The Karate Kid Series: A Retrospective

The recent success of the web series Cobra Kai made me want to go back and revisit the entire Karate Kid series (including the remake) as it had been so long since I had seen them and I missed all kinds of references and throwbacks in the show. The Karate Kid is every bit the 80’s classic and it still holds up due to memorable characters, iconic dialogue and cheese-tastic songs. So let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the entire series.

The Kate Kid (1984)

Plot: Daniel (Ralph Macchio) moves to Southern California with his mother, Lucille (Randee Heller), but quickly finds himself the target of a group of bullies who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo. Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), an unassuming repairman who just happens to be a martial arts master himself. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate and preparing him to compete against the brutal Cobra Kai.

It’s funny how after watching Cobra Kai makes you look at the original Karate Kid series with different eyes; it had been many years since I had seen the them but after reassessing them recently you’ll notice that Daniel LaRusso is in fact a total chode.

Right from the start he has a chip on his shoulder after moving to LA from New York and within the first few days he has already made enemies with Johnny Lawrence. First of all Daniel physically attacks him when he is trying to talk with his ex-girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue) as Johnny is being non-violent… but admittedly still being a bit of a dick. Then at another interval during a Halloween party Johnny is minding his own business rolling a joint in the toilet and Daniel decides to spray a hose on him.

At this point Daniel deserves to be crippled from the ears down as he just can’t let things be and Johnny even says “you just had to push it”. He literally looks for trouble and then acts surprised when he finds it.

On the flip side of that however, let’s not try and make Johnny out to be some great hero; yes Daniel antagonizes him but Johnny and his buddies are still bullying assholes. For me the true hero of this movie is Mr. Miyagi played with great soul by the late Pat Morita whereas the villain is John Kreese who is the sensei of Cobra Kai.

As Miyagi says to Daniel the students are not the problem, it’s their teacher Kreese who encourages no mercy, cheating and he is frankly completely without honour. In this first movie he doesn’t have that big of a role but we all know he comes back for more later…

After the final fight in the tournament when Daniel wins (with an illegal move) against Johnny the Cobra Kai student comes over to him and says “you’re alright” proving that he is the bigger man and has more honour than his sensei so his journey to the series of Cobra Kai is a believable one.

I thought Ali was very sympathetic but I never understood what she saw in Daniel who is a whiny little bitch; what always surprised me though was his determination and confidence at such a young age. When I was in school I barely spoke a word to anyone although nothing much has changed on that front.

The Karate Kid still holds up as the story flows well and despite having a run time of just over 2 hours it moves along at a good pace giving each character time to breathe. Although Daniel may be a bit of a knob at times Ralph Macchio is perfectly cast and gives a solid performance. Admittedly I do require subtitles for some of Mr. Miyagi’s dialogue but I adore him as a character and his scene where he is drunk mourning over the death of his wife is one of the most heartbreaking of the series.

The movie has such heart and you are emotionally engaged from beginning to end. I love the character of Daniel’s mother played by Randee Heller who is so natural in the role; Daniel is an ass towards her as well. What kind of a monster is mean to his mum? Even so she still supports him and loves him unconditionally because she’s a good woman.

There is some iconic dialogue like “sweep the leg” and “wax on, wax off” and the script in general still holds up without ever getting overly cheesy. My favourite line is a random person in the audience during the final tournament and he shouts “hey Johnny, you’re a cream puff!” which is amazing.

Then we have Bill Conti’s score which has elements of Ennio Morricone especially during the training scenes which works well with the beautifully shot sequences on the beach. There are some classic 80’s songs too which are also revisited in Cobra Kai.

Overall, The Karate Kid is still a classic and really worth watching again after Cobra Kai as it changes the way you look at the characters. The story flows well, there is some iconic dialogue and the characters stick with you long after watching.

The Karate Kid Part II (1986)

Plot: After learning that his father is dying, karate master Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) returns home to Okinawa, bringing his protege, Daniel (Ralph Macchio), with him. In Japan, Miyagi is surprised to discover that his old sweetheart, Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), has remained single. Meanwhile, Daniel is attracted to Yukie’s niece, Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita). But romance must be put on hold while Daniel and Miyagi deal with local bullies and long-harbored grudges.

So now we get to the second chapter in the Karate Kid series and this film should really just be called “Miyagi” as this is more his story; I find with this one Daniel is just there but doesn’t really have any arc to complete.

This is about Mr. Miyagi’s past and as you can see from the synopsis how certain deeds have come back to haunt him with his former best friend still waiting for revenge after Miyagi left many years before due to his love for a woman who was supposed to be in an arranged marriage.

