Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Release year: 1989
Runtime: 112 Minutes
"TO SUBDUE THE ENEMY WITHOUT FIGHTING IS THE HIGHEST SKILL."
--Gichin Funakoshi, Father of Karate
"FIGHTING ALWAYS LAST ANSWER TO PROBLEM."
--Miyagi, Teacher of The Karate Kid
The martial arts are seldom accurately depicted on film. Neither mindless mayhem nor mystical mumbo-jumbo, they are a path to mastery over self, mind and body. Thus "The Karate Kid" is not just the story of a boy's revenge on his tormentors but of his becoming a man.
Young Daniel is told by Miyagi, his mentor and spiritual father, that to look for vengeance only is to dig two graves. The boy wants to learn karate for revenge, to fight back. But Miyagi refuses to teach Daniel what he wants to know. Only when Daniel acquires the spiritual as well as physical maturity—when he learns that karate is not just fighting--will he be ready to challenge the brutal champion to a contest in which, he is warned, "accidents can happen."
Columbia Pictures presents "The Karate Kid," a Jerry Weintraub Production of a John G. Avildsen Film, starring Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita. Produced by Jerry Weintraub and directed by John G. Avildsen from an original screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen, the film also stars Elisabeth Shue, William Zabka and Randee Heller. R.J. Louis is executive producer, with music composed by Bill Conti.
The idea for the picture came to Weintraub when he saw a news report of a young boy who had become a karate expert because he was always being picked on in school. When they met, Weintraub asked if the boy was as good in fights as he was in tournaments. "I don't fight," he replied matter-of-factly. "There's no reason to."
"The Karate Kid" is just one story out of thousands like it in schools and neighborhoods across the country, where roughly half of all martial arts students are under 18. Its broad appeal to youth was one of the reasons Weintraub was attracted to it. It is an audience he demonstrably understands, having produced the realistic, highly successful and critically acclaimed "Diner."
John Avildsen, Academy Award-winning director of the phenomenally successful "Rocky," leaves the boxing ring for a karate dojo and now explores the world of martial arts. Once again, Avildsen is involved in a story about an underdog who trains hard and develops not only the physical skills but the faith and selfconfidence to win against tremendous odds.
Avildsen was "completely ignorant about boxing" when he started "Rocky," and in a similar condition vis-a-vis karate when he took on what he jokingly referred to as "the karocky kid." "I like stories with heroes," Avildsen says. "I'm a great Frank Capra fan. In this case, though, it is the relationship –more of the boy with his surrogate father and the sweetness of his romance with the girl that "were especially attractive to me."
Avildsen's preference to actual locations is almost as strong as his love for heroes. "It's better to photograph the reality than try to re-create it on a sound stage," he says. Where "Rocky" perfectly captured the gritty feel of Philadelphia, "The Karate Kid" will reflect another highly individual milieu, California's San Fernando Valley. Under the supervision of executive producer R.J. Louis, a variety of authentic locations for filming were selected.
"We were lucky enough the find a school that had recently been closed because of declining enrollments," said Louis, "and we obtained permission to re-open it and film there." Not everything worked so smoothly, of course. The site of the climactic karate tournament had still not been determined three days before filming was to begin.
Art director William Cassidy was determined to convey the essence of Miyagi's inner calm. Miyagi's house, for example, was a rundown shack in a weedy yard until the construction crew descended upon it. When they were finished, the interior became a modest and beautifully austere Japanese dwelling with mats, screens and other authentic Oriental accoutrements. The yard itself was landscaped with miniature mountains, lanterns, decking, a pond complete with expensive koi (Japanese fish) and hundred-year-old bonsai.
"'The Karate Kid' is basically a story of relationships, of growing and maturing," says screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, who brought more to the project than just a knowledge of karate (which he has studied and practiced for nearly 20 years) and an understanding of Oriental customs. He put the flesh of character on what had been only the bare bones of incident involving a teenager's introduction to and adoption of the martial arts.
