How real are karate scenes in pop culture? We had a karate world champion rate them for accuracy.

  • Elisa Au, a three-time World Karate Federation world karate champion, rates 11 karate scenes in movies and shows for realism.
  • Au breaks down karate scenes in movies and shows such as “The Karate Kid” (1984), “Cobra Kai” (2021), “The Office” (2005), and “Bloodsport” (1988).
  • Au discusses the realism and techniques of the kicks, punches, and throws of martial arts actors Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ralph Macchio, and Michael Jai White.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

– [men screaming]

Elisa Au: Yeah, I would actually say this is about 100% accurate. At this level, this is what it looks like.

Hi, my name is Elisa Au. I am a three-time WKF karate world champion and one of the few females here in the US poised to represent the US at the Olympic games next summer in Tokyo. Today, I’ll be watching a few clips from martial arts movies and letting you know how real I think they are.

“Bloodsport” (1988)

[fighters grunting]

[blows thudding]

The moves you’re seeing here, I mean, they’re not exactly karate moves. They’re really close-range type of techniques. He’s just really just trying to break the guy down, more like boxing. In karate, we’re using more mid- to long-range techniques.

[blows thudding]

See how he’s just standing there? I mean, he’s gotta defend that kick or get out of the way. These guys are just kind of standing there as kicking bags for one another. There’s not a whole lot of defensive or distancing going on, but the attacks themselves are pretty impressive and very much martial arts moves. The fact that there’s a referee and they didn’t do anything, that’s kind of silly. Like, why is the referee there if he’s not gonna call poor sportsmanship? So, that’s unrealistic.

[upbeat music]

[man grunting]

Jump spinning hook kick, definitely a thing. And he does it so well. But the spinning hook kick is more and more common nowadays as the athleticism is going up in karate, sport karate. Obviously, Jean-Claude Van Damme has really nice kicks that look great on screen, but, yeah, it’s not really that realistic, and the distance is not really there. For this one, I’d probably give it a six.

Rating: 6/10

“Cobra Kai” Season 1

Referee: And fight!

[tense music]

[blows thudding]

Elisa: OK, so, as dramatized as this is, and kind of silly to a point, it is actually kind of close to what you would see in sport karate, like competition karate. See how they’re just kind of posing at each other in a very combative stance? That doesn’t happen in sport karate. So, we stand in a very neutral stance. I mean, if I were to face somebody and they tried to do this at the line, I would shake my head [laughs] because it’s not OK. Like, you need to start neutral, and once the referee calls to start, then you can get into your stance.

[blows thudding]

[upbeat music]

I actually really liked that sequence. There were a lot more hook punches than would happen in karate. Karate punches in sport are very straight. There are no hook punches or uppercuts allowed, but I liked that there was, like, a volley back and forth and there was some sort of usage of distance, which is much more typical in karate. And I saw some blocking there. So that’s actually really realistic, just without all the hook punches.

[blows thudding]

[fighters grunting]

So, that sequence started out pretty realistic with the punching and the blocking, but then he started adding elbows in, which are totally not allowed in competition. But I like the punches and the blocks. And those sweeps are pretty cool, and they do happen, but they don’t happen very often. Yeah, and I guess the one thing that’s missing here is the lack of protective equipment. We’re way suited up compared to any of these guys on these scenes. Like, I’m wearing fist guards, shin guards, insteps, mouth guard, a chest protector, body protector. I mean, I’m, like, totally suited up when I go in for competition. In sport karate or Olympic-style karate, we don’t wear the head protection; however, some of the kids under 18 actually wear head protection. Yeah…

[sighs]

I mean, I give this one a seven, only ’cause it’s better, it’s more realistic than “Bloodsport” compared to what happens in real competitions, but it’s also really goofy.

Rating: 7/10

“Cobra Kai” Season 3

[upbeat music]

[fighters grunting]

Yeah, so, I mean, obviously we’re looking at a street fight. These guys are using self-defense, but they have that karate background. They are pretty much sticking to karate techniques, which is actually kind of nice, even though the guys attacking them are attacking them with chains and stuff like that. Another thing also to mention when it comes to self-defense is that you don’t want to be on one leg. Any kicks where they’ve got their leg up in the air for too long, that’s not a good place to be when you’re trying to defend yourself. It’s just not good for your balance. Your vitals are exposed. So it’s definitely for the scene to make it more flashy. You wouldn’t see, in real self-defense, people using that many kicks. Yeah. See, it’s so many flying kicks, it’s crazy. Yep. So that’s all good. I like all that. Definitely using, like, wrist grabs and stuff. Yeah, throws are definitely part of karate. Different martial arts weren’t developed in a silo. A lot of the originators of the martial arts actually trained together or cross-trained in different disciplines, so there’s a lot of crossover when it comes to the actual techniques in martial arts. So although you might think, for example, that throws are a judo thing, there’s definitely throws in karate as well. What we can use in competition, that’s a different story, because we’re not allowed to do the types of grabs. So there’s certain things we can do, like if someone kicks us, like I said, we can grab quickly and go for the takedown. You can’t do, like, those big throws that you see in judo that are, like, over the shoulder or over the hip. That doesn’t happen.

