The mark of a good sequel is that it offers elements which are new and rewarding. The Karate Kid was one of the surprise hits of 1984; a movie that far surpassed its hokey commercial title. So impressed was an originally dubious Roger Ebert that he correctly predicted an Oscar nomination for Pat Morita at the 56th Academy Awards, much to the mocking delight of long-time partner Gene Siskel, who saw the movie as predictable and uninspired. In 1985, The Karate Kid became the biggest VHS rental of the year. The rest, as they say, is history.
Beneath the sweeping stereotypes and commercial gimmickery, The Karate Kid is a gem of a movie — the story of bullied teenager Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his unlikely friendship with surrogate father figure Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita), an apartment complex handyman who uses martial arts to teach his student the values of life. The success of the movie guaranteed a sequel, and while The Karate Kid Part II lacked the freshness and underdog spirit of the original, it featured great locations and immaculate staging, revealing more about Miyagi’s past and how he evolved into the sagacious martial arts master we would grow to admire. It showed the almost mystical figure’s human side, ultimately bringing the two characters closer together.
Even rarer than a rewarding sequel is a rewarding trilogy. In 21st century cinema, trilogies have become somewhat quaint, replaced by reboots, seemingly endless franchises and whole cinematic universes with truly limitless lifespans, but I recall a time when the once-rare trilogy was the subject of almost scholastic debate. The same questions always arose. Which did you prefer? The Alien trilogy, the Die Hard trilogy, the Lethal Weapon trilogy? Further sequels have since made such questions somewhat moot, as would Christopher Cain’s highly unnecessary The Next Karate Kid starring a young Hilary Swank, but John G. Avildsen’s original trilogy never came up in those discussions, the main reason being 1989‘s belated and equally unnecessary The Karate Kid Part III.
By the time The Karate Kid part III hit theatres, Ralph Macchio was 27 years old. No longer the dimpled, adorable type squirming in the armlock of adolescence, an overweight Macchio was finally beginning to show his age, the dynamic of the movie doomed as a consequence. This was made even more icky by the fact that love interest Robin Lively was only 16 at the time of filming and still a minor, which meant her role was altered to place her character, Jessica Andrews, a Tiffany lookalike who loiters like a shy and gullible schoolgirl, firmly in friend territory. It’s all so tentative and peculiar and just a little disconcerting. Add to this a ludicrous story, forced moralities and a contrived screenplay which only serves to sully the integrity of its characters, and you’re in for a mostly dissatisfying end to what could have been one of the finest trilogies of the decade.
Despite its sumptuous staging and freshly exotic feel, The Karate Kid Part II had already begun to show the effects of sequelitus. This was most notable in the film’s opening scenes as Daniel and Miyagi rushed to fill in the narrative blanks before fleeing to the sunny shores of Okinawa (Hawaii if you want to get technical), but more debilitating than rushed explanations for the absence of actress Elizabeth Schue, who had just been accepted into Harvard and was unable to rekindle her onscreen romance with LaRusso, was that anticlimactic feeling that follows any successful underdog story. Daniel had found balance and romance in what proved to be a defining summer, the highs of that victory and the immediate creative fallout sending him, and his audience, crashing back down to Earth. The fact that Ali had suddenly run off with the captain of the football team, though true to the fickle nature of young love, was a sobering notion indeed, the seductive spell of their endearing romance undone almost immediately.
Though featuring yet another disposable romance for the sake of trilogy status, the first sequel was a fair ride that, an absent Ali notwithstanding, refused to jeopardise character integrity, Daniel’s rebound fling on foreign shores understandable and actually rather touching. Ultimately, The Karate Kid Part II would prove to be Miyagi’s story. Away from the complacency of everyday Los Angeles, in many ways Daniel would become Miyagi’s rock as he was forced to confront the ghosts of his past, but Daniel’s underdog story was mostly a watered-down re-tread with fresh faces. The Karate Kid Part III is guilty of the same crimes and then some.
After the heady events of his homeland return, Miyagi is facing joblessness and bankruptcy until a typically loyal and irrational Daniel sacrifices his college fund to realise his long-time mentor’s dream — to own his own Bonsai store. Anyone with even a modicum of business sense would tell you that such a project was doomed to failure at a time when Reagan’s global model was pushing small businesses out to sea, never mind a cautious martial arts master with wisdom coming out of his ears. The original Miyagi would never have been so short-sighted, especially with the future of his student on the line. He’s just spent the best part of eighteen months teaching Daniel responsibility, and now he’s willing to raid his piggy bank for a run-down store specialising in niche products. I mean, really?
