There are brilliant films, ones that touch our emotions, illustrate universal truths, and succeed as great art. And there are horrible films that offend our taste and insult our intelligence, that pander and cheat and fail in every respect. But then there are films, and television shows, that are misguided, discordant, ineptly made, yet watchable and charming all the same. The dated, the campy, the clueless, the ones that don’t get anywhere near the ball but we admire all the same for swinging for the fences — now that’s quality cheese!
No. 1: The Karate Kid (1984)
Most smarty-pants media types will tell you that DVD is a dying format. But I say there’s never been a better time to own a DVD player. Why? Because yesterday at Target I bought a box-set of the first three Karate Kid films (sans the later Hillary Swank launch vehicle The Next Karate Kid), and it cost me all of thirteen bucks. And if I had wanted to spend another ten (I didn’t), I could’ve had a double-feature of Speed and Point Break. I’m telling you, if you’re the sort of asshole who enjoys laughing at shitty movies as much as you enjoy laughing with good ones, it’s a hell of a time to be alive.
No decade produced more quality cheese than the 1980s, and in many ways The Karate Kid is the quintessential cheesy ‘80s movie. I loved it as a kid, took it very seriously, enjoyed it from start to finish in every respect without the barest hint of irony. How could I not? The bullied new kid at school gets revenge on the older boys who push him around while simultaneously earning their respect and acceptance, somehow cons the rich blonde cheerleader to fall in love with him, and befriends the wise old Japanese dude and wins the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Tournament — this was wish-fulfillment porn. Not only did it entertain me as a child, it gave me hope. Because if Daniel LaRusso could do all of that, anybody could. Daniel LaRusso, ya see, was a bit of a dim bulb.
Just transplanted to Reseda, California from Newark, New Jersey, Daniel soon runs afoul of Johnny Lawrence and his chums in the Cobra Kai gang, students of the brutal and humorless karate master John Kreese. Johnny and the Cobra Kais develop an immediate dislike for Daniel. This is only right, since they are the cool kids and he is a dumbass with a tendency toward melancholy. But then Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Ali inexplicably takes a liking to Daniel, and things get personal. Lucky for Daniel the super at his apartment complex is Mr. Miyagi: plumber, philosopher, unstoppable fighting machine. Miyagi gives the kid a crash course in karate, which mostly consists of forcing Daniel to renovate his house. Ah, but all is not what it seems, for after all that floor-sanding, fence-painting and car-waxing, Daniel discovers he has become a world class martial artist, an Italian-American Bruce Lee, a sawed-off, clean-shaven Chuck Norris — a karate kid, if you will. He defeats Johnny in the finals of a karate tournament and all is right with the world.
And everything — which is just as silly in the movie as it reads up there in that paragraph — is presented with the utmost seriousness. This is a crucial element to a successful cheesy movie: the story must be portrayed as being of great consequence, when objectively the stakes could hardly be lower. Yeah, it all matters to Daniel, but come on — it’s the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Tournament, not the Olympics. The Karate Kid is Rocky if, instead of fighting the World Heavyweight Champion, Rocky had entered the regional tough man competition at the Y. The most efficient vehicle for this phony gravitas is evil karate instructor Kreese, a man so determined for his star student to win the tournament that he sends a lesser Cobra Kai into a semi-final bout against Daniel with orders to cripple the little bastard.
Hey, sending armies across the continent to annihilate all who oppose you I can kind of understand — if you win, you rule the world (and if they taught us nothing else, the ‘80s certainly taught us that, indeed, everybody wants to rule the world). But telling one teenager to break another teenager’s leg so someone from your karate school can win a local tournament — that’s just pure fucking evil. I think the producers of Road House missed the boat in not hiring Martin Kove to reprise Kreese as an antagonist for Dalton.
Another vital ingredient to quality cheese is the soundtrack, and here The Karate Kid sets the standard by which all cornball feel-good coming-of-age movies are measured. First there’s Bill Conti’s score, which imparts a sinister undercurrent to the Cobra Kai gang’s every dastardly act, whether they’re running Daniel’s bicycle off the road or beating him up while dressed as skeletons. When Miyagi is laying down a particularly important bit of eastern wisdom, or he and Daniel are training in montage, Conti works that pan flute.
Then come the songs — and brother, if you want cringe-inducing ‘80s tunes, you have come to the right movie. Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” hits us early on. That exceeds the cheese quota all by itself, and would be plenty for most films, but The Karate Kid is only getting warmed-up. When the inevitable tournament montage arrives, director John Avildsen bestows upon jaded gen-x sarcastics one of the greatest gifts they ever received, and fires up Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best.” If you live with someone who doesn’t share your appreciation of cheesy cinema, be sure to keep the remote close at hand when watching The Karate Kid. You do not want your spouse/roomie to come home unexpectedly and catch you listening to that song. Be ready to turn it off or switch over to zoosexual pornography at a moment’s notice.
Watching it yesterday for the first time in many years, I found it amazing that I could have ever taken this movie so seriously. But that’s what makes it so great — it wants to be taken seriously, without ever getting close to being a serious movie. It’s not a good film, but it’s miles more fun to watch than cynical, calculated crap like Armageddon or Independence Day. It’s a likable, watchable, earnest failure — the epitome of quality cheese. And if that ain’t worth ⅓ of thirteen bucks, nothing is.
Sweep the leg.