You’d have to try pretty hard to make a case for either of them as truly great films, but 1984’s The Karate Kid and its 1986 sequel are Velveeta touchstones for men and women of a certain (ahem) age, and although this Blu-ray two-pack isn’t the best around, it’ll easily sweep the leg out from anyone who’s been craving for some hi-def Glory of Love.
Okay, enough of that. Seriously now — in a decade lousy with teen movies, The Karate Kid is one of the few that truly endures, thanks to some punchy direction from John G. Avildsen, as well as fine work from a wonderful cast. It’s basically a teen Rocky with a karate tournament instead of a boxing match — and even before Rocky, the rousing climax of the sports film was nothing new — but hey, formulas exist because they work, right?
Like a lot of hit ’80s movies, The Karate Kid works, to some extent, in spite of itself; though it’s true that Avildsen lined up all the right actors, the movie is still loaded with beat-you-over-the-head moments, and it doesn’t know when to quit with its villains. I mean, one look at William Zabka or Martin Kove is enough to tell you they aren’t nice guys, but this was not a subtle decade, and to love The Karate Kid is to put up with some jarring shifts between the understated (Ralph Macchio was born to share the screen with Pat Morita) and the cartoonish (any scene featuring Kove).
Any underdog sports movie is only as good as its final act, though, and that’s where The Karate Kid delivers its knockout blow. Whatever the sins of ’80s cinema, filmmakers at least understood how to build tension, and they still trusted their audiences to make a slow climb for the payoff — and Kid is a fine example, taking about 45 minutes to really get things moving. It might strike younger viewers as slow, but there’s a lot of solid exposition in that opening act, which screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen used to add some actual layers to his characters. Again, it isn’t a great movie, but it feels like a story that just happens to end with a big fight, rather than a series of random events built around thin characters as an excuse for some action. As easy as it is to make fun of The Karate Kid, it makes good use of its formula ingredients in all the ways that really matter.
On Blu-ray, The Karate Kid is good, but not great; the picture is grainy and a little soft — about what you’d expect from a movie this age, minus a really expensive transfer — and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has a fine dynamic range between its action sequences and its quieter, dialogue-reliant moments. The real problem is that if you’re a real fan of the movie, you probably already own the 20th anniversary DVD, and for the most part, Karate Kid‘s extra features have been ported over from that earlier reissue. There’s plenty of bonus content, including some really fine featurettes and a wonderful commentary track reuniting Macchio, Morita, Avildsen, and Kamen, but it’s disappointing that so much of it is previously released. Aside from BD-Live connectivity, the only exclusive Blu-ray feature is a “Blu-pop” track that overlays trivia bits and talking-head commentary footage from Macchio and Zabka. It isn’t bad, but most of what the have to say is rehashed from the other bonus features, so it’s a bit of a wash. Like a lot of the budget Blu-ray reissues on the market, it feels like the setup for a deluxe “definitive” version. Use your best judgment.
That goes double for The Karate Kid II. Avildsen was plainly ambivalent about making a sequel, but the studio would have made one with or without him, so he rounded up Kamen, Macchio, and Morita for another go-round with Miyagi and Daniel-san. The result is one of the odder (and, it must be said, more successful) sequels of the decade — one that follows the same essential arc, but with even more dialogue and less action, and without most of the original’s cast.
Karate Kid II‘s opening moments retrace the plot of the first film, adding a brief tag that shows how, after winning the tournament at the end of The Karate Kid, Daniel and Miyagi had a confrontation with John Kreese (Kove) in the parking lot; finding Kreese assaulting the defeated Johnny Lawrence (Zabka), Miyagi stepped in and whooped ass, ending the fight by grabbing Kreese’s nose and fatefully murmuring “honk.”
But rather than setting up another battle with the Cobra Kai dojo, Karate Kid II sends its protagonists half a world away, to the tiny Okinawan village where Miyagi grew up. Turns out he was a bit of a rascal in his youth, and he fell in love with a girl who happened to be promised to his best friend; worse still, he proclaimed his love in front of the entire village — and then, rather than consent to the fight to the death that his (former) friend demanded, he fled the village and never went back. Called home by his ailing father, Miyagi brings his crane-kicking protege along for the trip, and the seeds for another climactic karate battle are sown.
Avildsen and Kamen deserve credit for using the sequel to build on the relationship between Daniel and Miyagi, and for giving Morita, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the first film, more to do. Really, Karate Kid II is Morita’s film; it’s his conflict that drives the movie, and although it might be a bit of a stretch to call Macchio a supporting player in this chapter, the balance between the two characters is a lot closer.
Which, in a way, is the root of Karate Kid II‘s problem. As a way of keeping the kid in the picture, Kamen puffed out the sequel with a subplot involving Daniel falling in love with a local girl and being drawn into a mortal battle with the nephew of Miyagi’s old friend — all in the space of a week. It’s understandable — this is The Karate Kid, after all, and one rather doubts people would have paid to see Pat Morita in a fight to the death — but it’s also laughable. Even setting aside the unintentional comedy of Daniel-san’s five-day romance, Kid II is far too reliant on scenes where Okinawans talk to each other in heavily accented English for no apparent reason, and the less said about the Unbeatable Trick Move that Daniel uses to save the day in this one, the better. It isn’t a bad sequel, and it at least uses its running time to tell the viewer a few new things about the characters, but it is a strange one. The tension that drove the first movie is missing, and as a result, Karate Kid II‘s often stately pace is inappropriately soothing. You have no reason to suspend your disbelief, or to keep yourself from giggling when the big fight finally arrives. As a bookend to The Karate Kid, it works reasonably well, but it doesn’t hold up on its own at all.
On Blu-ray, Karate Kid II offers an experience similar to its predecessor; this obviously isn’t demo disc material, but it does offer a noticeable improvement over its DVD counterpart. It’s on the extra features front that Kid II really disappoints — all you get is a brief featurette, filmed around the movie’s theatrical release, and a “Blu-pop” track that’s heavy on general trivia (“The word ‘karate’ means ’empty hand'”) and is sadly missing any commentary from its stars. What, they couldn’t get Peter Cetera to film a retrospective?