Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 1984. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Delphi II Productions. Screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen, based on his characters. Cinematography by James Crabe. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. Music by Bill Conti. Production Design by William J. Cassidy. Costume Design by Richard Bruno, Aida Swinson. Film Editing by John G. Avildsen, Walt Mulconery, Bud S. Smith. Academy Awards 1984. Golden Globe Awards 1984.
Eight years after Rocky brought him critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Director, John Avildsen returns to the underdog formula with equally enjoyable results. Ralph Macchio is wonderful as a Brooklyn kid whose mother transplants the two of them to California for work, rendering him alone in a school with mean, preppy bullies. His only salvation is that an adorable California blond (Elisabeth Shue) likes him a lot, but her ex-boyfriend is Macchio’s number one attacker and a member of the local karate school that he was hoping to join. That plan foiled, our young hero soon finds himself under the wing of the cantankerous fix-it man who works at his apartment building (Pat Morita), who turns out to also be a masterful karate teacher who gives our little hero lessons in self-defense both physically and spiritually (“Wax on, wax off!”). The formula has been repeated a billion times since, and rarely this well; this film has everything going for it, particularly in how likable the characters are (Macchio’s is polite and openhearted but not uncomplicated, while Shue is just the right level of quirky without being annoying) and how well they are performed by the top flight cast. Morita is a particular standout, employing his excellent skills as a comedian but giving the character a lot of subtle, emotional depth that never shows on the surface. It’s wonderful right to the very exciting end.