The Karate Kid (1984)
Five franchise films
As an awkward kid who moved around a lot and was an easy target for aspiring Cobra Kai-style jerks at every new school, I always found it pretty easy to identify with Daniel LaRusso. Hell, we even had the same name – and a lifetime of being called Daniel-san at one point or another by seriously just about every single person I've ever met hasn't done much to dampen the positive associations I have with repeated VHS viewings of the most wish-fulfilling of adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies.
I'm not alone, either. The Karate Kid may have started the ball rolling in 1984, but somehow the Karate Kid series has become one of the more enduring American film franchises not to feature aliens or Avengers. In 29 years, we've seen five films bear the Karate Kid name. With the exception of only 1994's The Next Karate Kid, every one of them has been a hit (though that one did launch the career of two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank). And there's a reason why the basic theme – a bullied young person gains self-esteem and learns self-defense after moving to a strange place and encountering a patient, wise mentor who teaches them the art of karate – has proven both so compelling and so flexible.
The fact is, adolescence is and has always been tough; teenagers are mean to outsiders and newcomers as a matter of course, and, even as bullying gets prefixes like "cyber-" in front of it, the mix of self-respect and self-defense that we associate with karate always seems like a more noble path than simple revenge. That's true if you're a white teenage boy facing down the Cobra Kai in California, or a black 12-year-old who moves to China with your mom, or a white teenage girl who, I don't remember, something with Michael Ironside and an injured bird. A story about the dignity of karate in the face of harassment endures in spite of changing times.
But it was Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita who inspired me to earn my orange belt when I was 10 years old – and my sensei never once called me Daniel-san. How's that for the inherent dignity of karate?
Aug. 4, Paramount: Sunday, 4:20pm