"I know how the character Daniel felt," Kamen continues, "having been kicked around myself when I was young. I studied under an Okinawan master whom Miyagi resembles in many ways.
He gave me a lot of things in my life, not just the ability to punch people around. Enlightenment comes from the strangest places."
Weintraub explains, "As we've told the story, 'The Karate Kid' is much more than wish-fulfillment on an elementary level." Praising Kamen, he continues, "The affection that grows between the fatherless boy and the older man is a beautiful thing. Many young people, even with natural parents, would like to have the understanding .and love than Daniel receives from Miyagi.
"As for Daniel's mother (played by Randee Heller), I've known a thousand women like her, who get one dirty deal after another but are always hoping the sun will come out next time. This story is very rich in character and relationships."
There is also a satisfyingly old-fashioned romance between Daniel and a pretty classmate to serve as a counterpoint to the action. "It's the story," Kamen sums up, "of a kid learning about alternatives."
That "kid" is 22-year-old Ralph Macchio, who plays Daniel, a teenager whose growing pains are made that much more difficult by his arrival in a new town where he must start from scratch and make new friends. The young star says he enjoyed the challenge of his role as "The Karate Kid" and adds, "One of the best things about being young in this business is that you learn from everyone, and, hopefully, you learn what mistakes you don't have to make."
Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, who plays Miyagi, is an accomplished actor and comedian who is well known to American television audiences for his role as Arnold in "Happy Days"--too well known, in fact, to the producer who thought of Morita as a comic and consented only reluctantly to watch his audition. What Weintraub saw, and what the movie-going public will see in "The Karate Kid," is a Morita they have never before seen on TV or in movies--a man of dignity and compassion portraying a character so profound and complex that he appears almost simple.
As Daniel's girlfriend Ali and as Daniel's formidable foe, Elisabeth Shue and William Zabka, respectively, are two more promising young stars that make up this cast of talented newcomers. Miss Shue, a student at Columbia University, has so far in her young career been able to combine academics with acting. She comments, "Education is important to an actress. You need to know about life, about history, the fine arts and about yourself."
As the leader of the Cobra gang of karate students, Zabka combines his natural athletic ability with a love for acting. His character is not evil, rather, misled--and according to the wise Miyagi, "There are not bad students, just bad teachers." Zabka comments, "I learned more from. this picture than I could ever learn from an acting class. Morita taught me an awful lot, as, of course, did John (Avildsen), who had such a good perspective on Johnny, my character, that even when I lost it, he still had it."
In addition to Morita, there are two adults in "The Karate Kid" who give guidance, albeit in two very different fashions, to the younger characters. As Daniel's mother, Randee Heller gives her son a restrained, loving support, while Martin Kove, as the belligerent karate instructor, teaches the Cobras with an aggressive, persistent intensity.
Included in the cast of young actors are two familiar names: McQueen and Avalon. Chad McQueen, son of Steve and Neile Adams McQueen, plays one of the Cobras. Chad didn't need much training since both he and his father had taken lessons from Pat Johnson, the instructor/choreographer for the picture. Another secondgeneration actor making his film debut in "The Karate Kid" is Frankie Avalon, Jr., who plays Chuckie, one of Daniel's school chums. Rounding out the members of the Cobras gang are Rob Garrison, Ron Thomas and Tony O'Dell.
With a musical score by Bill Conti ("Rocky") and soundtrack album including popular rock artists Survivor (who scored with the "Eye of the Tiger" theme from "Rocky III"), Paul Davis (whose ballad "I Go Crazy" holds the record for most weeks on the singles charts), Gang of Four, Baxter Robertson, Joe Esposito, Broken Edge, Shandi, Commuter, St. Regis, and The Flirts with Jan and Dean, "The Karate Kid" packs a powerful musical punch that naturally complements this youth drama. A music video of the Survivor single, "Moment of Truth," highlights key scenes from the film along with actual band footage and will be shown on music video programs nationwide. "The Karate Kid," additionally, is the 500th film to be recorded with Dolby Sound.