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As I watched the crappy Never Back Down the other day, I was reminded of the iconic 80’s movie The Karate Kid. How could I not be after watching that generic carbon copy of a movie with a MMA twist? I have fond memories of that movie and I decided to pop in the DVD and take a trip down memory lane to see if the movie was as good as I remembered it, or just another instance of nostalgic thinking making something better than it was.
To my surprise, the movie still holds up very well. The fights look quaint compared to what audiences are used to today after Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but they work for the story the movie is trying to tell. The chemistry between Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita is very believable and a big reason of why this movie holds up so well. Their teacher-student relationship works so well that Mr. Miyagi has become the archetype for wise fighter mentors in film ever since.
Director John G. Avildsen, eight years after making directing underdog classic Rocky, keeps the focus on the story and coaxes great performances out of his cast. This movie earned Pat Morita an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and was the first in a long string of iconic bad boy roles for William Zabka. The script is instantly quotable. Who doesn’t remember, “wax on, wax off”, “an enemy deserves no mercy” and “sweep the leg” among other gems? And who can forget the fight ending crane kick? Yes, it was cheesy and would never work in a real fight but it worked for the story. The movie made you believe it.
Sure, The Karate Kid spawned three sequels and reduced Pat Morita into a caricature of Mr. Miyagi for the rest of his career, but that doesn’t diminish the magic and charm of the original. I remember when this movie came out, martial arts instructors all around the country had numerous offers to wash their cars or paint their house from prospective students. That’s a powerful story. One that captured the imagination of the country and will stand the test of time. Now go and wax my car.
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