4 out of 5 stars

One of the 1980s’ signature trilogies comes to 4K Ultra HD courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, although Karate Kid completists may be frustrated the fourth movie, The Next Karate Kid (1994), has been given the chop (pardon the pun). There’s also an argument for throwing in The Karate Kid (2010) remake to make this package definitive, but Sony’s ‘3-Movie Collection’ clearly wanted to concentrate on the core Daniel LaRusso story that captivated audiences decades before Netflix’s Cobra Kai started streaming…

The Karate Kid (1984)

4.5 out of 5 stars

A martial arts master agrees to teach karate to a bullied teenager who’s new in town.

The Karate Kid is a defining movie of the 1980s and, for people of a certain age, perhaps even a formative one. I saw it as a seven-year-old boy (named Daniel, so there was a connection), and in re-watching decades later it’s amazing to note how much it introduced me to — from martial arts and coming-of-age stories, to silly things like bouncing a football between your thighs. The film was one the most successful movies of 1984 (grossing $130M from an $8M budget), but it’s fair to say most people see it as a slightly amusing ’80s artefact— despite Pat Morita’s Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actor’. In truth, The Karate Kid is a lot more than “wax on, wax off” memes.

17-year-old Daniel LaRusso (23-year-old Ralph Macchio) moves with his single mother Lucille (Randee Heller) from east coast New Jersey to west coast California. He’s soon invited to a late-night beach party, where he’s instantly smitten with beautiful rich girl Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue), which attracts the ire of her arrogant ex Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Now a target for Johnny and his gang’s relentless bullying, which emasculates him in front of his would-be sweetheart, a battered and bruised Daniel is taken under the wing of his apartment block’s eccentric handyman, Mr Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita). But it turns out the small and kindly Miyagi isn’t just a helpful old man, but a talented martial artist from Okinawa, who agrees to train Daniel in karate so he can win a tournament his aggressors have entered to impress their ruthless Cobra Kai dojo sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove).

When watching The Karate Kid multiple times on VHS back in the day, it was easy to understand the thrust of the story about a likeable but weedy boy developing the strength and skills to beat his enemies and woo an attractive girl. But it also gained deeper meaning as I became a teenager myself, and even in early-middle-age there are moments of fresh discovery. As a kid, one of my least favourite parts of the movie was Daniel finding Miyagi drunk on the anniversary of his late wife’s death, who passed away giving birth to his child who didn’t survive. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle or even fully understand this heartbreaking scene as a kid, so always viewed it as Miyagi just being uncharacteristically weird and sad. It’s now one of the best parts of the movie, of course, and undoubtedly the scene which convinced The Academy to nominate Morita for an Oscar. That’s a prime example of how the best kid’s movies have things for adults to appreciate on a higher level, but which the kids can grow into as adults and discover for themselves.

The Karate Kid was always the quintessential anti-bullying movie for me, and it still holds up well in that respect, even if it’s perhaps a little ridiculous how much Johnny takes against Daniel just for almost randomly being in the presence of his ex one evening. It may have worked better if he’d seen them kissing on an actual date a bit later on, but the screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen clearly wanted to keep things fast-paced. Some older movies feel dated in how plodding they can be, but The Karate Kid still feels modern as it breathlessly powers through its story. There are no wasted moments and even scenes that intentionally test one’s patience — like the extent to which Daniel washes and waxes Miyagi’s classic cars, or sands his floors and paints his fence — deliver a reward when it becomes clear what’s actually going on. On this latest re-watch, I was deeply moved by the scene when Miyagi reveals how Daniel’s labour has been giving him the muscle-memory required for defensive blocks.

One common observation about The Karate Kid is how it’s effectively Rocky (1977) for kids, and both films were directed by John G. Avildsen and scored by composer Bill Conti. The fact they cast an Italian-American actor in Ralph Macchio further links the two movies, when one considers Sylvester Stallone’s ancestry. I suspect Avildsen was drawn to the project for the same reasons he made Rocky, as it’s a successful underdog formula but with a coming-of-age element to appeal more to younger people.

