Blu-ray Reviews: The Karate Kid (1984); The Karate Kid II (1986)

Now Available to Own

After he meets the adorable cheerleader Ali (Elisabeth Shue), Mrs. Laruso is certainly correct when she tells her son Daniel (Ralph Macchio) that in California, it looks like “the whole world turned blonde,” but what she doesn’t realize is that when it comes to high school bullies, their home state of New Jersey was a whole lot safer. Of course, these were the days before Tony Soprano moved into town... but I digress.

In 1984, screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen and Rocky director John G. Avildsen returned to the always popular underdog formula for this 1980s contemporary teen classic. And much like its Sylvester Stallone predecessor less than a decade earlier, The Karate Kid would go on to become one of the defining movies for a generation with this story of a fish out of water who meets a fisherman from Okinawa in a life-changing and life-saving adventure that spawned a franchise.

Mercilessly menaced by a group of Cobra Kai Dojo students headed up by Ali’s particularly cruel ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) -- several black and blue marks and a broken bicycle later-- Daniel is taken under the wing by his apartment handyman Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) who intervenes in the ongoing feud by entering the boy in the local karate tournament in an arrangement with Lawrence’s sensei.

Knowing that he cannot possibly fight based on the knowledge he’s obtained back home at the YMCA and through a pictorial handbook, Miyagi employs unorthodox training techniques involving manual labor to train Daniel in the important basics of defense. And by the time they’ve reached offensive strategies, the two have become not only friends but a surrogate family both for each other as well as the audience who has cherished them for more than two decades.

While you may remember the movie with a fond memory or the inevitable “wax on, wax off,” line or two, you’ve never seen it look quite as beautiful as it does in this sharpened Blu-ray. In fact, the transfer is so impressive that it had me during the open credit sequence as the Laruso’s meander from one side of the United States to another set to Bill Conti’s inventive score that utilizes Eastern woodwind instruments in some rousing Western tracks so unique, they sparkle when rushing into your media room from all directions.

And while it grabs you throughout, perhaps the best evidence of Conti’s originality can be heard as Daniel first practices standing against the rush of waves on the ocean shore, while in the distance Miyagi practices the film’s all important Crane Technique on a log.

Moreover, in addition to being stunned by how much violence there was in the film in a recent viewing as I can’t remember a film before The Karate Kid that painted such a brutal and true picture of bullying at school, I was also struck by how many cinematic details get taken for granted during our youth.

Namely, we’re so wrapped up in the story that we fail to notice the rather exquisite production design of Miyagi’s East meets West home and the lost in World War II era feel of the old automobiles he restores as well as the way that – similar to Rocky – night and the use of black becomes a primary character that slowly vanishes as Daniel (just like Rocky) gains more confidence.

Balance or the yin and yang for which Miyagi and Daniel are both searching in their life is a central theme of the movie and from a visual perspective, crystallized in 1080 pixel high definition, it’s fascinating to see the way this is reaffirmed throughout on another level.

And it’s the balance of the two locations that becomes far more evident in 1986’s The Karate Kid II as Daniel postpones college to accompany Mr. Miyagi to his ancestral Okinawa home in order to visit his dying father whom he hasn’t seen since -- heartbroken over the arranged marriage of his girlfriend (Nobu McCarthy) to his best friend Sato (Danny Kamekona) – he emigrated to America.

However, once our American twosome arrive, they realize that old wounds haven’t healed with time as Sato challenges Miyagi in a fight to the death and shortly thereafter Daniel is threatened in the same fashion by Sato’s beastly nephew Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) who bullies the locals and pushes around the beautiful girl whom Daniel becomes attracted to in the sequel. Only this time around it won’t take a tournament to settle anything as the stakes are higher when scores have to be settled by fighting for blood.

Although structurally it’s fairly predictable and even borrows the same cinematic “catch up” device that made the Rocky sequels so successful by opening the film with a refresher of where we’d previously left off, the second Kid is actually a bit easier going for the viewer since the endless beatings from the Cobra Kai are replaced with gorgeous Japanese scenery.

However, this doesn’t naturally make the film superior since, in viewing them back-to-back again for this Blu-ray review, I realized that unlike my youthful preference for the sequel, now it’s the original that feels to me like an ideal ‘80s coming-of-age journey whereas this second one makes a charming companion piece.

And ideally, the manufacturers have delivered on this by filling the Blu-ray with brand new interviews, along with three featurettes, a Composer’s Notebook and commentary from the filmmakers along with Macchio and Morita.

Yet while owners of the movie may recognize a few of the extras, it’s well-worth the upgrade not only for the heightened clarity and first rate sound but also due to Sony’s unique “Karate Kid Blu-ray Pop Up" track that offers facts, interviews, footage, and picture-in-picture data that plays along with the movie.

Smartly removing the third, excruciating Karate Kid from the Sony re-release and high definition debut, thankfully I discovered that the two movies have actually managed to age fairly well considering the timelessness of its tale of finding friendship in the most unlikely of places. Likewise, I'm hoping that a new generation will soon latch onto these heartwarming, teen friendly movies before they contrast them with the 2010 high-gloss remake.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.