the drama unfold. Eventually, however, I became dismissive of "The Karate Kid".
But why? Was it because of "Karate Kid 3?" I don't really remember any plot points from "Karate Kid 3" but I do remember watching it with the two sons of my sister's godparents and the three of us making incessant fun of it. Was it because the actress who stars in my second favorite movie of all time was (gulp) "The Next Karate Kid" and so to simply pretend this doesn't exist I have to shrug off all "The Karate Kid" movies? Is it because when I argue Elisabeth Shue deserved the Best Actress Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas" (damn you, Sarandon) that I simply must sneer at "The Karate Kid" or otherwise risk undermining my own point?
With the remake starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, the precocious son of Will and Jada, of "The Karate Kid" descending upon theaters I felt a duty to revisit the original (released in June of 1984) and see what was up. What was up is that once you get past all the basics of John G. Avildsen's film, past the fact young Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio, whose acting career, in retrospect, was simultaneously made and derailed by the role) moves from Newark, New Jersey with his mother to The Promised Land of California where as fast as you can say "sweep the leg" he Meets Cute with comely young Ali (Shue) at a beach party before Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his Jets turn up on motorbikes to show Daniel who runs things leading Daniel to train in the ways of karate with the mystical handyman at his apartment, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, who improbably earned an Oscar nod meaning that, yes, there were two future Oscar nominees in this cast) in order to face down Johnny Lawrence once and for all at the aforementioned All Valley Karate Tournament (which in sports lore ranks somewhere between the 1998 NBA Finals and Super Bowl III), and once you get past the whole boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story ("Not that boy from Reseda"), and once you get past the obvious 80's references such as the insipid tune "You're The Best" turning up during the tournament montage you begin to see "The Karate Kid" has an awful lot going in relation to the subject of bullying.
When I was raised bullying was not taken as seriously as it is now. For instance, I had a middle school classmate who composed a Hit List. Literally. It was titled "Hit List". I remember seeing it. (Note: I was not on it.) Now this kid never actually did anything and no one did anything to him about it but can you imagine what would have happened to him in this day and age? He would have been locked up. No one ever would have seen him again. And this is a way of saying there is some significant bullying in "The Karate Kid" that just kinda gets glossed over. Daniel gets karate chopped and karate kicked and gets punched in the face (trying to hide his black eye from his mom) and gets run off the road and after turning the tables briefly on his bullies at a Halloween dance he probably would have wound up in the hospital had the spry Mr. Miyagi not swooped in just in time to save the day. The film's chief villain, in fact, is not so much Johnny Lawrence as it is Johnny's infamous sensei John Kreese (a frightening Martin Kove), the man who gives the just-as-infamous order to "sweep the leg" late in the film, and runs his dojo like David Schwimmer ran Easy Company in "Band of Brothers". "We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition, a man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy."
Which brings me to the development I had forgot - that is, in order to end the bullying Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to Kreese's dojo where Johnny Lawrence trains and makes a pact with Kreese that no one will touch Daniel until the karate tournament. This just seems, well, wrong. The most crucial plot point of the film is essentially a back room deal bartered by two grown males over the fate of an innocent teenager. Will this be the case in the new "Karate Kid"? If so, will critics and audiences stand for it?
Of course, all this allows for the film's finest passages, the extended training sequences between mentor and protege as Mr. Miyagi has Daniel partake in numerous household tasks that only masquerade as meaningless before their true intent is revealed and the little bit where Mr. Miyagi indulges in a bit too much sake with the photograph of his deceased wife (which does not end, thankfully, with Mr. Miyagi telling Daniel "You're like a son to me" and letting the audience glean this on its own) or the date between Daniel and Ali when Daniel's mom drives.
In the end, though, I just couldn't get past the bullying. Look, I hate being the Real World movie guy but in light of recent events it was foremost in my mind, not that it necessarily stained my moviewatching experience.
If there was one kernel I took away from "The Karate Kid" twenty-six years after its release its this: I only wish Phoebe Prince - and allow me to be perfectly blunt - had been afforded the opportunity to Crane Kick the complete shit out of every single person that ever bullied her.