INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE was not the only part 3 on offer for Summer of ’89 – there was also John Avildsen’s THE KARATE KID PART III. And as Mrs. Vern pointed out to me, the series kind of follows the same pattern as Indy: there’s the popular first one, the second one goes off in a different direction (bringing him to Japan), and then the third one plays it safe by being closer to part 1, with Cobra Kai, John Kreese and the All-Valley Karate Tournament. And then of course both series also have a much later, unpopular part 4 and a pretty enjoyable remake starring Jaden Smith.
I think PART II had an okay reception, and this isn’t supposed to be an apology for it like LAST CRUSADE was for TEMPLE OF DOOM. But it’s kinda funny to me because PART II’s trailer narrator said, “No more tournaments. No more cheering crowds. This time… the combat… is real.” Of course there’s no more tournaments and crowds and shit, that wasn’t real combat at all, that was for babies, and only a complete coward would make another movie about that kind of sissy bullshit. We have moved well beyond that nonsense and fuck you if you even think for one second that– oh, what’s that? We’re doing tournaments and cheering crowds again? Oh, cool! Welcome back!
This one takes place immediately after part II, when Miyagi and Daniel return on the plane from Okinawa. That also means it takes place immediately after the 13-episode NBC Saturday morning cartoon (the Star Wars: The Clone Wars of the KARATE KID franchise) that ran that year, which was about the two of them meeting a girl named Taki in Okinawa and traveling around the world with her trying to retrieve a magic talisman stolen from a temple. The movie cast did not do the voices, but in the tradition of the cartoons featuring Mr. T, Chuck Norris and Hulk Hogan, it had live action intros and outros starring Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi. Since they never made a cartoon about Rocky Balboa traveling around solving mysteries I think this is the only time a character introduced in an Academy Award nominated performance did cartoon intros.
I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about these movies. On one hand, I am a human being so obviously I love the character of Mr. Miyagi and Morita’s performance as him. I also have some affection for some of the cheesy montage rock songs and story elements like the evil dojo or teaching somebody karate by making them do chores. On the other hand, Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio)’s karate knowledge and technique seem minimal while his jibber jabber is maximal. The guy never fuckin shuts up, and to me it’s not endearing the way it is in ROCKY. There’s some kind of rule that he has to use at least four times as many words as necessary at all times, constantly thinking out loud, gratuitously repeating phrases, just non-stop inane blabbering and noise noise noise noise. He’s basically a nice kid, but I could never be around him for more than five minutes, and in this one he makes even dumber choices than before.
But this is probly my favorite one anyway because it also has the most ridiculous villain: introducing Thomas Ian Griffith as Terry Silver, super-rich martial artist, founder of Cobra Kai, “President of Dynatox Industries” and Vietnam buddy of part I villain John Kreese (Martin Kove, STEELE JUSTICE, BARE KNUCKLES). You know I love Martin Kove, so I was excited when the opening recap montage led into Kreese during hard times, having been humiliated by the tournament loss and the incident in the parking lot where Miyagi dodged his punches and then pretended to honk his nose, which is considered the gravest of insults in white California karate circles. He lost all his students and ran out of money and now that he’s a humbled underdog it really seems for a minute like he could go the way of Boyka in UNDISPUTED III or Drago at the end of CREED II and become someone we root for. But when he goes to Silver’s mansion to tell him he’s hanging it up, the bastard comes up with another plan. It’s kinda like that great moment in YOUNG ADULT where she has a perfect window to grow and learn and become a better person, but she talks to the exact wrong person and chooses the easier route of listening to bad advice.
(Or maybe both characters are just irredeemable assholes.)
Silver recruits a young bully to become Daniel’s new rival – a guy that a magazine called “Karate’s Bad Boy – Tournament Terror Mike Barnes” (Sean Kanan, HIDE AND GO SHRIEK). Then Silver goes undercover as a mild-mannered nice guy who apologizes for the dishonor of John Kreese as he launches a supposedly kinder, gentler incarnation of Cobra Kai. He tells Miyagi and Daniel that Kreese was a good man who saved his life in Vietnam, but also claims that he recently died of a broken heart from his failed karate school! Miyagi and Daniel have the appropriate reaction of sincerely saying that it’s “too bad.”
