The Karate Kid
This must be the anniversary 4K HDR re-release film season, since, after doing recent reviews of the 30-year-anniversary release of Field of Dreams, followed by the 40-year-anniversary release of Alien, this review finds us right in the middle with a 35-year-anniversary release of The Karate Kid. While a classic film, one has to wonder if KK benefitted from the recent Cobra Kai series on You Tube Red, introducing a whole new generation to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and the “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy” Cobra Kai dojo?
Either way, we benefit from The Karate Kid looking its best in a 4K HDR release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The film has been fully restored from the original 35mm camera negative. As is common on many recent re-issues, KK also includes a newly mixed Dolby Atmos audio track.
I was 14 when KK was released, and can remember seeing it in the theater. Being close to Daniel’s age (well, at least thinking I was close in age; Ralph Macchio was actually an incredibly baby-faced 23 at the time of playing the high-school senior), it was easy to identify with and root for this underdog who discovers an unlikely mentor in building handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), who slyly teaches Daniel karate in order to confront the gang of Cobra Kai bullies led by Johnny and evil Sensei Kreese (Martin Kove).
I didn’t realize until writing this review that KK’s director, John Avildsen, also directed another famous underdog-battles-the-odds movie, Rocky, but there are actually many similarities between the stories and styles. Also, the fighters were all trained by Pat. E Johnson, a 9th-degree black belt, who also choreographed the fight scenes, and whose actual knowledge and love of karate and tournament fighting definitely added some legitimacy and authenticity to the fighting styles and techniques.
Where karate films prior to KK mostly focused on fighting, and featured accomplished real-life fighters like Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee taking on hordes of attackers with nothing but fists and feet flying, KK was different in that it positioned karate as a tool to avoid fighting, and examined the spiritual aspect. This was possible only because of Norita’s fantastic portrayal of Miyagi, in a role that earned him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination. (He lost to Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields.) His performance—and timeless wisdom—definitely hold up, and the relationship between Miyagi and Daniel is the heart and soul of this film. And watching Miyagi, you believe that you could learn to defend yourself by a little waxing, sanding, and painting.
Of course, the reality is likely far different, as lampooned in a recent Modern Family episode.
“This Daniel dude is about to get his ass kicked. He’s had no real training. You gotta do push-ups, cardio . . . Waxing a car? That’s how we haze the probies at the firehouse. The old dude has no idea what he’s talking about.”
“Yeah, why is the kid still listening to that crazy old man? It seems like he’s just using him to do chores.”
Time has not been as kind to Macchio’s Daniel, who often comes across as whiny—a bit like how we choose to forget how Luke acted with Uncle Owen on the moisture farm in Star Wars . . . Also, it’s tough to imagine a seasoned karate champion like Cobra Kai Sensei Kreese openly threatening to attack a young boy and old man, but this film uses no grey strokes when painting its villains.
Visually, The Karate Kid is a bit of a mixed bag. Many scenes look terrific, but other scenes exhibit a fairly significant amount of grain and noise. As the movie opens with Daniel and his mom driving from New Jersey to California, there is so much grain in the daytime sky scenes, I stopped the film and checked to ensure I was actually watching the 4K version. The grain was also noticeable in other outdoor day scenes, such as when Miyagi is practicing the Crane technique at the ocean.
The night scenes generally looked far less noisy, exhibiting clean, dark blacks. The scene with Daniel and Ali (Elizabeth Shue) at the mini-golf course looked especially good, with the HDR highlights used to good effect. HDR is also used effectively in the scene where Daniel is practicing balance on a boat on the water, with the bright
sunlight highlights contrasting nicely with the black shadows. The tournament fight scenes also benefit here, along with colors that are rich and vibrant, especially the canary yellow Chevy convertible that Miyagi gives Daniel.
Fine detail is revealed in closeups. There were a few scenes of Ali’s sweaters where you could see individual threads; same with Miyagi’s bonsai trees, where single needles are visible. This level of detail reveals just a bit too much during the scene where Miyagi and Daniel try to catch a fly with chopsticks, and the wire used to move the fly is clearly visible.
Sonically, the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack is used sparingly but effectively. Many scenes, such as at the school, tournament, and arcade, benefit from increased spaciousness and ambience. There are some effective hard-pans, such as when we first enter the Cobra Kai dojo and hear Sensei barking orders well off to the side, or when they’re harassing Daniel on motorbikes. Bill Conti’s score is also mixed wide and high, letting the music stand out nicely in key scenes. Don’t expect a lot of low bass here, but dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout.
The Karate Kid is one of those films you can revisit and share with new viewers. I watched it with my 12-year-old, and am pleased to say she enjoyed it as much as I did. And the scene where all of Miyagi’s training finally clicks with Daniel is still as great and powerful today as it was 35 years ago. At just $17.99 from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, this is an easy recommendation for any collection.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.