And now, from the man who brought us ''Rocky,'' here's a new contender for the lovable-underdog champ-e-e-nship of the world! It's called ''The Karate Kid,'' and the title says it all. Daniel moves to California with his mom. The local boys don't like his dark hair, his New Jersey ways, or (especially) his way with girls. They call him names and beat him up.
But he has a secret pal: an Asian handiman who happens to know the wisdom of the ages. A few karate lessons, some blather about ''inner peace,'' and Daniel is a dynamo. The climax is a martial-arts tournament. Guess who wins?
We've seen this a million times before, of course, in many guises. But director John G. Avildsen gives it such energy that you can't help getting into the spirit. I had a good time watching it, and the teens in the audience had an ecstatic time - squealing explosively over star Ralph Macchio, and cheering the finale with a gusto I haven't heard since E.T. won the day.
True, the critic in me has some cranky complaints. The filmmaking is so basic it's almost primitive. The philosophy sounds like warmed-over tidbits from Yoda in the ''Star Wars'' saga. The plot could have been lifted from a Charles Atlas bodybuilding ad - there's even a bully at the beach who kicks sand in our hero's eyes!
Some movies, though, you just can't argue with. Your head says no; your heart says yes; and your eye settles the argument by oozing an embarrassed tear at the ending, which is even more hokey than you'd expect from something called ''The Karate Kid.'' Punchy, engaging, manipulative fun like this is one of the pleasures of moviegoing. Why fight it?
The one issue that could prompt a fuss over this picture is its stress on fighting. With some filmgoers upset about the violence of ''Gremlins'' and the ''Indiana Jones'' epic, it's legitimate to question the far milder (but more realistic and personal) combat of ''The Karate Kid.''
I feel the fighting is offset by the teaching of Daniel's mentor, who insists that karate must be used only for defense, not aggression, and that fighting is never an intelligent solution, only a measure of last resort. If the notion of fisticuffs draws some youngsters to see ''The Karate Kid,'' at least they'll have this sermon hammered at them several times during the movie's two-hour-plus length.
To explore this further, I contacted director Avildsen at his summer home on eastern Long Island and asked how he saw the issue - as the maker of not just ''The Karate Kid'' but a long list of other movies as varied as ''Joe'' and ''Save the Tiger.''
He was blunt. ''A director has a huge responsibility not to make propaganda films for violence,'' he said. ''Films about violence glorify it and stimulate it. They are not a catharsis.''
As for ''The Karate Kid,'' he feels its stated philosophy - that fighting is something to avoid whenever possible - makes the movie a positive and helpful experience. This suits his conception of a filmmaker's function.
''When you can make people sit for two hours in a dark room and pay attention ,'' he says, paraphrasing the renowned director Frank Capra, ''you have a moral obligation to use the time constructively. I'd like to think that when people come out, they feel better than when they entered - or at least they have more understanding of the people next to them, more tolerance. Movies have a great potential for that.''
This declaration doesn't quite jibe with some of Avildsen's earlier work, such as the nasty ''Joe,'' his first hit. But his career has long given the impression of dashing from one picture to the next, making do with imperfect projects when ideal stories and screenplays weren't at hand.
The record bears this out. Avildsen has always been a practical filmmaker - learning the business from the bottom, as a crew member, and landing his first directorial job through a want ad from a would-be producer ''who didn't know this wasn't how things were done.'' Although he has seen bad periods and signed his name to many a flop, he has survived in Hollywood by mastering useful virtues: working often, subordinating style to story, bringing his pictures in on time and on budget.
''The Karate Kid'' succeeds because it's an excellent Avildsen vehicle, modest in its production demands and full of the ''relationships, human problems , and human pressures'' he likes to explore. ''Ultimately,'' he says, ''people spend money at the movies in hope of being touched and moved. The big pyrotechnic films are fun, and I enjoy watching them, but audiences get immune to them after awhile. People never become immune to stories about the human condition.
''Those are the stories I like to make -so I can stand in the back of the theater and hear them laugh and cry in the right places. That's the reward that makes it all worthwhile, especially when they laugh. Nothing sounds as good as people laughing. . . .''