Here’s a real kick in the head: It’s been 35 years since Columbia Studios released The Karate Kid. Fathom Events is marking the anniversary by bringing the 1984 classic back to the big screen Sunday and this Tuesday at more than 600 theaters nationwide. The special screenings are more than memory-lane matinees, they will be accompanied by a Season 2 preview of Cobra Kai, the acclaimed YouTube hit series (50 million views) that rekindles the Reagan Era rivalry between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and pulls a second generation into the All Valley Championships grudge match.
The Cobra Kai success has been a pleasant surprise for Macchio, now 57, but then again role of Daniel LaRusso has never really faded from his day-to-day life. Asked, for instance, how often fans approach him and reenact LaRusso’s fighting stance — the loose-limbed, one-legged “crane kick” pose — Macchio estimated that it might be three or four times a week. “It’s unusual to go more than a day without it happening,” the actor said, “Unless I just stay at home and don’t go out in public.” Considering the fact that 1,814 weeks have passed since The Karate Kid was released, that’s a staggering number of unbalanced strangers for one person to encounter.
“It’s crazy, I know, but It’s part of the whole thing with The Karate Kid — it’s fascinating what has happened with that film from its inception to today,” Macchio told Deadline. “With the Cobra Kai series having re-birthed interest in that universe, it’s constantly open world and a part of my life.”
Deadline caught up Macchio to talk about Cobra Kai, the anniversary, the film classics of the 1980s, and the only circumstances in which he will strike the crane-kick pose himself. First a bit of background about the original film, which was the fifth-highest grossing film of 1984.
Has there every been a better-buttered year for popcorn films than 1984? Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Splash, The Terminator, Footloose, Sixteen Candles, Gremlins, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Romancing the Stone, Red Dawn, Police Academy, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Revenge of the Nerds, and The Flamingo Kid all took turns at the box office but none are more beloved than The Karate Kid.
“The film and the character just struck a chord back in the day,” Macchio says. “Daniel LaRusso, he was every kid next door. I think that’s part of what connected. He had no business winning anything, so we all could be that kid. We all were that kid who was navigating adolescences, that kid who might have felt like the outsider in a new town, the fish-out-of-water, the child of a single parent, or was bullied…all these things that we all brush up against as we navigate adolescence. They’re very human elements to life and I think that’s part of what worked with that character and why he became such an inspirational character and why the movie caught on.”
The Karate Kid was produced by Jerry Weintraub and directed by John G. Avildsen, who had won an Oscar for Rocky (1976). The script was by Robert Mark Kamen, who later became the go-to script collaborator for Luc Besson (the prolific pair have penned The Fifth Element, three Taken movies, and four installments in The Transporter franchise). The Karate Kid resonated as a generational story thanks to the heartfelt scenes between young Macchio and veteran actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who portrayed the wise Mr. Miyagi, earning both an Oscar and a Golden Globe nomination for the memorable work. Elisabeth Shue would wait another decade for her own Academy Award nomination (which arrived in 1996 for Leaving Las Vegas) but she made her feature-film debut in The Karate Kid as Ali Mills, Daniel’s love interest and Johnny’s ex-girlfriend.
“It was a very good script and very well-executed movie but that’s not to underplay the impact of the cast,” Macchio said. “A huge contributing factor was, certainly, the late, great Pat Morita in that iconic role of Mr. Miyagi, the human Yoda we all wished we had. All of these elements came together and it just worked the right way at the right time as the perfect feel-good movie about overcoming obstacles.”
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is synching up with the 35th anniversary and the synergistic success of Cobra Kai with the April 16 release of an all-new 4K Ultra HD edition of The Karate Kid. Extras include “Remembering The Karate Kid,” featuring new interviews with Macchio, Zabka, and Martin Kove.
The film’s basic story is about a New Jersey kid (Macchio) transplanted to the San Fernando Valley where he becomes the target of Cobra Kai, a vicious gang of karate-school bullies. An elderly handyman (Morita) intercedes and, to everyone’s shock, is secretly a martial arts master. Will his life lessons and combat tutoring help his overmatched new friend survive a no-holds-barred tournament for the teen karate championship of the Valley?
The film made $91 million at the box office and Weintraub, Avildsen, Macchio, and Morita all returned for the 1986 sequel (which made $115 million at the box office) and another in 1989 ($39 million in box office). The same team minus Macchio reunited for 1989’s fourth installment, The Next Karate Kid (just $9 million in box office) featuring Hilary Swank in the tutored title role. Sony’s Columbia Studios and Weintraub brought the brand name back for a whole new generation in 2010 with The Karate Kid (starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan), which made $359 million worldwide. Every iteration was an attempt to recapture the original film’s crowd-pleasing triumphs.