Kamen apparently wrote the film taking inspiration from his own life, as he was beaten up by a gang at the age of 17 and decided to take karate lessons to defend himself. His first sensei was too aggressive and violent, so Kamen instead found a quieter Japanese teacher who didn’t know English but taught him Okinawan Gōjū-ryū. This real-life grounding of the story certainly must have helped Kamen’s screenplay, which he combined with a news article about the boy of a single parent who earned a black belt to likewise keep the bullies away. Martial arts had been a major craze in Hollywood throughout the 1970s, and Karate Kid rekindled interest with a story more relatable to western audiences — even if the karate on display isn’t exactly thrilling!

Indeed, despite being a wonderful movie for lots of reasons, The Karate Kid does have its flaws. Ralph Macchio took karate lessons in preparation for the role, and William Zabka was a talented wrestler who used his athleticism to pull off convincing kicks and punches, but Pat Morita wasn’t a martial artist and likewise had to learn what he could to look halfway convincing. It was a wise decision to cast good actors instead of great martial artists in these roles, but The Karate Kid would undoubtedly have been improved if the fights was more dynamically shot and convincing to watch. When Miyagi leaves Johnny’s gang rolling around in pain on the floor, you wonder how on earth his soft karate chops laid waste to them so easily, and the climactic tournament is full of amazing martial artists it’s laughable to suggest Daniel defeated on his way to facing Johnny in the final round. Indeed, didn’t Miyagi teach Daniel karate without ever once having him fight against another person? It’s far-fetched and looks increasingly daft as the years pass by, particularly as the otherwise worse remake from 2010 involved the legendary Jackie Chan — who inevitably did a better job in that department.

The Karate Kid isn’t really a martial arts film, however. It’s a coming-of-age drama with plenty of quotable lines and memorable moments that have entered pop culture — like the inexplicably indefensible “crane kick”. You can’t even see people wearing black leotards with white skeletons on them without thinking of Johnny’s gang, and phrases like “wax on, wax off” is still shorthand for karate training. The characters are also excellently portrayed, with special mention to Morita for his understated performance as Miyagi —who finds the son he never had, as Daniel himself finds a surrogate father. The character of Miyagi inspired cringe-making impersonations back in the ’80s, but few people saw The Karate Kid and thought Miyagi was a joke and were being malicious in copying his distinctive mannerisms and voice. Morita found the perfect balance of warmth, kindness, thoughtfulness, humour, emotional depth, and slight irritability.

Ralph Macchio’s acting career was defined by Daniel LaRusso —so much so he’s since reprised the character for a successful Netflix sequel series, Cobra Kai, having made his peace with that. I don’t know why Macchio didn’t make a successful leap to other roles, with My Cousin Vinny (1992) being his only notable performance outside of The Karate Kid franchise, but there are worse things to be forever known for. Macchio’s perfect here and has such a believable chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with —from his likeable but embarrassing mother, to his touching chemistry with Elisabeth Shue. Shue herself has a somewhat two-dimensional girlfriend role, but she has enough charisma to make Ali seem more interesting than she is on the page. It would have been nice if Daniel and Ali’s different economic backgrounds had been played up just a little more, however, as moments when it’s touched upon help give their relationship added dimension. And it would’ve made Daniel’s eventual gift of a gorgeous classic car from Miyagi  ( instead of being picked up in his mother’s unreliable piece of junk ),  land a little better.

Decades later, The Karate Kid has lost little of its easygoing charm and magic. A few areas have dated and I wish the fight choreography was sharper, but it’s ultimately a good story well-told. I’d perhaps complain about how abruptly it ends, but The Karate Kid Part II (1986) picking up immediately after has lessened my complaint in retrospect.


The Karate Kid Part II (1986)

3 out of 5 stars

Daniel accompanies Mr Miyagi to his childhood home in Okinawa, where his mentor intends to visit his dying father and confront an old rival.

Indeed, the immediate sequel not only continues moments after the ending of the last movie, but it replays key scenes from its predecessor over the opening credits. That’s a worrying sign this movie will be stuck in the shadow of The Karate Kid, which is certainly true, but not to the extent one might think decades later. I hated The Karate Kid Part II as a boy and only watched it once as a VHS rental because it was so boring to me, but time’s been kind to things of more interest to an adult mind. The fact the movie doesn’t play well for youngsters is certainly a downside, however.

