This seems like the logical second franchise for me to feature in this category, after the ROCKY franchise, since it follows the same “underdog defeats the champion” plotline. There’s also the fact that John G. Avildsen, director of Karate Kid 1-3, also directed Rocky 1 and Rocky 5. But, far from just being a teen Rocky series, this franchise definitely stands on its own.
THE KARATE KID
Written by Robert Mark Kamen, directed by John G. Avildsen. June 1984.
Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his single mother,Lucille (Randee Heller), move from New Jersey to Reseda, California, where he has to adjust to a new High School and making new friends. He immediately hits it off with a girl named Ali (Elizabeth Shue), but is uncomfortable with the fact that she comes from a wealthy family. Even worse, Daniel also runs afoul of Ali’s psycho ex-boyfriend, Johnny (William Zabka), a martial arts expert who is trained by a brutal teacher (Martin Kove) who runs a dojo called Cobra Kai. After enduring several vicious assaults from Johnny and his friends, Daniel is saved by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the handyman at the apartment building Daniel and his mother live at, who proceeds to train Daniel in Karate so that Daniel can face Johnny at an upcoming local Karate tournament which Johnny reigns as champion.
The things that stand out about this film, that have entered the public consciousness, are Mr. Miyagi’s habit of calling Daniel “Daniel-San”, the special Crane maneuver that Daniel uses to win the final fight against Johnny and, of course, Mr. Miyagi’s unorthodox training methods, where he initially has Daniel performing various chores of manual labor, including painting a fence, painting a house, and waxing Mr. Miyagi’s collection of classic cars. “Wax on, wax off.” Plus there’s the song “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito, which plays during the tournament fight scenes (& was allegedly originally written for Rocky 3, but got rejected in favor of “Eye of The Tiger”
In hindsight, there are a few things that stand out as unresolved questions to me about this film. How did Miyagi afford that house and all those cars? Johnny’s attacks on Daniel, especially when he and his friends ran Daniel off the road in their motorcycles, should qualify as attempted murder. Why didn’t he or his mother just call the police and file charges? And if Ali and Johnny were from these rich families, wouldn’t they be attending elite private schools? But most of those things are staples of 80’s teen movies. Rich kids and poor kids always went to the same public schools, and bullies tended to be rather homicidal, without suffering legal consequences. But none of this detracts from how wonderful this film is. Particularly the father/son relationship that develops between Daniel and Miyagi throughout the film. And Daniel’s triumph at the end, where even Johnny congratulates him, is very uplifting. Macchio shines as the protagonist in this film, engendering the right amount of sympathy from the audience, and Morita’s wry delivery and sense of humor help makes Mr. Miyagi an iconic character.
THE KARATE KID II
Picking up 6 months after the last film, this one gives a lot more screentime to Pat Morita, as Mr. Miyagi’s background is explored. After getting a letter that his father is sick, Miyagi and Daniel travel to Okinawa to see him. There they run afoul of Sato (Danny Kamekona), Miyagi’s childhood best friend who was also taught Karate by Miyagi’s father (who dies a few days after the return to Okinawa). Miyagi originally left for America after challenging Sato’s intention to marry a girl named Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), who still lives in their town (but never married Sato). All these years later, Sato still hates Miyagi, calls him a coward, and demands that they have a fight to the death, which Miyagi initially refuses. Meanwhile Daniel pursues a romance with Yukie’s niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), and has several violent encounters with Sato’s brutal nephew, Chozen (Yuji Okumoto). Eventually Sato forces Miyagi to agree to fight him, but on the night of the fight a typhoon hits the village, and Miyagi saves Sato’s life, ending the feud and renewing their friendship. But Chozen still hates Daniel, and during a dance performance later, Chozen attacks Kumiko and forces Daniel to fight him, also a death match. After a vicious fight, where Daniel is almost beaten to death, he uses a new offensive technique (since the “crane” didn’t work), and defeats Chozen, but refuses to kill him.
Apparently, although it was a bigger financial hit, this film wasn’t as critically-acclaimed as the first film, but I like it equally. The opening sequence, which shows what happened right after the tournament, with Mr. Miyagi facing the head of the Cobra Kai, was pretty cool. It sucks that Elizabeth Shue’s Ali was unceremoniously written out of the film so quickly, but I liked the change in locale to Okinawa. It’s true that Daniel’s story in this film was pretty similar to the first one, with Kumiko taking the place of Ali and Chozen taking the place of Johnny, but I thought the added focus on Mr. Miyagi and his history and background helped make this film different enough. I liked it.
THE KARATE KID III
Written by Robert Mark Kamen, directed by John G. Avildsen. June 1989.
Martin Kove returns as John Kreese, the evil leader of the Cobra Kai dojo. It’s a year after the last tournament, and he’s lost all of his students and is going out of business. Thomas Ian Griffith plays Terry Silver, a millionaire who fought alongside Kreese in Vietnam. We learn that he bought the dojo for Kreese to run. When he learns the trouble that Kreese is having and who is to blame, Silver concocts a plane to get revenge for him. He hires another teenage Karate expert, Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) to challenge Daniel for the championship in the next tournament. But Daniel, who has returned to CA with Mr. Miyagi, only to discover that their apartment building has been torn down, and Daniel’s mother has moved back to New Jersey to care for her sick brother, has moved in with Miyagi and spent his college money on opening a shop that sells Bonsai trees with Mr. Miyagi, and has decided not to join the tournament this year, upon Miyagi’s advice.