[body thuds]

Yeah, yeah. So, right there, he’s, like, totally back to the guy. The guy should’ve just hit him.

[laughing]

What was that? A lot of these movies, they’re spinning when they’re just, like, an arm’s length from their opponent. Why would you do that? If I were just to rate it on just the pure karate moves that I’m seeing, I’d actually give it more like a seven or eight, just ’cause there was actually a lot of pretty good moves in there, even though it wasn’t a competition. But at the end, with the little spin kick to finish it off, that’s a little unrealistic.

Rating: 7.5/10

“Ip Man 4: The Finale” (2019)

[crowd chattering]

[hits thudding]

[grunting]

He’s keeping the guy away. He obviously knows that he’s up against kung fu fighters who probably would be really good in close-combat competition. So, karate, one of its strengths as a martial art is that it has really good medium- to large-distance moves, like the big side kicks, the punches with full extension. That’s kind of the hallmark movements of karate that gives it its strength when up against other martial arts. For him to keep the other guy away using side kicks and other larger karate moves is actually really smart. If I were in his place, I’d probably do something like that, knowing that once we got in that closer range that I’d be at a disadvantage when up against a kung fu fighter. So, actually, we don’t use karate chops. That’s one of those things that everyone says, but it’s not really a thing. I mean, there are open-hand techniques in karate, but it’s not that, like, “hi-ya!” that people constantly think is what karate is all about.

[fighter yelling]

Yeah, see, again, the running and the jumping, I mean, the kung fu guy saw it. You know?

[laughs]

No one’s gonna stand there as you run and jump at them. There’s one thing that none of these scenes really do that sport karate has kind of evolved to, is that there’s a lot more, like, bouncing and movement going on. So when you see us fighting, at first, you’d be like, “They look like they’re jumping beans.” But then when you watch a little more carefully, it’s not so much jumping up and down, but we’re very light on our toes. Always juking, always faking. When you get to the higher level, it’s always a game of distance and timing. Everyone’s techniques are pretty good. There’s that chess element of thinking a couple moves ahead, and one of the sports I think it’s actually a lot like is fencing. In fencing, they’re constantly trying to, like, touch and not be touched, and that’s really similar to what we’re doing in karate. But it’s that idea of, like, knowing your distance and trying to touch or score a point before the other person can score a point on you.

[blows thudding]

Yeah, he’s done. Kung fu wins today.

[laughs]

He doesn’t even fall correctly. I mean, that’s, like, martial arts 101. Don’t put your wrist down like that. You’re gonna break your wrist. You gotta fall softly. I would give this one more of a four or five. I can’t speak for the kung fu side of it, but for the karate side of it, I mean, he started out OK, and then it kind of just went downhill from there.

Rating: 4/5/10

“The Office” (2005-2013)

Ira: First person to three wins, all right?

Dwight: Yes, sensei.

Michael: A lot of rules, a lot of rules. On the street, we didn’t have any rules. Maybe one. No kicks to the groin, home for dinner.

Elisa: Yeah, so kicks below the belt in competition aren’t allowed, for obvious reasons. We just don’t kick legs or anything. You can score kicks to the body, the back, and then any part of the face, depending on your age, with control.

Ira: Hajime!

[Dwight yelling]

Michael: Whoa, hey, what the hell was that? Elisa: It was a kick to the back. It counted. It’s good. See, this is typical at this level. You know, he’s a purple belt, so it’s like novice.

Michael: Idiot.

[fighters yelling]

Elisa: So, a lot of punches and kicks to the air because they just don’t understand their distancing yet. So that’s really common for a beginner level. You don’t want to be running away, like how he did it. But distance is really important in karate. When you start getting to a higher level, and once you realize you’re kind of in trouble, you’re in the danger zone, you do have strategies and tactics for getting out, not running away like he’s doing it. They must have had so much fun filming this.

