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The Karate Kid: Special Edition

Because of the way MTV began drastically changing teen entertainment around the time that The Karate Kid was released in 1984, young viewers today who were unaware of the movie before this DVD release may scratch their heads when told that this earnest and occasionally dopey underdog story was the fifth-highest grossing movie of a matinee blockbuster-filled summer (keeping company with the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Temple of Doom, and Footloose). Yet to its contemporary audience (mostly males, ages 8-14, circa 1984), The Karate Kid became one of those indelible pop culture milestones, despite its lack of cynical humor, flashy directing, and popular music. Ralph Macchio, already a rising star from The Outsiders (1983), stars as Daniel LaRusso, a gangly 15-year-old reluctantly transplanted by his mother from New Jersey to Los Angeles. Although Danny instantly catches the eye of a pretty blonde (Elisabeth Shue) from the right side of the tracks, he also earns the enmity of her preppy jock ex-boyfriend, Johnny (William Zabka), who rules the school with his posse of black-belt psychopaths. After one ass-kicking too many, Daniel is befriended by his apartment complex's Japanese handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita), who becomes a father-figure and karate mentor to the struggling boy. If The Karate Kid sounds like middling "AfterSchool Special" material, it also suffers from some fairly tepid execution, with careless plotting, dull dialogue, mostly unexciting fight scenes, and really blasé music, all strung on a formulaic frame. So what accounts for the movie's pop-cult of appeal? Oscar-winning Rocky director John G. Avildsen coasts through this teen-Rocky-lite with a quiet, unassuming touch that never accentuates the story's flaws. Daniel is a pleasantly nondescript Everyteen completely lacking in typical Hollywood forced "personality," and the immediately likable Macchio's chemistry with both Morita and Shue is tangible. Screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen's dialogue and plotting may be undistinguished, but his transplanting of Rocky's proven underdog narrative to high school was inspired, and he also established an enduring movie archetype. Morita's Mr. Miyagi launched a million benevolent ethnic stereotypes: the wise and sad old foreigner imparting profound thoughts via broken English, all the while accompanied by a conspicuously "exotic" flourish in the score (in this case, Japanese flute). The terrific Morita earned an affectionate Oscar nomination for this career-defining role, while teenage boys across America tried to perfect Miyagi's then-impressive (but now, post-Jackie Chan, a bit preposterous and wussy-ish) "indefensible" crane kick. On a smaller scale, Zabka came to define a new breed of fascist teen movie bullies, and Martin Kove chews the scenery as the malevolent Sensai of his menacing "Cobra Kai" gang. The Karate Kid is also blissfully, squarely, wholesome and family-friendly. What a jarring relief to see a teen movie romance, between Macchio and Shue, in which the romantic leads make it nearly the whole movie without even kissing and never mention sex. The Karate Kid looks pretty good in Sony/Columbia TriStar's Special Edition release, with a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a mostly clean source-print and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Avildsen, Kamen, Morita and Macchio catch-up in a lively group commentary track (during which all four guys drool over Shue every time she's on screen), and the disc also includes four featurettes covering the movie, its martial arts, Bill Conti's music, and the art of Bonsai tree pruning. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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