So Mr. Miyagi travels to Okinawa and Daniel decides he is going to come along because he needs a reason to drive the narrative along. When they arrive in Okinawa Miyagi is confronted by his old friend who still wants to fight him to the death. His nephew Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) has decided he wants to fight Daniel for no reason whatsoever other than he is the bad guy and a bully. He is totally hateful and a cartoon villain though and personally I wanted Daniel to kill him at the end.

Chozen is a nasty piece of work and a less interesting character than Johnny but I often wonder where are the police during all these fights and such? Surely people could be charged with assault but then I guess it would be a pretty short movie.

At least this time around Daniel is a more sympathetic protagonist and less of a dick than the first one and he has a wonderfully heartfelt scene with Mr. Miyagi after his father has died. Daniel talks about his last moments with his father and I found the room got a little dusty as it was one of the most moving scenes of the series. Each of the movies has that one scene which gets you and for me it was that scene.

When I was young I thought Tamlyn Tomita who plays Kumiko was utterly gorgeous and one of my first crushes; she is such a gentle and appealing character and may be my favourite female character of the franchise.

Kreese, Johnny and company return just for the opening scene but it’s awesome as it has Mr. Miyagi take Kreese down a peg or toe without lifting a finger. It’s an important scene for the future of the series as Kreese chokes Johnny and if you’ve watched Cobra Kai then you know this wasn’t something he found easy to forgive.

So there are themes of honour, redemption and forgiveness in this entry and although it’s not as good as first movie it’s nice to really get to know Mr. Miyagi more so now he’s more than just a mentor but a genuine human being with a history. Pat Morita gives his best performance in this one as he has rarely been more vulnerable. Sato (Danny Kamekona) is a far more interesting character than Chozen and the way his history is resolved with Miyagi is nice although that storm sure was convenient…

There are of course several fight scenes but to me this series is more about the characters and their journeys rather than action for the sake of it.

There aren’t as many quotable lines this time around but it’s a more human story with more depth than you’d maybe expect from a franchise like this.

The Karate Kid Part II still has plenty of heart and although I prefer the first movie it’s still a worthy addition to the series purely for Miyagi’s backstory.

The Karate Kid Part III (1989)

Plot: Cobra Kai karate instructor John Kreese (Martin Kove) is still brooding over the defeat handed to him by Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita). With his slimy partner, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), Kreese plans an intricate payback that involves hiring a mean-spirited ringer (Sean Kanan) to rob Daniel of his championship title. When Mr. Miyagi refuses to train Daniel, even under threat, the boy makes the mistake of turning to Terry for guidance.

The third and final film in the LaRusso Trilogy may well be my favourite as Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) is the nastiest villain of the series. There is no bigger evil than the one who comes in the guise of a friend and that’s exactly what Silver does. When Kreese (Martin Kove) comes to him broke after Cobra Kai’s defeat Silver will not let this stand and vows to break Daniel both mentally and physically. He slowly makes himself a part of Daniel’s life while subtly ruining his relationship with Mr. Miyagi.

I always found Griffith terrifying in this movie and he simply looks Satanic; in a few scenes he is wonderfully over the top and it got me thinking that he could have been an amazing Joker in his younger days. That smile is just so creepy and Griffith’s martial arts skills make him a real adversary; I find that this entry ends a little too suddenly though and I wanted to see Silver get his comeuppance so I think we can all agree that he needs to return for Cobra Kai.

Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) is another piece of work and a genuine physical threat to Daniel; we totally need a satisfying finale for these characters so he also needs to return for Cobra Kai. He also scared the crap out of me as a kid and frankly it’s amazing I made it through High School.

This time I think it’s Mr. Miyagi who comes across as a bit dick-ish as even under threat he refuses to teach Daniel what he needs in order to defeat his opponents. At first I get why he doesn’t want to as karate should be for defence only but when people come to your store and steal things, beat up your student and the girl he’s with that sounds like some serious fucking defence is required.

It’s no wonder Daniel is easily manipulated by Silver as Barnes and his cronies are relentless; you ever notice how Daniel can’t ever seem to go anywhere without bullies finding him? I mean he’s abseiling down a cliff in the ass end of nowhere and oh look! Bullies! He really is a shit magnet.

The romantic subplot is utterly pointless and the girl is literally only there to provide climbing equipment for Daniel so he can rescue a bonsai tree.

It still has some nice training montages with Bill Conti’s score as sweeping and epic as ever; the 80’s tunes aren’t as memorable though this time around.

Overall, The Kate Kid Part III has a scene stealing turn from Thomas Ian Griffith and some genuine drama with Daniel and Miyagi’s friendship pushed to the limit. After all Daniel goes through you would like a more satisfactory resolution to the trilogy but perhaps we still can in Cobra Kai.

Cobra Kai has really given me a whole new appreciation for these movies and it’s a lot of fun to revisit them knowing what happens in the future. Daniel LaRusso may come across as a bit of a prick at times but his character becomes more likable as the series goes on and he matures. Mr. Miyagi is one of the best mentor characters in film history and remains the greatest hero of this franchise.

The Next Karate Kid (1994)

Plot: Karate master Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) goes to Boston to attend a military reunion. There, he visits with Louisa (Constance Towers), the widow of his former commander, and meets her granddaughter, Julie (Hilary Swank). Julie’s parents were recently killed in a car accident, and she is still reeling from the loss. When Julie surprises Miyagi with her knowledge of karate, he takes her to a Buddhist monastery for training and to help her come to terms with her angst.

I have to admit I never bothered watching this film until now as I’d heard it was pretty terrible but I took one for the team and finally sat down for a viewing this past weekend.

The negative press is definitely deserved making this easily the worst Karate Kid movie to date; the only good thing about it really is the return of Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi but this time he has to put up with an even more petulant and obnoxious teen called Julie played by Hilary Swank.

It’s really only the final 20 minutes where she becomes tolerable but where Daniel was (for the most part) respectful towards Miyagi at one point Julie is even racist towards him saying he can “barely even speak English” so I found it hard to root for her after that point.

Michael Ironside is a fine addition as always but his character is just a carbon copy of Kreese; a man who manipulates youngsters and tries to push them too far during the final fight. Although the climactic battle is too similar to the first Karate Kid I still found it pretty tense and satisfying.

Keep your eyes open for a young Walton Goggins as one of the bullies but the main antagonist is really Ned played by Michael Cavalieri who is a pure cartoon, never feeling like a real person at all.

The monk characters are fun and provide a few laughs and Chris Conrad is likable enough as the bland co-lead Eric but this doesn’t really bring anything new or exciting to the series. I never thought I’d miss Daniel but it would have been cool for him to have a cameo.

And so ends the Miyagi saga and it was entertaining to see him back one last time even if the movie wasn’t the greatest; it has its moments though but I’ll admit that this entry has no characters I’d particularly like to see return for Cobra Kai except maybe Michael Ironside.

The Karate Kid (2010)

Plot: When his mother’s career results in a move to China, 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) finds that he is a stranger in a strange land. Though he knows a little karate, his fighting skills are no match for Cheng, the school bully. Dre finds a friend in Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a maintenance man who is also a martial-arts master. Mr. Han teaches Dre all about kung fu in the hope that Dre will be able to face down Cheng and perhaps win the heart of a pretty classmate named Mei Ying.

The Karate Kid …remake… dare we speak of it? Well, yes actually. I always felt it was rather unnecessary but this retrospective wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t cover it. As everyone has already said I think it would have been better to call it The Kung Fu Kid as that is what they practice in it but they didn’t… so let’s move on.

I watched it for the first time recently on Netflix with an open mind and I have to admit I didn’t hate it; the fight scenes were superior to any of the previous Karate Kid movies with some impressive choreography and winning performances from the leads.

I thought Jackie Chan brought real heart and soul to Mr. Han giving one of his best pieces of acting to date. The scene where he tells young Dre (Jaden Smith) what happened to his wife and son is equally as heartbreaking as that moment in the second Karate Kid movie where Miyagi and Daniel discuss the loss of their fathers.

I can understand why a lot of people didn’t like Jaden Smith and his casting certainly reeked of nepotism but that also takes away from his dedication to this role as he worked his ass off to get in the necessary shape required for such a movie. Although Dre is easy to like he maybe isn’t as interesting a character as Daniel but he is still equally as dick-ish at times and once again interferes when it isn’t required so at times he kind of deserves an ass whipping especially when he sprays the bullies with water (like Daniel did to Johnny in the original).

That was one of the biggest faults of this movie; although the setting is changed to China the storyline is pretty much identical to the original classic so it really begs the question (as always) why bother remaking it? No one talks about this movie in the same way as the original as the characters didn’t seem to resonate as much with the public mostly because we’ve already seen it before. There wasn’t enough different to make it truly stand out and there were no surprises as we practically already know the outcome.

The antagonists in this movie are suitably mean with Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) a nasty piece of work but like Johnny he isn’t without a sense of honour. Wang certainly has the moves too and is an impressive martial artist. The evil sensei Master Li (Rongguang Yu) is almost exactly the same as Kreese but not as memorable as we all know there’s only one Marty Kove.

Taraji P. Henson is wonderful as Dre’s mother and it feels very real as she is very protective of her baby and provides a lot of the movie’s heart.

9 years later The Karate Kid remake has no reason to exist however, it’s much better than I was expecting with solid performances from the cast and the best fight scenes of the franchise. It can’t hold a candle to the original as we don’t attach the same nostalgia to it but if you can judge it on its own merits you’ll find plenty to enjoy.