It pains me a bit to say this, but The Karate Kid turns 30 years old today. That’s right, it’s been thirty years since a coming-of-age tale about an embattled Valley kid upset industry expectations, raked in $100 Million, earned Mr. Miyagi’s Pat Morita an Oscar nomination, and inspired an entire generation to wax on, wax off.
I was a baby when this film debuted, but it captured my youth. Back to the Future trilogy aside, The Karate Kid caps off my Top 5 Movies Ever, symbolizing an era of American storytelling that’s since been jettisoned. Blockbusters today hinge on comic book properties, A-list celebrities, or obscure indies. But this decade of movies was about making mountains out of unknowns, timeless narratives that spoke to the entire family, and giving hope to suburban youth who were submerged in cul-de-sacs.
The Hundreds “Kai,” 2009
Entering adolescence, The Karate Kid meant less about roundhouses and more about coming to terms with adulthood. Unlike Marty McFly or 3/4 of the Ghostbusters, Daniel LaRusso was of darker complexion like me. An Italian-American, he was cast against a backdrop of blonde villains (none moreso than a beyond-bleached Chad McQueen) and even longed for the perky fair-haired cheerleader. Daniel wasn’t rich or cool, his best friend was a Japanese maintenance man, and he was built like a 9-year-old girl with a nut allergy. But he was driven, stayed himself and stayed focused, and fought back. And he won. One of the reasons why I will never endorse the modernized Jaden Smith adaptation is because they missed the mark entirely. The original The Karate Kid wasn’t about martial arts. Let’s be real, the same story’s been told endlessly, whether it’s called The Fast and The Furious, The Hunger Games, or Mean Girls. It’s about being a teenager: navigating high school hardships, the class and race divides amongst the social scene, and cultivating an identity in a very big world.
If you’ve never seen The Karate Kid, do so tonight. Pay attention to the characters and how much was invested into their development, the plot’s arc, how thoughtfully the locations were handpicked. How your heart races in the fight scenes, how cool the Cobra Kai are, and how tears well when Mr. Miyagi breaks Daniel-san (and vice versa). Forget the cute white girlfriend and the championship bout, Mr. Miyagi’s birthday gift to his apprentice is something that’ll last with you forever.
And that’s what makes a movie great. Artful, eternal storytelling that handsomely suits any generational context. There’s a reason why The Karate Kid is always on VOD, Netflix, or on top of the DVD stack at vacation homes. Why Ralph Macchio will forever be that angsty Jersey transplant (and less remembered for The Outsiders). Why drunken wrestling matches will always fade out to dueling crane kicks.
And it’s because The Karate Kid wasn’t just an ’80s movie. It was a ’90s movie. A 2014 movie. Our movie.