The opening scene of Daniel and Miyagi leaving the All-Valley Karate Tournament with their trophy, only for Miyagi to intervene when he notices rival sensei John Kreese strangling Johnny for losing, was originally intended to be the denouement for The Karate Kid. So it works as a nice little bonus and a way to see some familiar faces, albeit briefly, before we jump forward in time six months to allow for Daniel and Ali’s relationship to have fallen apart. Elisabeth Shue was onto bigger and better things like, um, Link (1986), a horror movie about a homicidal chimpanzee. There’s no place for her character in this story, but it’s a shame she didn’t come back for the opening scene at least.

This time, the focus is more on Miyagi than Daniel, perhaps to leverage the success of Pat Morita earning an Oscar nomination for the part and to capitalise on an incredible popular character in general. This has its pros and cons, but having “The Karate Kid” in the title does mean it’s a shame the emphasis shifts so much, and Daniel has no real journey or emotional arc this time around. Instead, the story delves into Miyagi’s family drama. After flying back to Okinawa upon hearing his father’s close to death, Miyagi is reunited with his estranged childhood friend Sato (Danny Kamekona), a former karate student of his father’s who is now a wealthy businessman and practically owns the village of village where they grew up together. Unfortunately, Sato still bears a grudge against Miyagi, who fell in love with the woman it was arranged for him to marry, and rather than engage in a fight to the death he fled to America as an 18-year-old. Sato hasn’t forgotten any of this, so challenges Miyagi to another duel, while his own son Chozen (Yuki Okumoto) takes an inexplicable dislike to Daniel. 

It was obviously going to be impossible to do the same movie twice, so The Karate Kid Part II’s decision to move the action to Okinawa and focus on Miyagi does make narrative sense. It also amplified the fish-out-of-water element of the previous movie, when Daniel had to get used to living on the opposite side of the country, and the stakes are certainly raised in making this less about winning a tournament to embarrass your bully and more about a blood feud where the concluding karate fight will end in someone’s death. But there are also lots of ways the script, again by Robert Mark Kamen, simply copies what worked about the first one: Daniel has another romantic interest in pretty villager Kumiko (a debuting Tamlyn Tomita), Chozen is the new Johnny Lawrence, Sato the new Martin Kreese, and there’s a “drum technique” to replace the crane technique which proves vital in the end.

In the mid-1980s, I had little interest in the new setup and certainly not enough cultural awareness for the Okinawa scenes to grab me. It’s a different story today, so there was certainly more about The Karate Kid Part II I enjoyed, and Pat Morita undoubtedly gets a lot more to do. But there’s also much less karate training or fighting, which means the movie plays more like a straightforward drama about two middle-aged men having a decades-old disagreement. Daniel, as I said, doesn’t have much to do this time, and even comments on his third-wheel status at one point. And the effectiveness of the villains is greatly reduced; particularly in the case of Sato, who’s so stubborn in refusing to let bygones be bygones it’s almost comical.

Ultimately, while the scenery’s beautiful and there are certain strengths in the story being told and how it deepens what we knew about Miyagi, The Karate Kid Part II lacks the underdog appeal of the original and doesn’t find enough for its ostensible star to do. It’s harder to connect to emotionally, but given the difficulty of capturing lightning in a bottle twice I do appreciate the bold attempt to do something new but also familiar. And while it may now be remembered as a dud, and nobody’s go-to when they want to watch a Karate Kid movie, audiences at the time again made it a big success in 1986— grossing another $130M from a slightly bigger $13M budget.

USA | 1986 | 113 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

The Karate Kid Part III (1989)

2 out of 5 stars

John Kreese attempts to get revenge on Daniel and Mr Miyagi, with the help of a Vietnam War comrade.

