In 1984, John G Avildsen’s The Karate Kid got a lot of people interested in karate and taught a generation things like discipline, perseverance, and self-defense. In 2010, Harald Zwart remade the movie with a modern update, teaching a new generation that “the best fights are the ones we avoid” and “there are no bad students, only bad teachers.” There are some major similarities and some significant differences between the two films, but they both have a message about not giving up on your dreams, choosing to get back up when life knocks you down.
IN THIS CORNER
In the 1984 film, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his single mom Lucille (Randee Heller) have moved from Newark to California. Daniel meets maintenance man Mr Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) in his apartment building, then goes to a beach party, where he meets love interest Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), his rival in love as well as in karate. Johnny gives Daniel a black eye. Later, Daniel and Ali hit it off at school soccer practice. Miyagi sees Daniel practicing karate, and asks about his black eye. Daniel stumbles upon the Cobra Kai dojo, where he sees the group’s “no mercy” philosophy and militaristic behavior.
Upset about moving and getting bullied, Daniel trashes his bike, but later finds that Mr Miyagi fixed it. They bond over time and develop a sort of father/son relationship (I could tell that’s where it was headed by 35 minutes into the 2:03:00 film). Daniel pranks Johnny; Johnny and his crew beat Daniel up, the crew calling Johnny out on pushing it too far, but Mr Miyagi comes in and kicks butt. Daniel asks Miyagi to teach him karate, but Miyagi says that karate isn’t for revenge. They go to Johnny’s karate Sensei (teacher) and ask the Cobra Kai students to leave Daniel alone, cutting a deal that Daniel will be left alone until the karate tournament.
They train at Miyagi’s house, with Miyagi having Daniel wash & wax his classic cars, sand the floor/deck, and paint the fence and the house in carefully-instructed movements, then practice balancing.
Daniel and Ali go out on a fun date Saturday night.
Daniel finds Miyagi singing Japanese blues and drinking for the anniversary of his wife and son’s death. Miyagi falls asleep and Daniel tucks him into bed. Daniel trains on his own; Miyagi teaches him how to punch, then celebrates Daniel’s birthday with him, giving him a karate gi Mrs. Miyagi had made and his choice of Mr. Miyagi’s cars.
Daniel had seen Johnny kiss Ali at a country club dance, but Ali’s friend says that he missed the part where she punched him. Daniel apologizes for assuming that Ali’d only dated him to make Johnny jealous.
At the tournament, Daniel and the Cobra Kai team make it to the semi-finals. Johnny’s Sensei orders one of his students to break Daniel’s leg. Miyagi temporarily heals it with an unexplained magic touch, then Johnny’s Sensei says to hit it again. Daniel wins the tournament, and Johnny personally hands him the karate trophy.
AND IN THIS CORNER
In the 2010 film, 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith)’s dad died just after his 9th birthday. He & his mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) are traveling to China, Sherry saying, “it’s like we’re brave pioneers on a quest to start a new life in a magical new land.”
Dre gets a crush on a Chinese girl named Meiying (Wenwen Han). Local school bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) insists she practice violin instead of chatting with Dre, and Dre and him get into a fight. Dre gets whooped.
Dre gets picked on by kids at his new school in Beijing. He’s pretty isolated, and bottles in his unhappiness. The maintenance man Mr Han (Jackie Chan) sees how unhappy Dre is in China, rescues him from the bullies and makes a deal with their teacher Mr Li—they’ll leave Dre alone until the upcoming kung fu tournament—then offers to teach Dre “real kung fu” by having him take off & put on his jacket, throw it on the ground & pick it up—he says that “Kung fu lives in everything we do ... how we put on the jacket, how we pick up the jacket, and lives in how we treat people. Everything is Kung fu.”
Dre meets up with Meiying at the Shi-Shi festival (Chinese Valentine’s Day) and gives her a CD of violin music.
Dre & Han climb a mountain of stairs to reach a temple and drink from the fabled “Dragon Well” for a folklore-inspired confidence boost.
Meiying’s worried she won’t get accepted in to the Beijing Academy of Music, which would disappoint her family. Dre takes her out on a break from violin practice, which upsets her parents.
Dre finds Mr Han smashing up his car—he feels guilty over the car crash that killed his wife and son, and does this every year on the anniversary of their deaths.
Dre makes up with Meiying’s dad, and he lets her go to Dre’s tournament. Dre does pretty good until the semi-finals, when Mr Li orders his students to break his leg. Dre goes back to fight in the next round, getting back up even when knocked out of the ring. He wins the semi-finals, and Mr Li’s students bow to Mr Han.
Miyagi isn’t very mystical, but Han comes off as even less so since he’s not the only Chinese character in the movie. Han’s fire cup healing had more visual flair than Miyagi’s hand-rubbing. Dre has a more believable reason for the “I hate it here!” outburst than Daniel, since he has to deal with moving to a completely different country with linguistic and cultural barriers at a younger age. It was an interesting change that the martial arts basics came from Han observing Dre’s natural jacket-fu, compared to Mr Miyagi’s instructing Daniel in chore-fu.
Even with his leg broken, Daniel still wants to fight in the tournament. Even after Miyagi tells him he proved a point, he says he won’t have “balance” if he quits. True, he nearly quits after a while of doing what seems to be unpaid household labor, but nearly quitting isn't the same as actually quitting (he starts walking away, but Miyagi shows him that the training ingrained muscle memory for some karate blocks). Pretty much the same thing happens in the remake, except Dre says that “No matter what happens, tonight when I leave, I don’t wanna be scared anymore.” in addition to the “balance” comment.
There’s a bit of cross-cultural stuff in both films (Daniel and Ali are from different states & social classes within the same country), but it’s easier to see in the 2010 remake—early on, Dre assumes an Asian man and Meiying don’t speak English, and Meiying asks if she can touch Dre’s hair (the bullies do the same, but mockingly). Dre tells his mom, “it’s China, Mom. Everybody knows kung fu.” He claps at Meiying’s audition, whereas everyone else stays silent. Meiying’s mom says Dre’s a bad influence for taking Meiying on a day off violin practice.
The “wise Asian martial arts guy with inexplicable healing powers” trope would probably be called problematic if The Karate Kid were made today, but it seemed fine to me (especially since Miyagi/Han was a handyman as opposed to a monk or something). Miyagi has some good quotes about balance and certainty, like “Walk on road. Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later you get squished, just like grape.” Han has good quotes too, like “Win or lose, doesn’t matter. Fight hard,” and “Life will knock us down, but we can choose whether or not to get back up.”
AND THE WINNER IS...
I give The Karate Kid (1984) 5/5 for Macchio and Morita’s great chemistry, 3/5 for the cinematography, 4/5 for the story (I saw the general “underdog beats rival, wins love interest’s heart” ending coming a mile away, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable), and 4/5 for the fight choreography.
The 2010 remake gets a 4.5/5 for the chemistry between Smith and Chan (I feel like Daniel and Miyagi have a bit more chemistry than Dre and Han), 5/5 for the cinematography (especially the “Dragon Well” scene. The whole film feels more...well, cinematic than the original), 4/5 for the story (Mr Han’s guilt about the car crash came out of left field, in my opinion, but the addition of Chinese culture and beliefs was nice), and 5/5 for the fight choreography (I liked the faster pace).
To sum up, I’d say that if you’d like a movie with a good “don’t give up on your dreams” message, it’s no contest—either Karate Kid will hit the mark.