In the late 70s, the martial arts craze was sweeping the country, a karate-kicking wave that continued through the 80s.
From the iconic Bruce Lee, Blaxploitation films, Jim Kelly and classic Shaw Brothers films like “Five Deadly Venoms”, the 70s introduced audiences across the world to the exciting culture of martial arts. Fans flocked to theaters in places like Times Square to watch these movies, imagining all of the moves that they could master after simply watching a film.
That craze continued into the 80s, as Hollywood finally recognized the wide ranging thirst for this genre of film by putting out movies starring actors such as Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cynthia Rothrock, Sho Kosugi and Michael Dudikoff.
But on June 22nd, 1984, the interest in martial arts went mainstream when “The Karate Kid” hit the silver screen.
We all know the story of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), the New Jersey kid who made the move to California and immediately found himself in trouble with teenage bullies from the karate dojo, Cobra Kai. But then he meets Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morida), quickly masters karate and ends up winning the local martial arts tournament.
Say what you want about the likelihood of the reality of the film, that a teenager can basically become a black belt in a matter of a few weeks. That wasn’t the point of the film, nor did that really matter to any of us who watched it. It was all about the underdog who beat the bullies and won the girl, the everyday kid who wasn’t rich yet who defied the odds to become a success. While not as popular as Rocky Balboa, Daniel gave hope to those who didn’t have all of the money and access as those around him did, yet you were drawn in by his character, situation and drive to overcome.
“The Karate Kid” gave us iconic scenes and lines that are forever embedded in pop culture history. From Daniel beating Mr. Miyagi at catching a fly with chopsticks and Mr. Miyagi giving Daniel-san his choice of a car, to Daniel’s unusual “wax on-wax off” training regime, everyone still remembers the scenes that they’ve watched over and over and over again through the last three decades.
But nothing will ever come close to the final moments of the movie when LaRusso is in the championship match against Johnny Lawrence. Already hobbled by an illegal move suffered in the previous match against Tommy, who was instructed by Sensei Kreese to take him out, Daniel is in excruciating pain. Limping around, Daniel gets hit with an elbow to the wounded leg, and everyone cringed as he writhed in pain on the mat. As he rolls around and gets up, Tommy yells one of the most iconic taunts in movie history just before Daniel gets into the crane stance, to the complete shock of Mr. Miyagi.
And that’s when the music started, leading to the tension filled finale.
Movie theaters exploded when Daniel won, tears of happiness flowing freely and fans cheering as the new champion was swarmed by the crowd after defeating Johnny. Not one person remained in their seat as the referee raised his hand towards the underdog victor from New Jersey.
The movie has transcended the decades and generations with Will Smith’s son Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan getting together for a decent reboot of the classic, introducing the franchise to another set of young eyes. It had all of the drama, value, and universal appeal of the first movie.
36 years later, “The Karate Kid” remains a classic film for every fan. No matter your color, background or language, and even if you doubted the likelihood of what you saw, the film gave you someone to cheer for and something to celebrate.
“Hey Mr. Miyagi! We did it!”
Gets us every time.