The second sequel is less interesting than Part II, but hews closer to what audiences expected a follow-up to The Karate Kid to be. It’s a sequel that redoes the same story with a few tweaks, but coming five years later (after the big disappointment of the previous movie) didn’t help matters at the box office. It made $91M less than the last two instalments (only grossing $39M), which swiftly put an end to the franchise —for awhile, anyway. Ralph Macchio is also a noticeably heavier-set 27-year-old man, yet still playing a 17-year-old boy because less than a year has passed in the timespan of the trilogy.

After returning from Okinawa, Daniel and Mr Miyagi are unaware they’re now targets for revenge by disgraced Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese. Now broke and homeless after months of his dojo failing to attract new students, Kreese turns to his old Vietnam War comrade Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) for help, who’s since become a wealthy, slimy businessman. As a skilled martial artist and founder of the Cobra Kai brand, Silver sends his dejected buddy Kreese off to Tahiti for some R&R, while he concocts a hilariously complicated plan to teach Daniel and his mentor a lesson.

Elsewhere, Daniel convinces Mr Miyagi to let him use his college tuition money to lease a bonsai shop — “Mr Miyagi’s Little Trees”—and goes into business with his sensei. Unfortunately, they both encounter opposition from “Karate’s Badboy” Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) and his goons, who’ve been hired by Silver to intimate Daniel and force him to defend his title in the next All-Valley Karate Tournament. Silver himself also takes an active role in this plot, pretending to be a helpful karate instructor who knew Kreese and is apologetic about his friend’s behaviour, with the intention of luring Daniel away from Mr Miyagi and teach him how anger and aggression is the only way to defeat his enemies.

There are ideas in The Karate Kid Part III which have merit, but nothing about it coheres. I like the dramatic potential of Daniel falling out with Mr Miyagi over defending his title, by turning to a sympathetic sensei who’s manipulating him into becoming a nastier version of himself — but it’s never believable how quickly Daniel turns to the dark side, and it seems ridiculous he’s not more aware of how unsettling and sinister Silver’s classes are! There’s also a worthless non-romance with Jessica Andrews (Robyn Lively, sister of Blake — who was only two years old in ’89!), which only helps to give Daniel someone to talk to whenever he’s caught between Mr Miyagi and Silver. It makes sense story-wise, but it’s an odd choice to have Jessica “friend-zone” Daniel before their first date. In researching, it turns out the producers realised Robyn Lively was only 16 after they cast her, so thought it was in bad taste to make her do romantic scenes with a 27-year-old man playing her teenage boyfriend. That’s understandable and commendable, but the failure to cast a more age-appropriate actress is a disappointment for the story.

Another unfortunate production dilemma was Martin Kove’s scheduling conflict with short-lived TV series, which meant he was only available to shoot a handful of scenes for Part III. Kreese was intended to be the primary villain, but they had to write in Terry Silver instead, which for the most part I’m happy about. It’s more interesting to have a new antagonist, and Daniel’s manipulation wouldn’t be possible with a character Daniel knows not to trust. It’s odd how tough guy Kreese asks an old war buddy to fight his battle for him, but Thomas Ian Griffith is surprisingly entertaining ’80s slimeball type. It’s just a shame the promise of what he represents for the film (a more intelligent antagonist who’s trying to mess with Daniel’s head and supplant Miyagi in his affections) never lands as well as it could have with stronger writing.

Still, Part III puts the emphasis back on Daniel as a character, and the development of his friendship with Mr Miyagi into a business arrangements make sense. I don’t mind the story essentially rehashing old ideas, as this franchise is fundamentally about bullies and how a more enlightened pursuit of martial arts will always have the upper hand, but it’s a case of diminishing returns. There’s nothing to touch anything from the original, although Thomas Ian Griffith being a real-life black belt helps his scenes— and he gets the most memorable moment of the movie, when he taunts Mr Miyagi with racist Bruce Lee-style ‘yipping’, only to have the provocation thrown back in his face after Miyagi beats him without a single blow being landed.

Overall, The Karate Kid was always lightning in a bottle, with two needless sequels that didn’t know what to do next. Part II deepened the backstory and character of Mr Miyagi somewhat, but Part III is just a bad and more complex version of the first movie without clear emotional arcs and even a sense of victory by the end. The tournament scene is terrible because there’s no build-up to the final confrontation (Daniel got a free pass as the reigning champ!), the fight contains too many illegal moves from Mike Barnes, and Daniel barely makes an impression on the fight and yet somehow wins by… confusing his opponent for long enough to get a few last moment hits in? It’s all over surprisingly quickly, to no real impact, ending one of the ’80s most disappoint trilogies.

