This summer we will be counting down 25 Essential 80's Movies. Because the list would be tougher to conquer than a coke habit if the criteria were only movies prodcued in the 1980's, we are limiting things to the following:
a.) Films released in the 1980's
b.) Films where the story takes place in the 1980's and
c.) Films that generally reflect 80's culture.
Do I make myself clear? All respond: Crystal.
Jordan Hiller, Bangitout.com Senior Movie Editor
#25 The Karate Kid
Though John G. Avildsen did not create the working class underdog makes good through combat sport genre by directing both 1976’s Rocky and 1984’s The Karate Kid, he certainly can take credit for two of the most memorable stories of overcoming the odds ever to shine on screen. Rocky Balboa gets the gold medal for superior cultural relevance, retains a grander legacy, and issued a host of noteworthy sequels, but Newark native Daniel LaRusso and his quest to negotiate California culture, win the girl, and earn the respect of psychopathic bullies is nothing to sneeze at. Perhaps tainted by an inconsistent (though entertaining) Part II, a dreadful Part III, and a too little too late spin off starring a novice Hillary Swank, The Karate Kid still remains a minor miracle of adolescent fantasy filmmaking with enough heart to jumpstart Mrs. LaRusso’s station wagon.
Before the producing team of Simpson and Bruckheimer entrenched themselves as the over the top arbiters of mainstream cinematic taste (a phenomenon from which we have not yet recovered), in a year that proved to represent the last gasp for movies like The Karate Kid to be made with the natural, airy, fluidity of an earlier era, Avildsen crafted an inspired movie with the perfect mix of 80’s bravado and 70’s artistic integrity.
No one would of course confuse The Karate Kid with an art film or an independent. After all, who can forget a tenderized Ralph Macchio in his first and only significant lead role wearing camouflage pants and aviator sunglasses cruising to school on his bike with Bananarama’s Cruel Summer slicing through the humidity like a roundhouse. Who would dare deny the laughable hackneyed malevolence of Martin Kove’s John Kreese as he demands that his Cobra Kai show no mercy. And who would ever consider the penultimate karate tournament montage backed by Joe Esposito’s You’re the Best anything but a cheesy narrative device. But only a fool who thinks wax on wax off, sand the floor, and paint the fence are simply menial chores would dismiss The Karate Kid as a fluff piece. There is plenty of depth to accompany the surface frivolity.
We begin with extraordinary casting. Pat Morita, his resume dating back to the late 60’s mainly in bit parts, played the enduring character Mr. Miyagi - a sometimes kind, sometimes surly handyman burdened with a tumultuous Okinawa past who becomes the father figure to lonely Daniel LaRusso - and earned a signature character and Oscar nomination for the work. The younger cast, however, were all talented newcomers participating in their first major film, and all carrying substantial roles. The world was an open book for these kids and the audience is physically energized by the actors’ own personal marvel and awe as they tend to sparkle in every scene. Their gestures and choices as actors are so real and embodied that they seem almost improvised. Their unpretentiousness and glaring lack of polish is truly a breath of fresh air after witnessing the last two decades of high school kids on film increasingly act and talk like middle aged Ivy League educated writers trying to stifle their intellect while fulfilling unrealized sexual yearnings.
Macchio, who delivers a vanity-free, subdued, exceptionally charming performance (think early Shia LaBeouf), is utterly believable as a New Jersey mensch dealing with some tough breaks in a strange new world. Ralph Macchio, enjoying a momentary resurgence in conjunction with the release this weekend of a remake, carries the film on his thin, bronzed shoulders. Watching Macchio, cute enough but certainly not sexy, exude a sensitivity and vulnerability rivaled only by his virtuoso ability to reflect great pain and great joy in those baby browns, makes a movie fan quickly realize and lament that they just don’t make kid actors like him anymore. Elisabeth Shue, radiantly zaftig, effortlessly portrays the sweet and sincere high school dream girl with a smile that could launch a thousand row boats. The chemistry between her and Macchio is for the ages (and the fact that Part II opens with news that they broke up so that she could date a college guy, while plausible, is indicative of this saga’s downward spiral). And finally there is sneering maniac Johnny Lawrence played by the infinitely detestable Billy Zabka, who was to assholes what Sir Laurence Olivier was to Shakespearian leads.
While it is undoubtedly the performances that raise this film to a level it never would have otherwise reached, Robert Mark Kamen’s insightful, clever, and even imaginative script doesn’t hurt. The straightforward story didn’t take a genius to concoct and there are plenty of contrivances and head scratchers to go around – Shue’s Ali would never have dated Johnny, the bullies are a bit too intent on killing LaRusso, the introduction of a basic looking kick that allegedly has no defense, Mr. Miyagi’s curious ability to heal by slapping his hands together and vigorously rubbing them and the fact that he is not much more than an offensive stereotype – but just when you think Kamen has settled into a generic groove and is going through the motions, he tosses in a surprising gem that his actors do wonders with. Whether it is LaRusso ruminating over Ali’s beauty, Mr. Miyagi’s frustration when Daniel-san fails to understand, or Johnny’s impromptu concession line after losing the tournament, Kamen takes the mundane and elevates it.
The Karate Kid was a hit upon release and now serves as a nostalgic treasure for many, but above all it is of a rare and underappreciated vintage quality. It’s not a perfect specimen by any stretch, but between the uplifting finale, the valuable lessons, and the captivating performances by a bunch of wide eyed kids, The Karate Kid achieves a sacred balance Mr. Miyagi would be proud of.
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