The Karate Kid: The martial arts classic that won’t kick the bucket

It’s silly, implausible and irresistible – and still going in the form of Netflix’s Cobra Kai

Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Photograph: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Photograph: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

 

Of all the implausible things about The Karate Kid – and there are many, so buckle up – nothing beats the fact that it’s still on the go right now, today, the guts of 40 years later. Filming started a fortnight ago on the fourth season of the Netflix TV series Cobra Kai, with, yes, Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and, yes, Billy Zabka as Johnny Lawrence. Martin Kove’s big square-headed sensei John “No Mercy” Creese is still there, and Elizabeth Shue even came back for an Ali Mills story arc in season three.

Cobra Kai is the latest iteration of a movie that has so far had three sequels, a Jackie Chan remake, a Broadway musical that was ready for curtain-up before Covid struck, a web series, an animated series and a novel all put out in its name since the original landed in 1984. It has been the inspiration for a hip-hop tune called Sweep the Leg that was the number one video on YouTube for a week in 2007. It made up a whole episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother in 2013. It will never die.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. As we know, man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything. But even allowing for sports movie artistic licence, these many lives, this enduring success – it’s all a monumental stretch. It certainly wasn’t what either director John Avildsen or writer Robert Mark Kamen envisioned for it away back in the day.

Avildsen had been making movies for 15 years by that point, and most of them had swung on a pendulum between unwatchable and uninteresting

“John and I went to a test screening at the Baronet Theatre on Third Avenue in New York,” Kamen told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “Afterwards, we went around the corner and smoked a joint, and a cop car came by. I said, ‘This is the headline in tomorrow’s Daily News: Writer and director for The Karate Kid arrested.’

“Then we went into a bar and had two shots of tequila and talked about the audience reactions. The publicity people called in and told us to come back outside. There were guys in suits trying to do the crane kick. Right then we knew. We had something.”

Pendulum

They had a hit, is what they had. Avildsen had been making movies for 15 years by that point, and most of them had swung on a pendulum between unwatchable and uninteresting. Either way, they had been treated accordingly at the box office. But he had also pulled off the one megahit that made everything else irrelevant. He had directed Rocky.

The whole thing was the sort of underdog story that made other underdog stories look lazy. Avildsen made Rocky for $1.1 million in 1975 and it went on to take in $225 million at the box office. Not alone that, it was nominated for 10 Oscars, taking home three on the night. It beat All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver to the Best Picture award, and Avildsen saw off Ingmar Bergman and Sidney Lumet among others for Best Director.

You make a hit, the hit makes you. Avildsen’s next film after Rocky was Slow Dancing in the Big City, a ballroom dancing underdog story that the New York Times dismissed as “Rocky on the hoof”. He directed Marlon Brando in a second World War thriller called The Formula and John Belushi’s last film, Neighbours, neither to any great amount of acclaim. Film by film, his stock was falling and Rocky was looking more and more like a flash in the pan.

Man who catch fly with chopstick: Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid
Man who catch fly with chopstick: Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid
Next thing you know, the script was sent to John Avildsen who could see straight away what it was – Kamen had written Rocky in a karate suit

Meanwhile, the Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub was watching the local news one night when he saw an item about a nine-year-old kid who took up karate because he was getting beaten up by bullies. He thought there might be a movie in it and asked around to see if anybody knew a screenwriter who’d be interested. Kamen’s name came up as a possible fit, and it was only when they sat down together that it became obvious he should do it.

More or less that exact story had happened to Kamen, 20 years beforehand. He got beaten up at the World’s Fair in New York, joined a karate club, was taken on by a Japanese teacher and learned how to defend himself. The teacher was anything but a mystical substitute father like Mr Miyagi but, when Kamen sat down to write the script, it made complete sense that he should be.

Karate suit

So, two days after the birth of his first daughter, Allessandra (hence Ali as Daniel-San’s love interest), Kamen got writing. Next thing you know, the script was sent to John Avildsen who could see straight away what it was – Kamen had written Rocky in a karate suit. Avildsen had no problem with that. This was his kind of terrain.

Sylvester Stallone and I joke about that all the time,” Kamen said in that Sports Illustrated piece. “He says: ‘You just f***ing ripped off my movie.’ I’ve got an Italian kid, an old man – yeah, you know what? You’re absolutely right. You had one good idea and I ripped it off!”

Do the crane: Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid
Do the crane: Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid
You had to buy Macchio, who was 21 at the time, as the 16-year-old Daniel-San who kept getting the lard beaten out of him by a motorbike gang in his new neighbourhood

Next thing you know, the script was sent to John Avildsen who could see straight away what it was – Kamen had written Rocky in a karate suit

At this remove, all of 37 years later, it’s easy to be wise after the event and declare that The Karate Kid was always destined to be a classic. But that kind of analysis ignores one very important fact: the movie is ridiculous. Most sports movies require a suspension of disbelief somewhere along the way. The Karate Kid asks you to believe at least five completely implausible things for it to work at all.

1. You had to buy Macchio, who was 21 at the time, as the 16-year-old Daniel-San who kept getting the lard beaten out of him by a motorbike gang in his new neighbourhood. Okay, he wasn’t the brawniest 21-year-old on the planet but there are definitely times when he looks like he might have a job, a wife and a mortgage application in the offing.

2. You had to buy Pat Morita as Mr Miyagi. Morita was a fairly risque stand-up comic at the time, best known as a down-the-bill Happy Days character. Making him the emotional heart of the movie was a huge leap. An equivalent nowadays would be someone like the actor who plays Jonah in Veep. Morita ended up with The Karate Kid’s only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.

3. You had to buy that Mr Miyagi is such a martial arts lethal weapon that he could beat up five strapping ne’er-do-wells who are 40 years his junior (and all a good foot taller than him) when he jumps them on Halloween Night. Two of them he takes down with simultaneous left-and-right jabs to the stomach and knees to the head. It takes him just 12 seconds to bury all five of them. Unlikely.

4. You had to buy that wax on, wax off is a legitimate coaching technique. Same for sand-the-floor, same for paint-the-fence. Otherwise, it’s an old guy getting a kid to spend a week dickying up his house, his decking, his fence and his collection of vintage cars to teach four rudimentary defensive blocks. That’s a 90-minute class, tops.

5. Above all, you had to buy the crane kick. The ancient martial art of karate can be traced back to the Chinese Tang dynasty of the 14th century and yet, because of this movie, there is no more famous move in the sport than standing on one foot with your arms up and your wrists floppy, waiting for a compliant opponent to stick his head into the small window you’ve created, therein to kick him in the chin. In real life, the crane kick has two main drawbacks. One, it is very simple for an opponent to knock you off balance and finish you. Two, it’s illegal in competition and you would get disqualified trying it.

And yet, and yet. For those of us of a certain age and most likely, by now, a certain paunch, resistance is futile. The Karate Kid is undoubtedly one of the slightest, silliest movies this series has touched on but, at the same time, you’d be hard pressed to find one with a heavier presence in popular culture.

Mr Miyagi. Daniel-san. Cobra Kai. Yes, Sensei. No, Sensei. Wax on, wax off. Squish like grape. Man who catch fly with chopstick. You beginner luck. You’re the best around, nothin’s gonna ever keep you down. No mercy. Sweep the leg. Get him a body bag. The crane kick. Point, winner!

You’re okay, LaRusso.

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