After re-watching the original Karate Kid trilogy, I am a little lost as to why anyone thought these were good enough to make four seasons of Cobra Kai (2018-present). My sneaking suspicion is that whoever it is behind the series originally made for YouTube, but now appearing on Netflix, simply thought man, I thought The Karate Kid (1984) was really cool! I am guessing that, like me, this unknown person I have in mind (I am not going to look it up) was, like me, a child during the 1980s. Everything seems so much better at that age than what it actually is as an adult, though I do wish I could recapture some of that innocence that guided that thinking. I will hand it to the original for having a certain amount of charm. From then on, the films get progressively hokey. We shall see tonight about The Next Karate Kid (1994), which is a lot older than I realized. In the meantime, enjoy the following as I puzzle my way through The Karate Kid Part III (1989).
The puzzlement starts right away in The Karate Kid Part III as, yet again, we are treated to a recap of the events from the first film. In extreme brief: Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) moves to Reseda, California, gets bullied, is taught karate by Mr. Myagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), and wins the supposedly internationally known All Valley Karate Tournament. There is barely any mention of the events in Karate Kid Part II (1986), and that is because it is supposed to set up a down-on-his-luck John Kreese (Martin Kove), sensei of the hated Cobra Kai, at the beginning of The Karate Kid Part III. Having had his reputation take a hit and lacking students, Kreese turns to one of his former students and Vietnam comrade, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith). Silver is incredibly wealthy and feels he owes Kreese, thus agreeing to help him reestablish Cobra Kai . . . and get revenge on Daniel for some reason. On the other side of town, Daniel and Mr. Miyagi return from Okinawa (the site of the events of the previous) film, and plot convenience says that Daniel must continue to stay with his karate teacher because his mom, Lucille (Randee Heller), is taking care of a sick uncle. This last bit of information comes to light when they attempt to visit the apartment where Daniel lives with his mother, only to find it being torn down. I guess they really were in Okinawa for a long time. Further evidence of the length of their stay abroad is found when Mr. Miyagi enters his workshop in the complex and finds his prized bonsai trees in bad shape, the result of months of neglect. This saddens him because he intended to open small shop in which to sell the plants. Believing that Mr. Miyagi is about to give up on a dream, Daniel decides to take the money he was going to use to go to college and purchases a building in which Mr. Miyagi can begin his dream store. Remember the bit about Silver agreeing to avenge his sensei? Well, he decides that the best way to do so is to bring in a ringer, a young, mentally unstable karate prodigy named Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) in order to defeat Daniel at the next All Valley Tournament. The other part of Silver’s plan is to ingratiate himself with Daniel, believing he can unnerve the young man and get him off the more calm and collected training instilled by Mr. Miyagi. At first, his advances are appreciated but turned down by Daniel out of a sense of loyalty to Mr. Miyagi. Besides, Mr. Miyagi does not believe Daniel should be competing in the next tournament, having already proved his point. In order to push Daniel along, Silver sends Barnes and a few other lackeys to bully Daniel at every turn, saying that their antics will only stop when Daniel agrees to fight in the competition. Because Mr. Miyagi will not train him, Silver offers to teach Daniel the Cobra Kai way. Silver’s instruction is brutal, and he seems to take sadistic pleasure out of watching Daniel hurt himself on the wooden dummy he is forced to punch and kick repeatedly. It is only when Daniel is out at a dance club with his, um, friend(?), Jessica Andrews (Robyn Lively), and breaks the nose of a stranger giving them a hard time does he realize how far he had fallen away from Mr. Miyagi’s teachings. He makes amends with everyone, and Mr. Miyagi agrees once more to instruct Daniel. At the tournament, a new rule states that the reigning champion only needs to take part in one bout, the title one. Of course, Barnes makes it to the ultimate match. Because all the villains in this film are mustache twirling morons, Barnes spends most of the fight earning a point, and then losing it in a purposeful attempt to physically hurt Daniel. The strategy is to make it to sudden death where only one point is needed to win the championship. Once it gets to that moment, Daniel breaks out some karate kata, which confuses Barnes for some reason, giving Daniel the opening he needs to get the point and defend his title. The end.
Karate Kid Part III is pretty bad on a number of levels. As hinted at above, the motivation for Silver is a little unclear. He just seems to be a bad guy who enjoys doing bad things. He was not personally wronged by Daniel or Mr. Miyagi, but is all too willing to mess the head of eighteen-year-old. The man apparently has more than enough money, bust wastes his time on petty karate squabbles? Then there is Barnes, who is a maniac. In order to get Daniel to compete in the All Valley Tournament, he is willing to risk the lives of Daniel and Jessica. That is no exaggeration, either. Barnes and his flunkies find Daniel and Jessica at the bottom of a sea-side gorge, pull up the ropes they use to climb down into it, and tell Daniel that they will not lower the ropes back down until Daniel agrees to fight. The implication is that if Daniel and Jessica do not get out soon, the tide will come up and drown them. Okay, so, I thought the whole reason for why Barnes is there is to spar with Daniel? It is kind of hard to do that when your opponent is dead. There are also a couple of plot convenience moments that were dumb. These, though, seem to be the result of scheduling conflicts. For instance, Kreese was supposed to have a larger role in the film, but the actor was also involved in another project. The others pertain to important characters in Daniel’s life. Why Lucille could not be in the movie more, I do not know. They also picked an actress for Daniel’s love interest who was sixteen to Macchio’s twenty-seven. That does not work, so they gave her a boyfriend in Ohio to which she conveniently returns to three-quarters of the way through the film. Finally, if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of a screen with this movie being played on it, close your eyes, listen only to the dialog, and tell me if any of it was scripted. What a mess.
Despite the head-scratchingly silly aspects of The Karate Kid Part III, this Catholic film reviewer enjoyed the bonsai tree metaphors. When Daniel initially is raging against the Mr. Miyagi’s obstinacy over Daniel not taking part in the tournament, the teacher talks about how karate is for defending life and honor, not trophies. He emphasizes the plants to drive home his point, saying that karate is like a bonsai. Its strength comes from its roots, and from within. What a fitting way of looking at the Catholic Faith. Its roots are its traditions, which stretch directly back to the time of Jesus. This is something in which I find a great deal of comfort. Our Faith also teaches that Jesus dwells within us. A large part of seeking God is by turning within ourselves. It is there that, if we cultivate our Faith in this manner, we will be known by our fruits. Such a Faith, or karate, has no need to boast with trophies, and to be fair to the film, it does present Daniel entering the tournament as nearly a matter of life and death. Still, the bonsai metaphors do not end with comparisons to karate. At one point, believing that all Mr. Miyagi’s stock of trees had been destroyed by Barnes and his gang of jerks, Daniel goes to retrieve the bonsai Mr. Miyagi immigrated to America with, believing he could use it to recuperate his losses. When Daniel is confronted once more by Barnes, the bully snaps the delicate tree in half. A devastated Daniel presents the split wood to Mr. Miyagi, expecting a reprimand. Instead, Mr. Miyagi reminds his star pupil that everything can heal with time and patience. If that is not a great description of what God wants to do for all of us, then I do not know what is.
Ultimately, it is the philosophical moments in The Karate Kid Part III and its predecessors that I enjoy best. Mr. Miyagi delivers a number of lessons that any person of Faith can get behind without reservation, particularly when viewed through a Christian lens. Yet, that does not seem to be why people remember these films. The Cobra Kai series is evidence that what people recall from this trilogy is the punching and kicking. I am sure Mr. Miyagi would not approve.