Michael: One point, two points, three points! Elisa: So, you can’t accumulate points with, like, a combination of punches. It’s just one point for one technique. And now the sensei should actually stop, because this is not like karate. He needs to separate them and let them sort themselves out, because now they’re gonna start wrestling, and that’s when people get injured. And that’s the whole point of the referee, is to stop people from getting injured. OK, so we’re not doing karate anymore, obviously.

[laughs]

I would actually say this is about 100% accurate, at this level. Especially, like, adults, when they start fighting and they don’t have a lot of experience, they kind of have that, like, almost scared to go in. I mean, honestly, I would give this one a 10 in terms of realism, at this level.

Rating: 10/10

“The Karate Kid” (1984)

That was a solid punch to the face, and this is non-contact, or it’s not full-contact karate. So I think it’s a little excessive, especially for, they’re supposed to be high-school kids in this movie. Again, no gear. They’re in high school. Seems really dangerous, but OK. OK, here we go. The famous move, right? I mean, yeah, it wouldn’t happen. If someone was doing that across the way from me, I would not go straight at him, like on a straight line. That’s for sure. Yeah, I mean, this is just not a real karate move. Let’s just get that straight right off the bat. In a tournament like this, you’re not gonna be doing that. If you’re that injured, if your leg is that injured, you’re not gonna kick with it. It’s not the right move to use. It’s really made for the movies. This is not something that you would see someone do in a tournament. If I were down or needed to actually get a point in the last few seconds and I was hurt, I would go for a punch. I wouldn’t take the risk of going for a kick when I only need to get one point with a punch. So I’d probably go for some, like, big punch to try to get that last point. The new “Karate Kid,” “Cobra Kai,” is actually a tiny bit more realistic than this. So I have to give this one a six. But this is just classic. I mean, me and my teammates are always making references to “The Karate Kid.” But not realistic.

Rating: 6/10

Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist” (2014)

Obviously, I think they’re trying to recreate that bobbing motion that you saw in the video games when you played it as a kid, but we don’t do it so dramatically as you see it here. But there is, like, this bouncing movement. It’s always a distance game. Like, I take a step in, and I take a step out. This one is obviously trying to copy the video game, where the people are completely side-facing, which is also not a karate thing. Like, you don’t turn your back, because in karate, the back is a target area. So you’re exposing something you would have a very hard time blocking. And, yeah, just the stance itself is not realistic for karate.

[blows thudding]

If you were to really use a hook kick or a heel kick, you would use your heel to hit someone in, like, the temple. That would be ideal, right, to hit someone in the temple with your heel. No, he’s just being really flashy. Like, a lot of tae kwon do practitioners can do that kind of stuff, which is really cool. And it’s also confusing, right? Someone’s spinning at you, you’re kind of like, whoa, what the heck? But it also creates a lot of momentum. So it’s really good for, like, a knockout type of blow, which is not what you’re doing in karate. So it’s not as typical. Oh, I give this one maybe a six or seven.

Rating: 6.5/10

“Black Belt” (2007)

I mean, yeah. OK, so, see how they’re standing like that, with, not feet together, but when their feet are apart? That’s like the kamae. That’s how we actually start karate matches. It’s a neutral position. It’s kind of like a stance of respect rather than aggression. So this is totally realistic. And it’s funny because, like, obviously this guy came to this dojo to beat this guy up, but I’m gonna show respect anyway at the beginning of the match. So, they don’t start in their position, they just start neutral. And I think a lot of that really comes from, like, samurai formalities before the actual battle. And so some of that spilled into karate, for sure.

[blows thudding]

[fighters grunting]

Yeah, see that punch? That is hallmark karate right there. So, what the guy in the white gi did is that as the black guy gi made a small mistake of getting in too close, the white-gi guy was right there for the reverse punch. So, the reverse punch is like karate 101. It’s learning how to throw a good reverse punch, and it’s a technique you use all the way up until the elite level. It’s just, it’s super strong. So, he timed it perfectly. Black-gi guy was coming in at the wrong distance, and he caught him right in the stomach. The jab is the lead hand, the front hand, the kizami zuki. And then the back hand is the reverse punch. Ooh, nice combination. I don’t know if that could be executed unless you’re really, really good.

[laughs]

But that was really cool though. I liked it.

[fighter yelling]

[kick thuds]

Fighter: Kiai!

