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The Karate Kid

It's hard to believe it's 35 years since the American martial arts movie, The Karate Kid, became a massive cinema hit, thanks to its excellent choreography and emotive storyline. As one of the biggest successes of 1984, the film grossed $91 million at the box office worldwide.

It mixed genuine martial arts action with poignant sub-plots and believable characters, which delighted both the fans and the critics. It made a global star of New York-born actor Ralph Macchio, who was actually 23 when he won the role of 17-year-old Daniel La Russo.

Macchio had played minor roles in two earlier films, Up the Academy in 1980 and The Outsiders in 1983, but he was largely unknown. All that changed when he successfully auditioned to play La Russo, a teenager who was bullied mercilessly by a gang using a vicious and unethical form of karate.


Bullying plot

Made on a budget of $8 million by Columbia Pictures, the film was released in June 1984. Macchio rocketed to superstardom, as his character fell victim to bullies after he befriended high school cheerleader, Ali Mills, who was the ex-girlfriend of gang leader Johnny Lawrence - a student of the "Cobra Kai" karate school.

La Russo was helpless against their attacks, until he was savagely beaten up on Halloween. Completely out of the blue, the seemingly mild-mannered janitor, Mr Miyagi, intervenes and single-handedly defeats Lawrence and his cohorts.

It turns out that the janitor, played by American actor Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, is a karate expert. La Russo is amazed and impressed by his skills and is desperate to learn karate himself. Initially, Miyagi refuses to teach him, but instead agrees to meet the Cobra Kai's sensei, Vietnam war veteran John Kreese, to try and resolve the conflict.

Kreese, however, is as obnoxious as his students, laughing at Miyagi's attempts to bring peace. Miyagi then tries a different approach and suggests to Kreese that La Russo will compete against the Cobra Kai students on equal terms at the All-Valley Karate Championships.

The two parties reach an uneasy truce when Kreese agrees that the bullying will cease while the youths train for the tournament. However, he issues a threat that if La Russo fails to turn up and compete, both he and Miyagi will be hassled in future.


Close bond

During the intensive training regime, La Russo and Miyagi, a Japanese immigrant, get to know each other better. Miyagi reveals his rather tragic life story. The janitor was a veteran of World War II, when he served with the 442nd Infantry Regiment.

While he was serving in Europe, his pregnant wife was incarcerated at the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese Americans in California. She died in childbirth, as did their new-born son. After the war, Miyagi received the Medal of Honour, but had kept a low profile, living a solitary life following the tragedies of the war.

Miyagi and La Russo develop a close bond during the training sessions and become friends. Miyagi teaches him life lessons, as well as karate. The teenager uses the life lessons to develop and improve his fledgling relationship with Ali.


Karate tournament

When the karate tournament finally arrives, La Russo and his nemesis, Lawrence, are evenly matched and neither can beat the other. Then, La Russo injures his leg quite badly and it appears he isn't going to be able to carry on.

He knows the bullying will never stop if he retires hurt, so he returns after having painkilling treatment to continue the fight with Lawrence. Once more, neither of them can win an advantage, but eventually, La Russo performs a difficult "Crane" technique that he has seen Miyagi practice on the beach. The Crane was invented especially for The Karate Kid.

La Russo defeats Lawrence, who has a new-found respect for his former foe, presenting the winner's trophy to him. La Russo becomes a hero and is carried shoulder-high by the enthusiastic crowd.



The relationship between La Russo and Miyagi was one of the key plots of the film - yet ironically, the studio hadn't wanted Morita to play the role. He had found fame on TV in the comedy series, Happy Days, playing cafe owner Arnold. It was felt his comedy persona wasn't right for the serious role of a martial arts sensei.

The studio wanted Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, the star of martial arts films such as Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. However, it transpired he didn't speak English, so the role went to Miyagi after he changed his appearance by growing a beard and altered his accent by copying the way his uncle spoke.

A number of young actors were considered for the role of La Russo, including Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr, Emilio Estevez, Eric Stoltz and Nicolas Cage, but Macchio was chosen on the strength of his performance in The Outsiders.


True story

The film was semi-autobiographical, based on the early life of its screenwriter, Robert Kamen. At the age of 12, in 1964, he had been bullied and beaten up by a gang. He vowed it would never happen again and he began to study martial arts to defend himself. He learned Okinawan Gōjū-ryū karate under a Japanese teacher.

Already a renowned Hollywood scriptwriter, Kamen learned that producer Jerry Weintraub was looking to make a film, based on a true story that had featured in the news. The young son of a single mother had earned a black belt in karate to defend himself against neighbourhood bullies.

Kamen combined his own experiences in his youth with the true story of the boy who featured in the news to come up with The Karate Kid. The script meant the lead characters had to train until they were at peak fitness and learn karate moves, so they could play their roles in an authentic manner.


Intensive training

None of the actors knew any karate before the film, so in particular, Macchio had to complete an intense training regime. They had a talented trainer called Pat Johnson, a professional in martial arts and combat skills.

A friend of martial arts supremo Chuck Norris and also a war veteran, Johnson made them put in some intensive training sessions. He had studied Tang Soo when serving in Korea. On his return to the United States, he met Norris and worked at his martial arts schools.

During the training sessions, every care was taken to ensure the actors weren't injured, including using the relevant safety equipment, such as rubber matting on the floor. Karate training takes place in a school known as a "dojo", where the self-defence techniques are learned with the utmost care and precision. However, during one of the fight scenes in the film, the actors got carried away, according to an article in Sports Illustrated, putting in some fight moves that weren't scripted.

It was reported that Macchio was accidentally kicked in the head by actor William Zabka, who played Lawrence, during some filming late at night. It wasn't scripted to work out that way, but luckily, the young actor didn't sustain any serious injury. However, as a precaution, some stunt doubles were brought in after that for some of the more complex and dangerous moves, despite Machchio's hard work in learning karate himself.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe and was also said to be responsible for a generation of kids feeling they could stand up to bullies, after being inspired by La Russo's fight-back.


Karate Kid remake

In 2010, a new version of The Karate Kid was made, starring Will Smith’s son, Jaden Smith, in the role made famous by Macchio in the original, although he was renamed Dre Parker in the remake. Jackie Chan played his martial arts tutor, who was known as Mr Han. Jaden Smith was only 12 when he played the title role.

Producer Will Smith had reportedly fashioned the new film as a vehicle for his son. It was reported that in just two months, Jaden had trained so hard to learn martial arts, exhibiting such great talent, that he was ready to perform all his own stunts. He trained under Chan's stunt co-ordinator, who was impressed with his moves.

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the release of the original movie, The Karate Kid is being shown on television on Monday 10th June, when it will be screened on the Sky Movies Action and Adventure channel at 8pm.

When you practice karate, or any other martial arts, always use the correct safety equipment. Coruba's high-quality range of rubber gym mats promote safety in a gym environment. Please contact us for further information on our quality range of studio rubber matting.

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