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The martial arts classic that won’t blow the bucket




Of all the implausible things about The Karate Kid and there are a lot of them, then nothing beats the fact that he’s still on the move right now, today, his guts 40 years later. Filming began 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 Koves’ tall square-headed sensei John No Mercy Creese is still here, and Elizabeth Shue even returned 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 curtain-ready before Covid strikes, a web series, an animated series and a novel all released in his name since the original landed in 1984. He was the inspiration for a hip-hop track called Sweep the Leg which was the number one video on YouTube for a week in 2007. It made up an entire episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother in 2013. She’ll never die.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. As we know, the man who catches the fly with chopsticks does anything. But even taking into account the artistic license of the sports film, those many lifetimes, this lasting success is quite a monumental stretch. It certainly wasn’t what director John Avildsen or writer Robert Mark Kamen envisioned at the time.

Avildsen had been making films for 15 years by then, and most of them had tipped a pendulum between elusive and uninteresting.

John and I went to a test screening at the Baronet Theater on Third Avenue in New York City, Kamen told Sports Illustrated in 2018. Then we went around the corner and smoked a joint, and a car from police passed. I said, that’s the headline of Tomorrow’s Daily News: Writer and Director of The Karate Kid Arrested.

Then we went to a bar and had a couple of shots of tequila and talked about the audience’s reactions. The advertising people called and told us to come back outside. There were guys in suits trying to do the crane kick. At that time, we knew. We had something.


They had a hit, that’s what they had. Avildsen had been making films for 15 years by then, and most of them had tipped a pendulum between unattainable and uninteresting. Either way, they had been treated accordingly at the box office. But he had also managed the megahit that made everything else irrelevant. He had realized Rocky.

The whole thing was the kind of underdog story that made other underdog stories lazy. Avildsen made Rocky for $ 1.1 million in 1975 and he took in $ 225 million at the box office. Not only that, he was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning three on the night. He beat All the Presidents Men, Network and Taxi Driver for Best Picture, and Avildsen saw Ingmar Bergman and Sidney Lumet among others for Best Director.

You make a blow, the blow makes you. Avildsens’ next film after Rocky was Slow Dancing in the Big City, an underdog ballroom dance story the New York Times called Rocky on the Foot. He directed Marlon Brando in a second world war thriller called The Formula and John Belushis’ latest film Neighbors, Nor much acclaimed. Film by film, his stock was dropping and Rocky looked more and more like a flash in the pan.

Man who catches the fly with chopsticks: Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid

Man who catches the fly with chopsticks: Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid

Next thing you know, the script was sent to John Avildsen who got to see right away what Kamen had written Rocky in a karate suit.

Meanwhile, Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub was watching local news one evening when he saw an article about a nine-year-old who took up karate because he was being beaten up by bullies. He thought maybe there was a movie in it and asked around to see if anyone knew of a screenwriter who would be interested. Kamens’ name came across as a possible fit, and it wasn’t until they sat down together that it became apparent that he should.

More or less this exact story had happened to Kamen 20 years ago. He was beaten up at the World’s Fair in New York, joined a karate club, was hired by a Japanese teacher, and learned to defend himself. The Professor was anything but a mystical surrogate father like Mr. Miyagi but, when Kamen sat down to write the screenplay, it only made sense that he was.

Karate suit

So, two days after the birth of his first daughter, Allessandra (hence Ali as interested in Daniel-Sans), Kamen began to write. Next thing you know, the script was sent to John Avildsen who got to see right away what Kamen had written Rocky in a karate suit. Avildsen had no problem with this. It was his kind of terrain.

Sylvester Stallone and I joke about it all the time, Kamen said in this Sports Illustrated article. He says: You just ripped up my movie. I have an Italian child, an old man yeah, you know what? You are absolutely right. You had a great idea and I tore it up!

Riding the Crane: Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid

Riding the Crane: Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid

You had to buy Macchio, who was 21 at the time, like Daniel-San, 16, who kept getting beaten up by a biker gang in his new neighborhood.

Next thing you know, the script was sent to John Avildsen who got to see right away what Kamen had written Rocky in a karate suit.

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

1. You had to buy Macchio, who was 21 at the time, like Daniel-San, 16, who continued to be beaten by a biker gang in his new neighborhood. Okay, he wasn’t the most muscular 21-year-old man on the planet, but there are definitely times he looks like he has a job, a wife, and a mortgage application in. perspective.

2. You must have bought Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi. Morita was a pretty dicey comic book at the time, better known as the character from Happy Days. Making him the emotional heart of the film was a huge step forward. An equivalent these days would be someone like the actor who plays Jonah in Veep. Morita ended up with the only Oscar nomination for The Karate Kids, for Best Supporting Actor.

3. You must have bought that Mr. Miyagi is such a deadly weapon for the martial arts that he could beat five bloody neer-do-wells 40 years his junior (and all a good foot taller than him) when he got them. jumps on Halloween Night. He shoots down two with simultaneous left and right blows to the stomach and knees to the head. It only takes 12 seconds to bury all five of them. Unlikely.

4. You were to buy this wax, waxing is a legitimate coaching technique. Ditto for the sand on the ground, ditto for the painting of the fence. Otherwise, it’s an old man asking a kid to spend a week tinkering with his house, patio, fence, and vintage car collection to teach four rudimentary defensive blocks. It’s a 90 minute class, great.

5. First of all, you had to buy the crane kick. The ancient martial art of karate dates back to the 14th century Tang Dynasty of China and yet because of this movie there is no movement more famous in the sport than standing on one foot with your arms raised and flexible wrists, waiting for a docile opponent to ram his head into the little window you’ve created, to kick him in the chin. In real life, the crane kick has two main drawbacks. First, it’s very easy for an opponent to throw you off balance and finish you off. Second, it is illegal in competition and you would be disqualified for trying it.

And yet, and yet. For those of us who are a certain age and quite possibly now a certain paunch, resistance is futile. Karate Kid is without a doubt one of the lightest, dumbest movies this series has come up with, 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, wax. Squish like grape. Man catching fly with chopsticks. You are in luck for the beginners. You are the best around, nothing will ever stop you. Without mercy. Sweep the leg. Give him a body bag. The kick of the crane. Point, winner!

You’re fine, LaRusso.

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