USA | 1989 | 112 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Special Features:

Sony’s release of the Karate Kid saga’s first three movies is exemplary work, as the studio restored and remastered the films in full 4K using the 35mm camera negatives. There’s even Dolby Vision across all the films (an improvement on The Karate Kid’s earlier solo 4K release, which just had HDR10), although I can’t take advantage of it with my current 4K UHD player.

The amount of film grain in the opening scenes of The Karate Kid had me worried because the skies looked particularly ‘buzzy’ and was off-putting. But things quickly settle and all three films certainly benefit from this 4K upgrade in terms of clarity and richness of colour. The third movie isn’t as impressive in the finer details, but it’s not far off, and fans of particularly the first movie will be delighted.

Dolby Atmos is available on all three films, which makes a refreshing change —as it’s often only the true classic gets the premium treatment, and the lesser sequels have to make do with a 7.1 track. The Karate Kid films aren’t going to give your home theatre a rigorous workout, but the tournament sequence in The Karate Kid has a great sense of atmosphere. The moment with Mr Miyagi claps his hands together before massaging Daniel’s leg injury is also improved by a welcome low-level thrum from the sub. The Karate Kid Part II’s airport scene and thunderstorm are the standouts there, whereas Part III doesn’t have much going on at all. But all three have Bill Conti’s fantastic music score coming through strongly, and the dialogue is always nicely anchored at the front. This box-set isn’t a phenomenal piece of work audio-wise, but it’s the best these movies have ever looked and sounded.

The Karate Kid (UHD)

  • Feature mastered in 4K resolution from the original camera negative, with Dolby Vision.
  • English Dolby Atmos audio + 5.1 + theatrical stereo audio.
  • NEW: Deleted Scenes.
  • “Remembering The Karate Kid”—a reflective look back with stars Ralph Macchio, William Zabka & Martin Kove.
  • Theatrical Trailer.

The Karate Kid (Blu-ray)

  • Feature presented in high definition.
  • English 5.1.
  • Blu-Pop Pop-Up Track.
  • Commentary with director John G. Avildsen, writer Robert Mark Kamen and actors Ralph Macchio & Pat Morita.
  • “The Way of The Karate Kid” Multi-Part Making-Of Featurette.
  • “Beyond the Form” Featurette.
  • “East Meets West: A Composer’s Notebook”.
  • “Life of Bonsai” Featurette.

The Karate Kid Part II (UHD)

  • Newly remastered in 4K resolution from the original camera negative, with Dolby Vision.
  • English Dolby Atmos audio + 5.1 + theatrical stereo audio.
  • NEW: Commentary with Ralph Macchio & Tamlyn Tomita.
  • NEW: Deleted Scene.
  • Theatrical Trailer.

The Karate Kid Part II (Blu-ray)

  • Feature presented in high definition.
  • English 5.1.
  • Blu-Pop Pop-Up Track.
  • Original Featurette: “The Sequel”.

The Karate Kid Part III (UHD)

  • Newly remastered in 4K resolution from the original camera negative, with Dolby Vision.
  • English Dolby Atmos audio + 5.1 + theatrical stereo audio.
  • Theatrical Trailer.

The Karate Kid Part III (Blu-ray)

  • Feature presented in high definition.
  • English 5.1.
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Cast & Crew

director: John G. Avildsen.
writer: Robert Mark Kamen.
starring: Ralph Macchio & Noriyuki “Pat” Morita Elisabeth Shue, William Zabka, Martin Kove & Randee Heller (The Karate Kid) Tamlyn Tomita, Yuji Okumoto, Nobu McCarthy, Danny Kamekona, Joey Miyashima & Marc Hayashi (The Karate Kid Part II) Thomas Ian Griffith, Sean Kanan, Robyn Lively, William Christopher Ford & Martin Kove (The Karate Kid Part III).