The Karate Kid runs out of movie before it runs out of story. The film’s been steadily improving on its way to the third act, culminating in a showdown between Jersey transplant (to L.A.) Ralph Macchio and his bully, William Zabka. There’s a lot of angst to the rivalry; they first tussled when “alpha” Zabka caught Macchio flirting with his ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Shue, but then it also turns out Zabka’s a rich kid, and Macchio’s not. The film’s first act is Zabka and his goons escalating their bullying—it’s assault real quick—before Macchio enlists the aid of his own karate expert, Pat Morita.
Actually, Morita saves Macchio when Zabka and his pals are trying to beat him to a pulp. Morita tries to handle it maturely, going with Macchio to confront Zabka’s teacher, only to discover he’s getting all the violence and aggression from that teacher, played by Martin Kove.
Zabka, Kove, and the rest of the goons are phantasmic villains in the second act (Morita says they’ll have a showdown at the local karate tournament, so no one can beat on Macchio until then), giving Macchio time to learn karate. And also have a rich girl, poor boy romance with Shue, which has its own foils before working just in time. It’s all right, though; Macchio and Shue—neither teenagers, both playing teenagers—are cute together, and Shue manages to imply a lot more character than Kid provides her.
Kid doesn’t provide anyone much character, really. Morita gets the most backstory. After spending the first half of the movie sometimes dispensing comic wisdom to Macchio, the film reveals his tragic history. However, it does mean Morita pretty much sat around for forty years waiting to play mentor to a random kid. It’s effective, however, because Macchio and Morita have great chemistry. It’s kind of the only good thing director Avildsen does in the film, which starts in a hurry and somehow manages to finish even faster, but the Macchio and Morita friendship is outstanding. Thanks to their on-screen rapport, not the writing of it. Robert Mark Kamen’s script doesn’t do character development. For the majority of the cast, they don’t even get character.
For instance, Macchio’s mother, Randee Heller, moved the two out to California so she could get a job at a computer start-up. Apparently, she ends up managing a restaurant without ever starting the computer job, but it doesn’t matter because she stops being in the movie for the second act. She shows up three-quarters of the way through the tournament in the third act, seemingly just so Macchio can act tough to her when injured. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even watch him compete.
Similarly, Macchio doesn’t have much of a character arc either, despite making an “only in the movies” best friend, learning karate, and dating Shue. The film takes place over three months; the first act speeds through that first month, then the next two comprise the second and third acts (there’s an inexplicable opening title card telling us it’s September, a device the film never employs again). Even though the film’s got its editing problems, it’s reasonably impressive how quickly they move things along at the beginning. When Macchio and Morita finally start their karate training plot, it feels like an entirely different movie (their friendship starts before the karate).
Acting-wise, Shue’s the easy best and only because she occasionally does something subtle. Macchio and Morita are likable, both flexing in broad roles, but they’re never really good. The script gives Macchio way too many mugging for the camera bits. Kove and Zabka are hiss-ready villains with no real depth, though at least they try a little with Zabka. But more because he’s a rich kid like Shue.
Good photography from James Crabe; it carries a lot of water for Avildsen’s bland direction. A competent but uninspired score from Bill Conti doesn’t help things, but it’s better than the pop soundtrack, which provides only one good montage backing (Young Hearts by Commuter). The rest of the songs are very trite eighties stuff.
The last finale’s a hurried, truncated mess, but Karate Kid could be a whole lot worse. Macchio and Morita more than make up for the rest of the film’s bumps, but they can’t help with the finish. Mainly because they’re not in it enough.