The Karate Kid kills us with sweetness, The story of a teenage boy who gets revenge on the local bullies by learning karate from a wizened neighborhood handyman could have been Death Wish: The High School Years. And for a few shaky moments, it is, as those Cobra Kai dickheads give Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) no end of trouble. But that isn't why the film has endured for so long, nor why so much of has become a pop-culture staple. It has comparatively little interest in sticking it to the bullies. Instead, it delivers a surprisingly effective story of a lonely boy in need of a friend and an older man in need of a protégé.
That older man is Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) of course, working at the complex where Daniel and his mom move in. He comes dangerously close to a horrible Asian stereotype, but Morita brings such humor and charm to the part that the unpleasant racial elements just slide away. He rescues Daniel from the Cobra Kai gang one foggy night and agrees to teach the boy karate. But director John G. Avildsen is too smart to leave it at a few training montages. He throws in surprising twists that have since become catch phrases: seemingly painful household chores that train his body and mind, as well as helping him find that elusive sense of self confidence.
The dynamic between Macchio and Morita is absolutely vital. Both actors find sympathy and unexpected emotions to help their characters escape cardboard cliché, and further spin the movie's Rocky-esque structure in unexpected directions. They resemble friends far more than student and teacher, which surprises and touches us just when we think we have the story all figured out. We gain a vested interest in Daniel, not as a surrogate for our own high school wounds, but as a character worth rooting for in his own right. Morita continued to ride his character through a number of increasingly ill-advised sequels, but his humor and humanity here were good enough to earn him an Oscar nomination. (He lost to Haing S. Ngor, and how long has it been since two Asian actors were both up for the same Oscar?)
The rest of the film sticks a little too closely to the studio-product script for comfort, though the stock-80s bad guys are sufficiently sinister and a pre-star Elizabeth Shue does fine as Daniel's new girlfriend. It could have very easily been an also-ran amid its feel feel-good popcorn brethren, relying too much on the playbook to get by. But a little extra effort goes a long way, and Avildsen's care at assembling his story helped make The Karate Kid a real winner. Even the big showdown at the end, which advertises its outcome from the very earliest scenes, still carries its share of suspense, thanks to some solid direction and a great emotional tone that reaps the rewards from our investment in the hero.
Its impact was enough to prompt the Jackie Chan remake a few years ago, another strong entry that changed the surface details while keeping the core concept completely intact. Nothing can touch the first film, of course: one of those easygoing minor classics that still elicit smiles from a surprisingly large number of people. We never see movies like this in the summer anymore: blockbusters focused solely on human stories instead of spaceships and superheroes. The fact that it became such a surprise hit is a testament to the care that went into it. The fact that we're still talking about it means that its particular mix is a lot rarer than it should be.