Can a cherished underdog story really survive the inevitable sequel? VHS Revival investigates.
Sequels can be a very tricky prospect indeed.
This is particularly true for movies that are planned as standalone features, only to be thrust back into the spotlight care of popular demand. Back before the marketing process was so regimented and ruthless, not everything was looked upon as a potential money-spinning franchise. I mean, Hollywood was still Hollywood, and if something had legs producers would run it into the ground with so many unnecessary sequels you were at risk of developing eye blisters. Still, original ideas were plentiful, and instead of making a mint off of past glories, original screenplays would forge their own commercial path, whether that was the initial intention or not.
The Karate Kid was one of those movies. Back in the summer of 1984, Rocky director John G. Avildsen‘s latest commercial smash was a similar underdog story, a relatively low-key release that tapped into the early 80s karate fad to wow audiences and critics alike. The story of a fatherless teen who finds balance thanks to a wizened pacifist with a very particular set of skills, The Karate Kid introduced us to the pugnacious charms of Ralph Macchio, but it was Pat Morita‘s Mr Miyagi who won the hearts of a generation. So impressed with Morita’s performance was legendary film critic Roger Ebert that he predicted an Oscar nomination for the silver screen rookie. This would inspire a moment of smug derision from fellow critic Gene Siskel, who saw The Karate Kid as a movie that was steeped in stereotypes, scoffing at the very idea of Morita being nominated for anything. In the end, Ebert’s prediction came true, Morita claimed his well-deserved nomination, and The Karate Kid smashed all expectations, becoming the most rented VHS of 1985. This was one underdog story which mirrored reality.
The Karate Kid resonated with audiences to such an extent that by the time The Karate Kid Part II was ready for release, Hollywood’s latest hit franchise had already caught the cultural marketing bug. The summertime clamour for a high-kicking return was punctuated by the movie’s venture into the commercial raison d’etre of late 20th century filmmaking. As well as inspiring a brand new toy range, the movie would pull no punches upon its return, Peter Cetera’s hit single The Glory of Love reaching number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earning the franchise its second Oscar Nomination, this time for Best Original Song. Throughout the summer of 1986, the accompanying music video would dominate MTV programming, clips from the movie teasing us with a new romance, lavish settings, and the kind of mega budget that promised fans the world.
This was great news for the honchos over at Columbia TriStar, who had stumbled onto a veritable goldmine with their relatable sleeper hit, but the movie’s characters had suddenly evolved from plucky underdogs to flavour of the month celebrities, from having no expectation to having all the expectation in the world. Macchio in particular, now 25, had become the boyish dream boat of a million teenage bedrooms, his puppy dog aura plastered to the cover of pop music magazines as our against all odds hero prepared for his second outing as cinema’s most unlikely bad ass. The first movie thrived on its low-key status. Due to its humble resources it was character driven, a simple tale which brought the best out of everyone involved and inspired lifelong relationships between cast members. It had heart, and those actors involved bought into the whole experience, a fact that translated to an unsuspecting audience.
But The Karate Kid‘s greatest strength was the flawless execution of its narrative. There was no fat to be trimmed here, no frills to be embellished. Daniel’s arc was familiar to kids both past and present. It was idealistic yet believable, and you were with him every tenuous step of the way. Daniel’s was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that put him in good stead, and in spite of its popularity, the idea of bigger and better seemed to go against everything the original movie and its characters stood for, and any familiar extension of that tale was almost certain to underwhelm where it counted. So what do you do with a low-key tale that has reached its dramatic zenith?
Daniel: You could’ve killed [Kreese], couldn’t you?
Mr. Miyagi: Hai.
Daniel: Well, why didn’t you then?
Mr. Miyagi: Because, Daniel-san, for person with no forgiveness in heart, living even worse punishment than death.
As with all personal highs, there are resultant lows, and for Daniel, returning to school after the summer of a lifetime would be like returning to your job in the local supermarket after a luxurious vacation in paradise. Ali may have seemed worth fighting for, but teenagers are fickle, and how would Larusso and Miyagi’s whirlwind friendship maintain its lofty, cod-philosophical heights now that the great man had revealed all of his greatness? In such a situation, it is easy to find a geographical solution to an emotional problem, and in a sense that’s what Avildsen chose to do.
The Karate Kid Part II begins a little uncertainly. Part of this is due to the fact that the California-based opening—one that sees Miyagi teach the maniacal Kreese a lesson after watching him attack his own students—was actually supposed to be the final scene in the original movie, but wasn’t shot and used until the sequel. It’s an effective scene, one that stresses the fact that Daniel must stay grounded after his All Valley triumph, a watching Miyagi suggesting early retirement and looking rather perturbed as his student signs autographs for waiting fans, another element that perhaps reflected reality. But like much of those initial scenes, it’s an opening that seems forced, one that Avildsen can’t get past quick enough.
The main point of the scene is to tie up loose ends and say goodbye to life in California. That’s all well and good for the most part. After all, John and his crew of ex-Cobra Kais have learnt their lesson, and a simple retread with Kreese as the movie’s antagonist would not have sufficed. Still, the absence of sweetheart Ali is particularly jarring, and almost serves to cheapen Daniel’s initial quest to find balance. So hasty were they to do away with Elizabeth Shue’s character (who in reality had just been accepted into Harvard) that they forewent a proposed scene depicting their break-up and filled in the blanks with hasty, tacked-on dialogue. Quite the inauspicious start.
