By Michael Dellapi
After rewatching Karate Kid, I was shocked to witness just how impactful the ending of the film truly was. I believe that the final conflict between Danny (the protagonist of the movie) and Johnny (one of the innumerable villains of the movie) is one of the most important reasons to watch the movie in the first place. I guess this can be considered a spoiler, but it’s also a reference to an unbelievably memorable moment in film history.
Consider this incentive to watch Karate Kid immediately if you haven’t seen it already. Now that we’ve got that disclaimer out of the way, on to discussing the ending. Let’s set the scene: it’s the final fight of the karate tournament. Danny is stumbling as he approaches his opponent after previously being hit with an illegal move to the knee. Danny’s practice with Mr. Miyagi has clearly paid off, as he is able to momentarily suppress the obscene amounts of pain. Danny sends out a quick to his opponent, whereupon Johnny immediately grabs his leg and delivers a gruesome blow to the inside of his knee.
To say I winced at this exchange would probably be an understatement, and I was admittedly surprised to find how affected I was by it. At first glance, it made me wonder why Danny tried to use that foot in the first place. Perhaps he wanted to illustrate that he was beyond the pain that he was experiencing. You can hear a muffled yet sickening crack as Johnny’s strike connects. Danny’s adversaries have been cartoonishly evil for the most part, but the nature of the villain diverges at that moment. A sense of ruthlessness and contempt is established, as Johnny takes a sort of perverse glee in seeing his opponent writhe in agony. The gravity of the impact is lost on Johnny’s acquaintances, as you hear one team member scream, “Put him in a body bag!” over all of the chaos. The viewer is torn between two depictions of the antagonist, with one of them essentially being a caricature of the other.
The actions that come after all take place in one fluid motion. The fluidity is why I admire this scene so much, because it would have been so easy for the director to have executed this poorly. Danny orients himself for the “Crane Kick,” a move referenced by Mr. Miyagi several times before as an unstoppable technique if performed correctly. There is a sense of confusion on Danny’s face as he seeks to get approval from his mentor one last time. The round begins, and Danny sends a swift reactionary kick to his opponent’s jaw. He wins the tournament, as simply as that. There is no slow-motion to highlight the move’s importance. Instead, everything happens organically. The final strike is so important for all advocates of good storytelling because it manipulates stakes while treating the audience as informed individuals.
The director already knows that the audience has internalized the stakes that have been previously established. He finds no need, therefore, in reinforcing them through camera movement. Moreover, the film came out during a time in which the act of playing back a scene was uncommon. Therefore, the final kick that sends a shock through the audience (and through Johnny’s jawline) exists as its own entity.
Michael Dellapi is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org