“Karate Kid II” (selected theaters) is a movie you can cheer for, without feeling embarrassed. It’s a big-budget action saga, but without the sadistic, creepy edge you may have come to expect--the obsession with virility, the cheap cynicism, the squalid, endless kill count.
In a way, “Kid II"--another melodramatic mass-audience fairy tale--is a corrective to the “Cobras” and “Raw Deals.” It springs from the same currents, but it swims against some of the meaner ones.
It’s also a somewhat adventurous sequel. It doesn’t just repeat the original’s structure and plot; it deepens them a little.
Back in 1984, when it was a surprise box-office hit, the first “Karate Kid” may have seemed derivative, a pop-Zen “Rocky,” with Ralph Macchio as one of the Italian Stallion’s ponies. The theme seemed similar: an underdog beating heavy odds. And the director (John Avildsen), cinematographer (James Crabe) and composer (Bill Conti) were all from “Rocky’s” corner. You might even have mistaken the emotional core of “The Karate Kid"--the relationship between Macchio’s Daniel and Pat Morita’s martial-arts mentor Miyagi--as a reprise of the bond between Stallone’s Balboa and Burgess Meredith’s lovable, foul-mouthed old coot of a manager, Mickey.
But “The Karate Kid II” is so much more appealing than any of the three subsequent “Rockys"--so much better than most movie sequels in general--that you begin to wonder if Avildsen and his team got all the credit they deserved earlier. Perhaps it was these corner men who supplied a lot of the heart, feeling and buoyancy that people once saw in Sylvester Stallone--before the beefcake posturing and calculated mumbles took over, before the sermonizing with a disco backbeat.
The new “Kid” (with stars, production team and scriptwriter Robert Mark Kamen reunited) begins only minutes after the first one ended--in the tournament parking lot, after Daniel’s last-minute upset. The movie immediately justifies its whole existence by giving Martin Kove’s martinet martial-arts teacher Kreese--a despicable heavy--the comeuppance he never quite got in the original.
Then the story shifts to Okinawa, the homeland Miyagi left 45 years ago after a disappointment in love (with Nobu McCarthy’s Yukie) and a near-blood feud with his best friend and fellow karate pupil, Sato (Danny Kamekona). Now, his father dying, Miyagi returns--with Daniel, of course--to find the village remarkably unaltered. The same storyteller strums a samisen by the temple, Yukie remains unmarried, and Sato--now a ruthless and omnipotent local nabob--still fumes with hatred and wants to break Miyagi’s neck. Worse, Sato has a pupil and protege--Yuji Okumoto as Chozen, the hair-trigger bully--who wants to break Daniel’s neck.
Of course, all this is calculated too, a piece of naked, big-movie manipulation. As an observer of Japanese (or Okinawan) culture and family life, Avildsen will never be mistaken for “Tokyo Story’s” Yasujiro Ozu--or even, perhaps, for “Godzilla’s” Inoshira Honda. And yet, if you meet this movie on its own terms, a lot of it works beautifully. Avildsen gives the Okinawan scenes, shot in Hawaii, an easy, languorous rhythm--a delight in the port sights, the shimmering views of the sea--that suggests Japanese movies as they appear to Westerners (an affectionate distortion).
There’s a streak of sentimentality in Kamen’s script that Avildsen and the actors seem to revel in: Griffith-like hairsbreadth rescues, Fordian reminiscence, spectacular love trysts by the sea. The cavils you can raise here--shorthand depiction of Asian culture, “Chinese Connection” story line, the ludicrously contrived climax, the near-avoidance of the Japanese language (even when people would obviously speak it)--are all flaws that to some degree go with the territory. Avildsen and Kamen are solid professionals, but they’re not audacious ones. They’ve made the movie the audience wants to see, but they’ve taken it further (given it more gentleness and lyricism) than you might have expected.
The heart of the movie, of course, is Pat Morita, marvelous once again as Miyagi. By shifting us to his territory--making Macchio’s engaging, Bronx-breezy Daniel the outsider--Kamen and Avildsen point up Miyagi’s centrality, while maintaining the chemistry between Macchio and Morita that sparks both movies.
Perhaps when Kamen (a martial artist himself) created Miyagi originally, he was thinking of someone like Toshiro Mifune in the Kurosawa movies, a gruff, serene modern samurai, full of beans and Bushido. But Morita’s gravity is tempered with impishness. An ex-stand-up comic and sitcom veteran, he has a clown’s alertness, an exquisite comic timing. He brings out the humorous shadings in all his scenes. He’s like a dancing bird with a rock-steady center, besting his larger, more brutal opponents with wisdom, grace and wit, all but laughing them off their feet.
Miyagi’s great battle gesture here--a colossal nose-tweak administered to an opponent he’s tricked into defeating himself--is such a welcome switch from today’s bloody movie holocausts, you almost want to applaud in relief.
In the end, that’s why “Karate Kid II” is so likable--because of what it avoids. Macchio and Tamlyn Tomita are a good couple, and Kove, Kamekona and Okumoto hissable villains, but it’s Morita who gives you something sweet and rare. You can almost imagine droll, quizzical Miyagi peering up at movie billboards all around him--full of snarling superheroes and super-Magnums, phony pumped-up macho , jazzy promises of a fix of gore--and with one impish swipe of the arm (Zottt!!), sending them all crashing down together. It’s a fine, cheering thought.