When The Karate Kid premiered in the summer of 1984, no one, including director John G. Avildsen, expected the movie to take on the amazing and popular life it did. The film spawned two sequels and now all three films can be seen on Netflix.
The story surrounding The Karate Kid is simple, it’s the details that make the movie so special. Daniel LaRusso (a career-defining role from Ralph Macchio) moves to Reseda, California from New Jersey with his mother and immediately receives the “new kid” treatment at his new school.
Daniel tries to work his way through being the new kid and befriends high school cheerleader Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue). She takes to him, but Ali is also the ex-girlfriend of the popular Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), a black belt in karate and top student at the Cobra Kai dojo.
Johnny, the ever arrogant one, decides with his Cobra Kai buddies, to make life miserable for Daniel. They do, constantly bullying him. When Daniel decides to get a little payback, his plan succeeds but the Cobra Kai gang eventually chases him down and beats him mercilessly.
As they are taking their shots at Daniel, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) comes to the rescue, taking care of the Cobra Kai gang with relative ease. Daniel is amazed at Mr. Miyagi and asks him if he could teach him karate. At first Mr. Miyagi refuses, until he takes Daniel to the Cobra Kai dojo to meet with its sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), hoping for peace between Cobra Kai and Daniel.
Not only does Kreese refuse, but he also does so by belittling Mr. Miyagi and Daniel. Mr. Miyagi then suggests a solution. He will enter Daniel in the All-Valley Karate Championship so the boys can fight on even ground. He also requests that Cobra Kai leave Daniel alone while Miyagi trains him. Kreese finally accepts.
The bulk of the film then follows Daniel’s training and lesson learning by Mr. Miyagi. Their relationship is a special one, one that makes the heart of the film. At first, Daniel doesn’t understand Mr. Miyagi’s teaching methods. He feels Mr. Miyagi is using him simply to do chores. Wax on, wax off.
When Daniel finally has had enough, he is about to tell Mr. Miyagi he’s going to quit when Miyagi proves to Daniel that the chores he was completing actually taught him basic karate moves and defense. The relationship is strengthened as Daniel’s training becomes more intense while the All-Valley looms. Also getting close are Daniel and Ali, who now have nothing but contempt for Johnny and his Cobra Kai ways.
Avildsen sets up a rousing climax to The Karate Kid with the All-Valley Tournament. Daniel has to go through the ups and downs taking on individual members of Cobra Kai before finally meeting Johnny in the tourney championship. With The Karate Kid, producers brought on Avildsen, hoping they could get lightning to strike twice for the director. Avildsen won the Academy Award for Best Director for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky in 1976. Producers were looking for a film similar to Rocky, so they hired Robert Mark Kamen to write it.
Kamen took a part of his own real-life to draw inspiration for his story. After being jumped by a gang of bullies at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, Kamen sought out a way to protect himself. He found an instructor who was a Marine captain that preached violence with a side helping of revenge. This was the genesis of The Karate Kid.
The film was a hit. It jump-started Macchio’s career while also revitalizing Morita’s. The movie also introduced the world to Shue and Zabka.
Avildsen made the hit movie for a mere $8 million and rewarded producers with a $130.4 take at the box office. He also rewarded the producers with two more Karate Kid films, both directed by Avildsen and written by Kamen.
In Karate Kid Part II, the movie picks up immediately after the end of the first film. In the parking lot of the All-Valley Tournament, we first see John Kreese attacking Johnny for his embarrassing loss to Daniel. Mr. Miyagi intervenes before Kreese can do lasting damage to Johnny, humiliating Kreese in the process.
The movie jumps forward six months to explain where those from the first movie are at. Ali has fallen for a football player at UCLA and Daniel’s mom has accepted a job in Fresno, so Daniel is set to move. Mr. Miyagi then tells Daniel that his mother agreed to let Daniel stay with him.
Mr. Miyagi receives a letter carrying bad news. His father is sick, so Miyagi must go to his home village of Tomi on Okinawa where Miyagi must face his past, not only with his father and family but with his one and only true love, Yukie, a woman who was promised to his then best friend, Sato.
Relationships are rekindled, for better and worse, and Daniel finds himself caught up with a young Japanese girl Kumiko. Both Miyagi and Daniel must now fight for honor and love.
John Avildsen and Robert Mark Kamen brought the sequel to the big screen with a larger budget, $13 million, and the same return as the first film, $130 million. While the first movie was a rousing success, this film didn’t strike the same chord with critics or audiences. Still, it was enough for producers to greenlight a third film.
The Karate Kid Part III brings Daniel and Mr. Miyagi back to Los Angeles to face down John Kreese and the revenge he is hell-bent on seeking. Martin Kove returns as Kreese but due to his filming schedule at the time, his part had to be shortened and the character of Terry Silver was created.
Thomas Ian Griffith chewed scenery as the overly sadistic wealthy businessman Silver, who was the founder of Cobra Kai. Silver and Kreese served in Vietnam together, forging a lasting bond culminating in Cobra Kai.
With Kreese taking a back seat in this one, Silver takes center stage. Silver wants Daniel to defend his title at the All-Valley tournament, something Daniel has decided not to do. As Silver, with his henchmen, continue to ramp up the pressure on Daniel, he continues to refuse.
Finally, Daniel is forced into signing up for the tourney. When Mr. Miyagi refuses to train him, Daniel is approached by Silver with an offer to train him. Daniel accepts, alienating him from Mr. Miyagi.
The training is vastly different than what Daniel received from Miyagi. Silver teaches Daniel the brutal ways of karate. Daniel finally comes to the realization that Silver’s techniques do not reflect who he is and what Mr. Miyagi has taught him, so he returns to Miyagi to make amends with his sensei.
The Karate Kid III then has the familiar look and feel of the first film as Daniel returns to the All-Valley Tournament in an attempt to take down Kreese, Silver, and Cobra Kai once again.
The third Karate Kid movie didn’t fare as well as the first two. Avildsen and Kamen returned in their familiar roles but the movie only brought home $39 million at the box office on its $13.5 million budget. Critics and fans derided the film for its more sadistic and violent approach, though Ian Griffith did stand out as Silver.
All in all, though, the coming-of-age The Karate Kid trilogy has left an indelible mark on audiences since its inception nearly 40 years ago, a fact that was solidified when the hit series Cobra Kai was introduced in 2018. The nostalgia for The Karate Kid has made Cobra Kai a massive hit as it now enters its fourth season, led by returning stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka. The series picks up 34 years after the All-Valley Karate Tournament and while both Johnny and Daniel have aged, some things don’t change over time.
So, while you’re waiting for Season 4 of Cobra Kai to premiere (no date has been set), relieve how it all started with The Karate Kid trilogy, all of which can be seen on Netflix.