The movie’s second scene back at Miyagi’s garden retreat is all exposition, and an overabundance of faux-mystical philosophies border on overkill. In the original movie, Miyagi taught his student balance through trite yet effective life lessons. Here, everything has a philosophy attached to it. It kind of reminded me of a scene from an early episode of The Simpsons where Bart quickly becomes bored of his karate class and asks if he can use the bathroom. “You can if you believe you can,” his sensei replies. And, for the opening sequence at least, Miyagi’s dialogue threatens to slip over the line into self-parody. But then an unexpected letter changes everything, and we soon realise that all is not lost.
That letter has been sent from Miyagi’s native Okinawa to inform him that his father is sick. Suddenly we realise that Miyagi is the subject of much personal conflict going back decades (a fact hinted at in the first movie during a scene that producers fought to have cut). The tower of strength that showed only glimpses of weakness in the first movie is suddenly devastated, and in that moment we realise that Avildsen has gone the only way he could by focusing on the true star of the show. With Daniel in tow for emotional support, The Karate Kid Part II is Miyagi’s story.
When the movie focuses on Miyagi, an essence of that former magic returns. In part one he is dependable and quietly supportive, but a return to his motherland reveals the boy who left for America many years before. While the majority of the movie is actually shot in Hawaii and not Okinawa as the movie pretends, the action is beautifully staged, and an overwhelmingly reminiscent Miyagi is an extension of its tropical scenery, or, more accurately, it becomes an extension of him. Pat Morita would show flashes of his skills as a stand-up comedian in the original movie, relying on his trade to assist him through his first serious mainstream role, but here he embraces the screenplay’s drama with a surprising level of maturity, and as a standalone performance this one may even eclipse the original.
Daniel: You know… When MY father died, I spent a lot of time thinking I hadn’t been such a great son. It seemed to me like I could have listened a little more, spent a little more time with him together… I felt so guilty, you know, like he did everything for me and I didn’t do anything for him. Then one day I realized… that I did the greatest thing I ever did for him before he died: I was there with him… and I held his hand… and said goodbye.
Ultimately, that’s where the improvements end, although a dramatic and sumptuous change in scenery dazzles the eyes. There is also a welcome romance with tropical beauty Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), whose mystical customs provide enough of an obstacle for Daniel’s growing maturity. Crucially, Miyagi is allowed a romance too, rekindling his relationship with an old flame he was forced to walk away from. As goodhearted and as genuine as the Miyagi character is, there’s something that is superficially unhealthy about his and Daniel’s relationship. A father figure he may be, but a kid like Daniel needs company his own age, and the same goes for Miyagi.
As much as Avildsen attempts to distance himself from the original’s aesthetics, thematically it is all very much the same. Once again Daniel is forced into battle, and once again Miyagi will train him, although the wax on wax off subtleties are replaced by a series of rushed yet elegant sequences that reaffirm the picture’s style over substance, while the sight of LaRusso chopping through several blocks of ice smacks of Hollywood and would never have featured in the original screenplay. This time the bad guy is a local karate thug named Chozen (Yuji Okumoto), the nephew of Miyagi’s former friend and rival, whose fight to the death philosophies are soon delivered vicariously. Okumoto gives a wonderfully conceited performance as Chozen, a character whose cowardice will ultimately be rejected by everyone (not that he fully deserves to be since his uncle, a corporate tyrant intent on destroying the local community, taught him everything he knows). Didn’t Miyagi once say there are no bad students only bad teachers? Well, here he seems to overlook that philosophy.
Like the original, the movie also identifies a symbol of strength. Here Avildsen chooses the den-den daiko, a Japanese drum with swinging beads that will provide the movie’s figurative focal point, as well as its underwhelming equivalent of the legendary crane-kick, one that leads to a wonderfully staged, yet anticlimactic finish. In late 20th century Japan, people don’t fight for belts or trophies, they fight to the death. Well, at least in Hollywood. And if you think Daniel was physically outmatched by William Zabka’s Johnny in the first movie, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the end, it is the movie’s insistence on sticking so stringently to the winning narrative formula of the first that is its biggest hindrance. Everything is on a much grander scale and is far more pleasing to the eye, but Miyagi’s narrative aside, everything comes across as a watered-down retread, which really speaks to the power of the first movie more than it does the weakness of its successor.
As expected, this was the most commercially successful entry in the franchise, and in that sense it was a job well done, sometimes beautifully, but the problem with an underdog story is that you only really get to be that underdog once. Onscreen it can be repeated to a certain extent. Avildsen’s other big franchise, Rocky, for example, kept the belt off Balboa until the sequel, but Rocky had already proven himself, and in reality Adrienne was his true prize. As for LaRusso, this time he is fighting Miyagi’s corner, but the boy has already proven himself, and for a physically outmatched character like Daniel each fight brings him closer to an emotional ten count. Miyagi, too, can only provide so much education before it becomes a little bit fickle and unnecessary. The goal of a teacher is to allow their student to spread their wings. They need shaping, but they ultimately need to forge their own identity.
Perhaps more detrimental is the movie’s ascension into the commercial stratosphere of Hollywood, whose financial philosophies fail to add any sheen to characters we connected with on a fundamental level. This is sumptuous and exotic and sublimely orchestrated. It also features a magnificent score by Bill Conti, who had turned down the chance to work on Rocky IV in favour of reuniting with Avildsen, his pan flute compositions instilling the production with a mystical grace befitting of Miyagi and his precocious pupil. Such exotic aspirations may beguile audiences brimming with expectation, but the heartwarming glow of their initial triumph is painfully absent. In Miyagi’s redemptive journey Avildsen gives us something to sink out teeth into, but the call for narrative convention regarding Daniel seems like Hollywood calling the shots, giving us a character who is running in circles rather than fleeing the nest.
It may have given audiences what they thought they craved, but an underdog movie inspires great loyalty, the kind that fighting champions very rarely receive.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut