35 Years Ago: ‘Karate Kid II’ Honors Original Style and Substance
Daniel LaRusso has been pummeled into a bloody mess. The latest suave-and-sleazy bully looking to win honor by inflicting pain on Daniel, The Karate Kid Part II’s Chozen Toguchi has punched, kicked, choked and chopped Ralph Macchio’s character to within an inch of his life – or at least an inch of his dignity. Chozen has even made Daniel’s signature crane kick look pathetic, downright dorky.
Of course, this is the legendary Daniel-san we’re talking about. (With apologies to Crossroads fans, it Macchio’s one iconic role.) So naturally, Daniel battles his way back. Finally, he can be found holding Chozen’s blood-soaked head in his hand, ready to karate chop him into oblivion. Daniel asks, “Live or die, man?” and Chozen chooses ... death!
What does Daniel do? How does The Karate Kid Part II end? The wisdom and dignity of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) would guide the way.
Daniel might be the hero that we’re dreaming of, but Miyagi and his code run counter to Peter Cetera’s lyrics in “Glory of Love,” the Academy Award-nominated theme song, No. 1 hit, and staple of 1986 mix tapes. Miyagi is not the man who will fight for honor. He’ll live forever knowing that “karate for defense only.”
The original Karate Kid, released in 1984, became an era-defining film. Screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen took a little bit of his own history, a little bit of Rocky, and the ’80s teen-film template and constructed a hybrid of action, comedy, and coming-of-age drama. Japanese immigrant Mr. Miyagi tutors the struggling California newcomer Daniel in the ways of karate and life. Made with unknowns for under $10 million, The Karate Kid went on to make 10 times its budget, earn Morita an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and then spawned three sequels, a remake, an animated series, the idea for a Broadway show and Netflix’s Cobra Kai.
Watch the Official Trailer for 'Karate Kid II'
Dubbed the Miyagi-verse, the franchise has given us some shocking successes (Cobra Kai uses nostalgia to demonstrate which ’80s values persist and which have become antiquated) and epic failures (it’s frankly impossible to put into words how bad The Karate Kid Part III is). Columbia Pictures greenlit this sequel just weeks after the release of the first film, giving birth to it all.
Premiering on June 20, 1986, Part II would return $115 million on a $13 million budget, outpacing the original while earning the No. 3 spot on the year. It did this by repeating not just the formula but the tone of the first film. Part II retains the charm, aesthetic and heart of the original film, while carrying the story along logically.
Part II begins exactly where Part I left off. The film opens in the parking lot, minutes after the climax of the first film where Daniel used that glorious crane kick to win the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament over Johnny Lawrence. Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese is found strangling his failed student. Miyagi steps in and takes Kreese down with just a few quick dodges that send the sensei's fists through a car window. But instead of, well, karate chopping him into history, he just gives his nose a good honk and tosses him aside.
Months later, Daniel feels adrift. He's been dumped by his girlfriend from the original, a pretty out-of-character twist from Elisabeth Shue’s Ali. At the same time, a letter has arrived with news that Miyagi's father is on his deathbed. Yes, the eternally old Miyagi’s dad has somehow survived all these years in their tiny fishing village of Tomi on Okinawa Island in Japan. With Daniel in tow, Miyagi returns home to find himself in the same mess he was in when he left almost five decades ago.
Many Karate Kid aficionados insist Miyagi is the beating heart of the first film – and they have a point. Perhaps The Karate Kid is about Keisuke Miyagi, an immigrant who fought against his own people in World War II while his wife lost a child in an internment camp. If you’re one of those aficionados, Karate Kid Part II gets you.
Watch the 'Breaking the Ice' Scene From 'Karate Kid II'
Turns out, Miyagi left his village after falling for Yukie – but she was promised to Sato, son of the richest man in town and Miyagi’s closest friend. Another wrinkle: Both Miyagi and Sato learned karate from Miyagi’s father. When Miyagi declares his love for Yukie, Sato feels compelled to save his honor with a fight to the death. Because “karate for defense only,” Miyagi flees across the ocean with the intention never to return.
When Miyagi and Daniel arrive in Tomi, Sato has taken his father’s place as the town’s defacto leader. But he rules in a much different manner, growing rich by overfishing and turning the former-fishermen into impoverished sharecroppers. Yukie never married, and in fact still has feelings for Miyagi. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sato still wants to fight to the death.
Daniel’s storyline parallels the half-century-old love triangle. Daniel falls for Yukie’s niece Kumiko, and runs afoul of Chozen, who is Sato’s nephew and star pupil. Naturally, Daniel gets more screen time and a big final showdown. The film balances a requisite teen romance and flying fists, however, with themes of honor, obligation, family, regret and second chances.
Oh, sure a typhoon destroys the village, Daniel chops through blocks of ice, Miyagi splinters timber to save Sato and redeem their friendship, and smitten teens run by the sea while Cetera croons. But The Karate Kid Part II derives its substance by resisting the impulses of ’80s Hollywood.
At this point, the industry felt pretty comfortable with a wide range of films that mixed adventure, comedy and romance, including Top Gun, The Golden Child and Crocodile Dundee. But karate movies were trending toward blunt and bloody, with Jean Claude Van Damme punching people with hands covered in broken glass and Steven Seagal cracking skulls with a pool ball wrapped in towel.
Watch the 'Live or Die' Scene From 'Karate Kid II'
Hollywood had begun transitioning from adventure to action, so James Bond and Indiana Jones didn’t have to just outwit Soviets and Nazis but had to compete with Terminators, commandos, predators, aliens and cops – both robo and lethal, Tango and Cash.
Yes, Daniel and Chozen bloody each other up, while surrounded by adults who stupefyingly decide the six-foot moat dividing them from the fight is so insurmountable that they’ll simply let two teens try to kill each other. (Along the way, Miyagi offers up an obvious tip: “Daniel-son, this not tournament; this for real.”) But The Karate Kid Part II seems tame compared to the carnage in the jingoistic teens-become-Guerillas fantasy of Red Dawn or the troubled bar bouncer stalking his way through Roadhouse.
The only death in the movie is Miyagi’s ancient father, and it lands as it should: Daniel consoles his mentor with tenderness and empathy.
So what does Daniel do at the end of the film? He’s holding Chozen’s blood-soaked head in his hand, ready to strike a last, strike hard and show no mercy: “Live or die, man?” But to anyone paying attention, the question is meaningless. We know Daniel is the ultimate Miyagi disciple.
Chozen gets a nose honk and is tossed aside. Daniel and Kumiko embrace with relief and love, the village celebrates, and Miyagi gives him that knowing, wise and kind look – and just the slightest wink.