Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Problem With: "The Karate Kid" Trilogy

I've never identified with a fictional character more than I have with Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio in three Karate Kid movies.

As a child, I could relate to Daniel on so many levels. I was a dark-haired skinny boy from the Northeast. I hated to wax floors and paint fences. And I was bullied by teens trained by a merciless Vietnam War vet. The John Kreese character was very real in the 1980s, believe me.

Daniel, to his credit, had the courage to stand up to his tormentors in the most sensible and admirable way possible: by submitting himself completely to an aging handyman he'd just met.

After I watched The Karate Kid for the first time, it sparked an interest in me to learn karate. My parents took me to the local dojo, which, much to my chagrin, was run by a middle-aged white man. He asked me if I was ready to train in the martial arts. The following conversation ensued:

"Not with you, I'm not. Do you have any Japanese-born senseis here? Preferably one who finds joy in fixing cars, raising bonsai trees and catching flies with chopsticks?"

"We don't, but I assure you I'm highly qualified to teach you all of the skills you need to master the art of kah-rah-tay."

"Nice try, but I know you don't really say 'karate' that way. Let me ask you this: Have you ever visited Okinawa?"

"No, I haven't."

"Mom, Dad, let's go. This guy is wasting our time."

Oh, there was one more similarity between Daniel and myself, by the time I was a teenager: We both failed at relationships. Repeatedly. 

In The Karate Kid, he was romantically involved with Ali, an ex-girlfriend of his nemesis Johnny. She took Daniel's side in his feud with the Cobra Kai, supported him in the All-Valley Karate Tournament, and helpfully popped the clutch when his mom's station wagon wouldn't start on their first date. I assumed their love would last forever.

But no! We learned at the beginning of The Karate Kid, Part II that Ali dumped him for a college football player at UCLA. Daniel, apparently, let her go without a fight. That was a mistake. He was a karate champion; he couldn't have challenged the football player and taken him out with a crane kick? Seems like the obvious move to me.

Quick sidebar: If you were a fictional male UCLA student in the mid- to late 1980s or early '90s, chances are you were a jerk who would steal someone's girlfriend without giving it a second thought. Just ask Zack Morris.

Daniel was on the rebound when he flew with Mr. Miyagi to Okinawa in The Karate Kid, Part II. There, he fell for Kumiko; she was held hostage by an incredibly insecure bad guy, Chozen, but Daniel vanquished him in a high-stakes battle in front of her entire village. Now that's true love.

At least I thought so. Not Kumiko. Rather than follow Daniel to California at the start of the third movie, she decided to accept a job with a dance company in Tokyo. Good luck finding another man who will duel to the death for you, Kumiko.

A half-hour or so into The Karate Kid, Part III, it became clear that Daniel was not meant to have a steady girlfriend. He met a pottery store employee, Jessica -- he was set up by Mr. Miyagi, because at this point in his life he couldn't do anything right without Mr. Miyagi's help -- but it turned out she had a boyfriend back in Ohio and wanted to work things out with him. I didn't believe her story. I thought she made it up. She likely recognized there was no future in a lovelorn loser who tossed away his college tuition twice in less than a year -- first on a roundtrip ticket to Japan, and then on a bonsai tree shop.

I'm not sure there has been a movie hero who was more lonely than Daniel. He concluded his trilogy with one old friend and more than a dozen enemies and exes, including John Kreese and his Cobra Kai students, Ali, Chozen, Kumiko, Terry Silver and Mike Barnes. And Freddy.

Freddy really set the tone for how much disappointment Daniel would suffer during the three Karate Kid movies. To refresh your memory, Freddy lived in the same apartment complex with Daniel, and they hit it off immediately. Freddy invited him to join him at the beach, and it was there that Daniel met Ali for the first time, was attacked by Johnny for the first time, and hung out with Freddy for the last time. A disgusted Freddy left a physically and mentally defeated Daniel lying in the sand. He walked away as one of his pals wondered, "Where'd you find this guy?"

Daniel made and lost a friend in the span of, what, 48 hours? That's Daniel LaRusso in a nutshell.

Freddy did make a brief appearance at the end of The Karate Kid, cheering Daniel's victory in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. Too little, too late, Freddy. Daniel no longer requires your friendship. He has Mr. Miyagi and an oversized trophy now.

Freddy was a phony, a despicable character, in my view -- so despicable that I still think he would have made an excellent foil for Daniel in the third movie. It would have brought the story full circle, you know?

What if, at the start of The Karate Kid, Part III, Freddy fell into a vat of Terry Silver's toxic waste and transformed into some sort of super-villain? And now he was a twisted soul who suffered terrible flashbacks to that day, one year earlier, when Daniel embarrassed him in front of his friends at the beach? And he vowed to make Daniel miserable for the rest of his life unless he agreed to defend his title against him in the All-Valley Karate Tournament?

And what if Freddy was a student at UCLA? He would have been the ultimate Karate Kid villain.