Even dumber is Daniel himself, who seems to have forgotten pretty much everything Miyagi-Do has taught him. Daniel suffers just as much as his sensei in terms of character integrity. His holiday fling with Tamlyn Tomita’s Japanese beauty, Kumiko, may have tread familiar ground to some extent, but the lure of Japanese tradition and cross-cultural discovery kept affairs somewhat fresh. His quasi-romance with Jessica is severely stale. Thanks to its legal limitations (the kind that make it almost completely unnecessary), it’s more bizarre than anything, which ironically proves the most interesting element of what is uninspired, paint-by-numbers stuff. LaRusso becomes Jessica’s Miyagi, teaching her the ways of the Orient while simultaneously turning his back on them after Miyagi refuses to train him for the returning All Valley Championship. Miyagi reasons that his student has nothing left to prove. In a storyline sense, he’s bang on the money.
Even Daniel and Jessica’s coming together is rushed and tacked-on beyond all reason. Jessica’s family run a similarly doomed store operating directly across the street from Miyagi’s, which coincidentally specialises in painting plant pots, a fact that gives the terminally precocious Daniel a quite staggering idea (one that I won’t waste your time elaborating on). With the aid of a few crappy tables and flimsy Japanese decorations, Miyagi’s store is soon up and running, and with the dynamic of our dysfunctional family developing nicely, things finally seem to be falling into place. They should have known better.
It seems our favourite duo can’t turn a corner without getting mixed up in some karate-related drama, and we soon discover that Miyagi is not the only one who’s fallen on hard times. After his appalling behaviour following the previous All Valley Karate Championship, former enemy and Cobra Kai proprietor John Kreese (Kove) is ostracised from the community, losing his business and resorting to alcoholism as his 80s edict of striking first fizzles without a trace. Luckily for him, former Vietnam buddy and megalomaniac entrepreneur, Terry Silver (Griffith), is there to lend a hand, funding an exotic oversees vacation for his friend in an effort to sober him up (in reality, Kove had prior commitments that prohibited him from taking part beyond a few scenes).
Taking time out from his millionaire lifestyle and toxic waste-dumping discrepancies, Terry sets about plotting the perfect act of vengeance, one so elaborate it borders on super villainy. His first move is to hire hotshot fighter Mike Barnes to antagonise Daniel into defending his title. Once Daniel has been suitably shaken, he then steps in to help him train for their not-so-epic encounter, exploiting Daniel’s relationship with his estranged mentor by introducing him to a series of brutal, self-defeating training methods designed to cripple him for the big tournament. Under Terry’s tutelage, Daniel becomes the kind of bully that his newly relinquished edict goes directly against, ruthlessly laying out a stooge who Silver pays to come onto Jessica at a local dance. Not only has Daniel forgotten the moral teachings of his sensei, he’s on the side of the enemy. He’s actually joined Cobra Kai!
I don’t buy Silver’s role, either. Sure, the horrors of war can form lifelong, do-or-die bonds that last forever, but would a millionaire entrepreneur really stoop so low as to systematically destroy a teenage boy, hanging around school dances with the contrivance of a soap opera character conveniently stumbling upon revelation after revelation, and more to the point, would he have the time? It works for the transparently self-aware and beautifully ironic Cobra Kai, which finally gives the otherwise priceless Silver the platform he so richly deserves, but no such self-awareness exists here. The fact that Silver was shoehorned in to accommodate Martin Kove’s schedule probably goes some way to explaining the character’s contrived nature.
That’s not to take anything away from actor Thomas Ian Griffith, who proves the malevolent lifeblood of a movie that generally treats characters like idiots. It treats Silver like an idiot too, but Griffith puts in a colossal turn as the sneeringly malevolent Terry, the only bright spark of a decidedly low-key sequel of largely listless performances. Also worthy of a mention is Sean Kanan as the latest hothead to test LaRusso’s resolve, a relentless douchebag beset on regional domination, but there’s only so many times you can swallow the same old bullying angle before it grows just a little stale.
After single-handedly taking on Terry, Kreese and Barnes in one of the few scenes that utilises Morita’s wonderful comic abilities, Miyagi inevitably agrees to train his protégé and the old dynamic is vaguely rekindled in a rushed sequence which fails to capture the trademark magic of previous instalments. But where the movie really falls flat is during its not-so-grand finale, a lifeless karate event which scrimps on the symbolism, delivering a hollow victory that smacks of a cash cow drained within an inch of its life.