So Silver sets up Mike to continually threaten Daniel, and Silver comes to Daniel’s defense, and offers to help Daniel train to face Mike in the tournament, since Miyagi is opposed to it. Eventually, Daniel takes him up on that, and Silver basically trains Daniel to lose, while convincing Daniel that he’s ready to win. While this goes on, it drives a wedge between Daniel and Miyagi, which is only repaired when Silver’s treachery and alliance with Kreese is revealed. So Miyagi resumes training Daniel, and it leads to the showdown at the tournament.
I know this entry in the series was savaged by critics and made the least amount of money. However I checked the box office stats, it cost around $13 million and made around $39 million. So that’s a financial success! At least it didn’t LOSE any money. Personally, I mostly liked it. No, it wasn’t perfect. Mike was pretty much just another version of Johnny from the first film. And I never did understand why Miyagi was originally so adamantly opposed to the idea of Daniel fighting in the next tournament. I know that from the first film he wasn’t big on the idea of “belts” and that sort of thing, but after what Daniel went through last time this seemed like it could just be some harmless competition. It’s understandable that Daniel would be proud of what he accomplished before and would want to try again. So why not? And the film threw in another burgeoning romance with Daniel and new girl (played by Robyn Lively), but then wisely puts the breaks on that and has them decide early on to just be friends, she doesn’t even stick around for the final fight, instead of re-hashing the Ali and Kumiko storylines. I like the addition of the Terry Silver character, and his scenes “training” Daniel. And it was good to see a real fight between Miyagi and Kreese.
Really, the biggest problem is I have with the film is the idea that it takes place only a year since the first film (which was released 5 years earlier), and that Daniel, despite graduating High School, is still eligible to compete in the “under 18” Karate tournament. While Macchio definitely maintained his youthful looks, this was pushing it a bit. Kanan didn’t look like much of a teenager at the time, either. But, frak it, I still liked this film. It did feel like it had brought the story from the first film full circle, and gave it a definitive happy ending.
THE NEXT KARATE KID
Written by Mark Lee, Directed by Christopher Cain. August 1994.
Okay so even though it was a critical and commercial disappointment, as I pointed out, the 3rd Karate Kid film did make a profit. I can only assume that this lead some heads of the movie studio to recognize that the Karate Kid brand had now become engrained in the public conscious and therefor still had some value to it. So they tried to continue the series, in what must have seemed like a bold new direction, by replacing Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso (probably just as well, he was definitely too old to play a teenager now), with a new female teenager for Mr. Miyagi to mentor.
I’m going to cheat here. I watched this film once a long time ago, perhaps seeing bits and parts of it other times when it aired on cable TV over the years. I don’t feel like looking it up and re-reading about it. So I’m just going to say a few things, based on my shoddy memory. The most notable thing about the film is that it stars two-time Academy Award winner Hillary Swank, in her first starring role. And that I doubt that anyone who saw this film when it premiered would have ever guessed that Hillary Swank would go on to win two Academy Awards (so far). She plays the rebellious granddaughter of Miyagi’s commanding officer in World War 2, and Miyagi becomes her temporary guardian for a few months, watching her in Boston. She is harassed at school by a group of teenage school guards, who are lead by Michael Ironside, who takes their training way too seriously, having them act like a military commando unit. Miyagi ends up training Julie in Karate, including taking her to a Buddhist temple to learn “zen,” or something. And she ends up fighting, and beating, one of the guards, then Miyagi fights and beats Michael Ironside. I believe there was one “wax on, wax off” scene, and I don’t recall any specific mention of what has happened to Daniel since the last film.
Maybe I’m being unfair, perhaps I should look it up and re-watch it again, maybe I’d find out it’s a forgotten gem? Unlikely, but possible, I guess. But since I don’t remember that much of it, and have no interest, I’m going to give it an D.
So it’s a bad ending to the original franchise, but part 4 is easily overlooked. The first 3 still make this a fantastic film franchise. And all four can be purchased as one collection on AMAZON
It’s probably logical to assume that the studio was hoping for The Next Karate Kid to be the first of a whole new trilogy. But instead it just sank the Karate Kid brand, seemingly for good. But 16 years later, Will Smith resurrected The Karate Kid enlisting Christopher Murphey & Harald Zwart to write and direct a remake of the original film as a starring vehicle for his son Jaden. I won’t really review this one here, since it’s not technically part of the “franchise,” but I will say that I mostly liked it. Setting it in China was a nice switch to make it different enough to justify a remake, while following most of the original basic plot. Jaden and Jackie Chan, who played Mr. Han, have good chemistry, which helps keep the film running. The biggest weakness of the film was the age of Jaden and the other child characters. I mean, they were all like 12 years old, that seemed a bit too young for some of the storylines, especially the “romance” between Jaden’s character and Wenwen Han’s character, Meiying. They’re just kids, what do they know? Same goes for the bullies, it’s not exactly impressive when Jackie Chan is beating them all at once. I’d like to think I could beat four 12 year olds, too, no matter how much karate they know. Or I guess I should say Kung Fu, because that’s what was repeatedly mentioned in this film, which should have been retitled The Kung Fu Kid, but it wasn’t. Still, this film gets at least a B. And I’m actually surprised that they haven’t made a sequel yet.