Elisa: And this is another thing that we haven’t seen too much in the other clips, is this “kiai,” so that yell that you hear. And this is a hallmark of karate. Sometimes other sports, like in tae kwon do, they’ll be like, “Why are you guys yelling so much? Why all the noise?” It’s important, because kiai in karate, it, like, brings out your spirit. It’s like that extra oomph to make the technique effective. Kiai! The kiai is a big part of even what we do now in modern-day sport karate. If you don’t kiai, you don’t get a point. You’ve gotta kiai if you want to get a point. Yeah, I mean, it’s not what I do. This is definitely more of, like, karate from back in the day, but having said that, I’d say it’s pretty much a 10. I mean, this is what karate looked like.

Rating: 10/10

“The Next Karate Kid” (1994)

Fighter: Give me your best shot.

[tense music]

Elisa: She’s using her distance correctly, so I guess that’s good. You know, she’s obviously a weaker, smaller opponent than him, so to be more agile and to move more and stay out of his range is a smart thing to do. There’s just far too many kicks in this scene, and her hands are not even up even to, like, even try protect herself. It’s pretty unrealistic that she’s just kicking her way through beating this guy up. First of all, it’s more like tae kwon do if anything, because she’s only kicking. Just the way she’s just using mostly her front leg, just as, like, to keep him away and almost jab at him with her front leg, that’s very much more like a tae kwon do thing than a karate thing.

Julie: Kiai!

Elisa: And did you hear her kiai? You can tell she’s not a martial artist. She just went like, “ke-yuh.”

Julie: Kiai!

Elisa: [laughing] It’s just like, no one kiais like that. When you kiai, you kiai for a reason. It’s like, if she really wanted to hurt him, she’d be like, “Kiai!” Like, she would put something into that sound. But she’s just saying it like she’s just imitating what she’s probably seen. And she’s just going, “Huh.” You know? And this guy should figure out, like, maybe one kick she’ll get in on this guy. Not 10. Like, he’s just standing there and taking it like a punching bag. Yeah, I’m gonna give this one, like, a four. And that’s generous.

Rating: 4/10

“Blood and Bone” (2009)

But I’m not a fan of this one, no. Again, this is not a competition. They’re in a real-life situation in this scene. But the one thing I do see that’s pretty cool is that they’re kind of, like, using distance and, like, just trying to see who’s gonna flinch and who’s gonna make the move first. So, the front kick’s good. But then the jumping stuff, like, that’s just for flair, because, like, why? Why would you use all that energy to do that? You’re already catching him with regular kicks. Why the jumping kicks? I mean, it’s not realistic that he’s wearing a suit and he can do this.

[laughs]

He’s gotta have, like, stretch pants on. He’s definitely using distance more than I’ve seen in the other scenes. They’re not just running at each other and doing big old attacks. That was pretty cool. I mean, it’s good. It’s real karate. See, like that. That roundhouse kick, that’s a real karate technique that’s super effective. Like, you catch someone with a solid roundhouse kick or a solid side kick, that’s what you need. But really, when you see those kind of techniques, that’s what makes a martial artist go, “Yeah!” Like, that was a nice roundhouse kick. And I don’t know that other people watching the movie would have been as excited about that. They probably care more about the finishing kick at the end. But these are the real techniques that I like to see. Yeah, I mean, I liked the distancing that they did in the beginning, and there was some other really cool stuff, but it was also super flashy, because it’s for a movie. So, I don’t know, I’d give it, like, a seven.

Rating: 7/10

“Karate Girl” (2011)

[blows thudding]

Yeah, so this girl obviously has more of like a tae kwon do or acrobatic background. This is not karate at all. This whole scene is just her jumping off of a bunch of people who are like her springboard. It’s not really showing any kind of karate technique. Like, it’s just not… a lot of walking on people. But it looks really cool. She doesn’t know how to throw punches properly, either. Like, that one punch she threw, out of all the punches, she kind of just threw her hand out there, whereas her kicks look like she actually knows what she’s doing. So, the guy comes up to her and he yells, and he just stands there and just waits for her to complete her spinning back kick. Like, they’re not doing anything. It’s not real. See, they’re not throwing punches either. No one’s throwing any techniques at this girl.

[laughing]

And this one’s spot running. Oh, and he comes at with her with his stomach exposed. Like, he doesn’t even block his own midsection. This is terrible, in my opinion.

[laughs]

Oh, and he’s just standing there. Like, that kid was just sitting there waiting to be a stepping stool, so. Yeah, I’d probably give this one a two. I mean, she’s throwing legit kicks, but, I mean, there’s no distance. Everyone’s just standing there and just waiting for her to kick them. You know, it’s just absurd.

Rating: 2/10

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in January 2021.