“The film had a little soulful magic sprinkled on it and it was based in very human elements,” Macchio says. “But then since then? It’s become this pop-culture thing that with all the quotes from the movie, all that “Sweep the leg” and “Get him a body-bag,” and, you know, “Wax-on, wax-off,” and the crane kick stuff and all it. That’s become a campy pop-culture thing but it still resonates now, and here it is 35 years later. That’s the ridiculous and terrific part.”
Adding to the legacy is Cobra Kai, which return this spring on YouTube Premium. The series was spotlighted today at WonderCon with panel that included Zabka and series creators Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), Jon Hurwitz (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle).
The set-up synopsis for Season 2: “A new rivalry between opposing dojos is born in the aftermath of Cobra Kai’s controversial win at the All Valley Championships. Daniel realizes his next countermove is to open his own karate training school called Miyagi-Do, in honor of his mentor Mr. Miyagi. What was once a personal feud between Daniel and Johnny escalates beyond their differences to engulf their students, who, as teenagers, are already challenged to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Which path will they follow – Cobra Kai or Miyagi-Do?”
Macchio says Cobra Kai is “a show that’s got a different sort of angle and a different sort of feel but still connects to the universe and the nostalgia of what we did back in the ’80s.”
The 1980s produced so many memorable teenager movies and teenage characters: Ferris Bueller, the Breakfast Club, Risky Business, Footloose, Say Anything, Sicteen Candles, etc. Films today may have young characters but they rarely have as much heart as they did in the Benatar years. When that observation was offered to Macchio he agreed.
“That’s a great observation,” Macchio said. “They don’t have the heart. It’s an interesting perspective. I wonder if it started with the internet and the ability [to watch] viral videos of reality and real things in the palm of our hands. That certainly, for a while at least, killed the sit-coms because nobody was buying the, ‘Hi honey I’m home’ concept, because they said that’s fake, and I can get ‘real’ right in front of me. Why would I want to watch fake? But that said, to me, if [a scripted project is] something well-executed, well-written, with characters that are well-defined and with flaws, and there’s an element of wish fulfillment or an aspirational element? That will always work. There’s certainly less younger protagonists in stories now unless they are facing a drug addiction problem or harsh realities. The Karate Kid was remade in 2010, but you wonder if that [kind of story] would have been be going directly to a television cable channel instead of a major motion picture if the the brand didn’t have the history that it has.”
Macchio said television is the home of heartfelt youth characters and bittersweet coming-of-age stories. Why did they leave the big screen and roost over on the small screen? Some factors might be budget pressures, time constraints, and the allure of special effects, which reserve the big screen for spectacle epics more than emotional journeys.
“These are great topics,” Macchio said. “I mean, because you wonder why those characters exist less, certainly, in movies. You can find them in television because you have the ability to let characters breath and you don’t just have to pack the plot into a two-hour format. That’s part of what we do with Cobra Kai and sort of delving into grey areas, whereas, The Karate Kid film was so distinctively black and white, good over evil. The grey areas help that show define itself but still make a play on all of that nostalgia. But I miss those movies from the 1980s. I think they’re popular still because people harken back to that and it’s a comfort food for us. It’s nice to share with this new generation and this generation enjoys Ferris Bueller, Marty McFly and John Hughes films and those characters of that time. I think that’s part of why the Cobra Kai resurgence is embraced. If can find a smart way and a smart angle to re-enter that kind of universe and yet also make it relevant for today? Then you have the chance of multiple chapters moving forward.”
Macchio is glad to have Daniel back as a presence in his professional life. He concedes he doubted that it would ever happen, not that there weren’t plenty of chances.
‘I said, no, to any kind of Karate Kid reboot or sequel concept for 30 years just because, one, they were uninteresting and, two, I thought the timing was wrong and I was really trying to distance myself to a point. I never tried to distance myself for the movie to say ‘I’m not going to talk about it.’ Those actors that say that? That makes no sense to me.
I have gone up and down as far as me embracing all of it, but now, you know, it’s just, it would just be foolish not to stand proud and embrace it. And that’s certainly the case now with this Cobra Kai being so successful from the critical standpoint and how it stands with the fans as well.”
Speaking of fans standing, does Macchio think there’s a chance that he has watched more people stand on one foot than anyone else in human history? “Yes, I probably have, that’s fair. That’s fair. Yes, I’ve had more people, including some last night. I was at a hockey game in New York, I’m a sports fan of my town, and when they put me up on the Jumbotron people were doing their version of the crane kick. Some were asking me to be in photos with them, side-by-side in the shot, but I always tell them no. I voraciously tell them no. The only time I ever do it is when I visit military bases.When the Navy Seals ask you to do the crane? You say, ‘Yes, Sensei,’ you know what I mean? But anybody else? They have to just envision it in their own mind or go watch the movie again.”