Can a cherished underdog story really survive the inevitable sequel? VHS Revival investigates
Sequels can be a tricky prospect creatively. This is particularly true for movies that are planned as standalone features, only to be thrust back into the spotlight care of popular demand. The Karate Kid was one of those movies. 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, wowing 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 notion 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 preparations for a sequel began immediately. For producers, it’s simply a case of if something’s successful, make more of it. You’re pretty much guaranteed butts in seats based on the first film’s success, so getting your main players back on board is the primary goal. Everything else is gravy. 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 give us the prerequisite MTV tie-in, 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, exotic settings, and the kind of fictional reunion fans couldn’t wait to see.
This was great news for the honchos over at Columbia TriStar, who had stumbled onto a veritable goldmine with their relatable sleeper hit. The Karate Kid Part II raked in an incredible $115,100,000 on a budget of only $13,000,000, 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, now 25, had become the boyish dreamboat of a million teenage bedrooms, his puppy dog aura plastered on the cover of pop music magazines as our against-all-odds hero prepared for his second outing as cinema’s most unlikely ass kicker. The first movie thrived on its low-key status. Due to its humble expectations it was character driven, a simple tale which brought out the best in everyone involved and inspired lifelong relationships between cast members. It had heart, and those 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, 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, and despite 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. The sequel hardly had a huge budget, so what do you do with a low-key tale that has seemingly reached its dramatic zenith? 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 that’s exactly what Avildsen did.
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.
It made sense. As with all personal highs, there are resultant lows, and for Daniel, returning to school after the summer of a lifetime would have been like returning to your job in the local supermarket after a luxurious vacation in paradise, and, despite the fact that some stories are better left untold, there was an appeal to seeing Miyagi on home turf, to experiencing the traditions that made him such an appealing character first-hand. 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 opening is to tie up loose ends and say goodbye to life in California. Johnny and his crew of ex-Cobra Kais have learnt their lesson, and a simple retread with Kreese as the movie’s antagonist would surely have proven anticlimactic, particularly since Daniel’s whole reason for finding balance in the first place is no longer a part of the plan. The absence of sweetheart Ali is particularly jarring, and almost serves to cheapen Daniel’s initial achievements. Sure, teenage love is fickle, but her departure is so sudden and painted over it makes you wonder if a sequel was necessary for anything other than financial reasons, and that’s before we’re even ten minutes in. 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 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 glibly 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 The Karate Kid he was 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 endearingly nostalgic Miyagi becomes an extension of his evocative surroundings, or, more accurately, they become an extension of Miyagi and our expectations of him as a mystical figure. Former stand-up comedian Morita was a revelation in the original film, adding a comic touch to a performance of surprising depth and maturity. Here, he is just as impressive. The chemistry may not be on quite the same level, and the screenplay isn’t half as good on the whole, but Morita’s standalone performance is arguably even more engaging in dramatic terms. It’s no wonder the character is remembered so fondly.
Ultimately, that’s where the improvements end, though a welcome romance with tropical beauty Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), whose mystical customs provide enough of an obstacle for Daniel’s growing maturity, is beautifully realised. 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 once we’re past the first movie. A father figure he may be, but a kid like Daniel needs company his own age, and the same goes for Miyagi.
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.
As much as Avildsen attempts to distance himself from the original aesthetically, thematically it is all very much the same. Once again Daniel is forced into battle, and once again Miyagi will train him, though the wax on, wax off subtleties are replaced by a series of elegant, yet rushed sequences that leave Daniel’s journey feeling much less earned this time around. Miyagi’s personal issues aside, The Karate Kid Part II gives us a play-by-play rehash of the original with that touch of added bravado inherent in sequels, the sight of LaRusso chopping through several blocks of ice just a step too far from a moral standpoint. It’s one thing overcoming the odds using the very basics, but to tread superhuman territory only months later detracts from the Miyagi ethos. It smacks of fighting for the sake of it.
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, and somehow gets a pass at the end of it all. Didn’t Miyagi once say there are no bad students, only bad teachers? That philosophy is spuriously overlooked here.
Like the original, the movie also identifies a symbol of strength. Instead of the bonsai tree, we get the den-den daiko, a Japanese drum with swinging beads that will provide the movie’s figurative focal point, as well as an underwhelming equivalent of the legendary crane-kick, a gimmicky crowd-pleaser that is central to a visually lush, yet deflatingly anticlimactic final battle. In late 20th century Japan, people don’t fight for belts or trophies, they fight to the death ― at least in Hollywood ― and if you think Daniel was physically outmatched by William Zabka’s high-kicking Johnny in the first movie, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Ultimately, it’s the movie’s insistence on sticking so stringently to the winning formula of the first that proves its biggest hindrance. Everything is on a much grander scale, and is far more pleasing to the eye, but we’ve been here before, and it was much more fulfilling the first time around.
As expected, The Karate Kid Part II was the most commercially successful entry in the original franchise (the 2010 reboot managed a whopping $359,100,000), and in that sense it was a job well done, but the problem with an underdog story is you only get to tell it 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 the Italian Stallion had already proven himself more than he ever could, 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 each fight brings him closer to an emotional ten count. Miyagi, too, can only provide so much education before it becomes just 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 quite organically on a fundamental level. The Karate Kid Part II is sumptuous and graceful 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. The sequel’s aesthetics are beguiling enough first time around, the prospect of journeying with Miyagi to his homeland enough of a narrative draw, but the heartwarming glow of the duo’s initial triumph is painfully absent. In Miyagi’s redemptive journey, Avildsen gives us something to sink our teeth into, but an insistence on repetition seems like Hollywood calling the shots, and in Daniel they offer us a character who is flying in circles rather than soaring majestically. The Karate Kid Part II may have given audiences what they thought they craved, but an underdog movie inspires great loyalty, the kind that fighting champions rarely receive.