It is almost impossible to make a list of “feel good” movies and not have The Karate Kid somewhere at the top. This endearing film about an ill-tempered teen and his calm and wise mentor quickly became one of the biggest box-office successes of 1984 – thanks to audiences whose chose to not only see it once at the theaters, but often multiple times. It would spawn a trio of sequels, as well as a Saturday morning cartoon, earn an Acadamy Award nomination for actor Pat Morita (of Happy Days and Mr. T. and Tina fame) and prompt millions of moviegoers to imitate the traditional training method of “Wax on – Wax off.”
From John Avildsen (who previously directed another iconic “feel good” movie about a boxer named Rocky Balboa) came the touching tale of a young teen named Daniel LaRusso, who, after relocating to Southern California, finds blending in with his new cohorts to be a bigger challenge than he expected. The town, it turns out, is inhabited by a group of snooty martial arts-wielding bullies who all study at the same dojo under a merciless instructor. In fact, the only teen in town who takes a liking to young Daniel is a beautiful and wealthy girl named Ali Mills. Her affection doesn’t sit well with ex-boyfriend, Johnny, one of the local karate thugs, and he and his friends proceed to torment Daniel to no end.
But luck soon changes for Daniel when he encounters a kindly old Japanese man named Mr, Miyagi, a handyman who works at his apartment complex. Their friendship is merely cordial until Daniel manages to tick off the local thugs and they proceed to chase him down and beat him to a pulp. Daniel is barely conscious when, out of the corner of his eye, he spots a heroic savior, leaping over the surrounding chain-link fence and making the attacking teens look like mere amateurs in the art of karate. After rescuing Daniel and bringing him home to nurse his wounds, the boy asks Mr. Miyagi to train him.
Miyagi agrees but Daniel isn’t quite prepared for the unorthodox training methods, which seem an awful lot like manual labor. First he is waxing an entire lot of cars, then sanding endless feet of wooden deck, then painting miles of fence, each task to be performed exactly as Miyagi instructs. Miyagi also intervenes in the feud between Daniel and the thugs by going to their instructor and challenging them to a fight at the upcoming Karate Competition, where Johnny is the reigning champion. Daniel is mortified by this solution until Miyagi shows him that all of that training has turned him into a crane-like fighting machine without him ever realizing it.
In the end, audiences couldn’t help but cheer for the underdog and left the theater practicing all of their new karate moves by proxy on their unsuspecting friends. The chemistry between Ralph Macchio (Daniel) and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita would make The Karate Kid an endearing classic, a battle of good and evil that pumped up audiences and left them thirsty for more. And like any blockbuster, sequels would soon follow.
If you rooted for Daniel and Mr. Miyagi in the summer of 1984, or if you include this film in your list of all-time favorites, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section.