There’s a really funny transformation where Silver is at his mansion wearing a tux, having his various servants help get him a shitty truck and “humble” clothes to create his nice guy persona. “Margaret, I’m gonna be working full time on this for now on. Full time… For the next few weeks my business is strictly revenge.”
Although there are references to Silver being a big time, bad-guy-on-Captain-Planet level world-polluter, he enjoys keeping his body clean, at least on the outside. When he calls Kreese to tell him his master plan he’s in a sauna drinking champagne and Kreese is on a beach in Hawaii drinking a Mai Tai and getting massaged by two women. In the scene where Karate’s Bad Boy Tournament Terror Mike Barnes comes to take the job, Silver is taking a bubble bath, drinking tea, smoking a cigar and going over threat and bribe letters with his secretary (Diana Webster). After the negotiations, the Bad Boy says, “Mr. Silver, you just bought yourself a champion.”
With his black leather jacket and pony tail you have to wonder if they tried to get Steven Seagal – who was hot from ABOVE THE LAW and still lanky – to play Silver. If not, was the look inspired by him? It must’ve been. Check out this silhouette:
As cool as it would have been to have Seagal as the villain, he wouldn’t have been able to pull off Griffith’s trick of talking and acting totally different when he pretends to be a nice guy, offering kind words (“John Kreese said you had alot of heart”) and favors to Daniel, fake-rescuing him from the staged bullying of Karate’s Bad Boy Tournament Terror Mike Barnes, giving him words of encouragement and offering to loan him a book (“on sweeping techniques”!). He really does seem like a cool guy.
I thought it would be even funnier if we were introduced to him that way and only later got a reveal of his evil bath tub speeches. But as soon as he’s manipulated Daniel into training with him (because Miyagi doesn’t believe he should defend his title and therefore refuses to help prepare him for the tournament) Silver starts treating the kid like shit. And that’s just in the way he talks to him during lessons. I’m not even including that he does evil shit like show up at a teen dance club and pay a guy to hit on his girl to trick him into using a Cobra Kai dark side nose-breaking technique.
In part I, Kreese infamously commanded “sweep the leg,” and that era’s Karate Bad Boy Tournament Runner-Up Johnny was hesitant to do the illegal move. I like that here Terry’s very first lesson is to sweep the leg of a wooden dummy, and Daniel does the same thing as Johnny: question it, but then go along with it.
This is all great, but made even better by multiple scenes where Silver does something sneaky and then turns his back or hides around a corner and does a bad guy smile worthy of The Joker. He just absolutely delights in being a very rich and successful adult man who is living under a false identity and spending weeks of his life completely dedicated to an elaborate scheme to punish a young boy for winning a regional amateur karate tournament for teens.
I should note that this is a negative portrayal of Vietnam veterans, contrasted against Miyagi as the heroic WWII veteran. It doesn’t have the sympathy for them that the RAMBO series or even STEELE JUSTICE did. Kreese could’ve learned a life lesson from picking a fight with an old man in a parking lot and ending up cutting both of his hands punching through car windows. Instead he requests for Silver to make this kid get his knuckles bloody. Silver likes the idea so much he giggles.
There’s a really funny turning point where Daniel realizes that Silver’s influence is bringing out a side of him he doesn’t like, but he still babbles to Miyagi that “he means well” before heading to the dojo to let him know he won’t be training with him anymore. It’s weird because it seems like it’s supposed to be the middle of the night, but he goes into the dojo, closed and with all the lights off, calling for Silver as if he lives there or something.
And actually he is there, all set up for the big moment when Karate’s Bad Boy Tournament Terror Mike Barnes steps out from the back room to reveal they’ve been in cahoots the whole time. And, as Daniel heads for the door past a cardboard standee of the late Mr. Kreese, the real, actually alive Kreese leaps out from behind it and roars at him.
And then the evil trio all have a long, hearty cackle together.
Honestly I think Daniel can hold his head high for not having shit his pants or vomited or anything like that. But I wonder what would’ve happened if he said “Oh my God, thank God you’re alive!” and hugged him. Would Kreese have relented?
The confrontation gets even more over the top when KBBTT Mike Barnes goes out the front door and comes flying back in, having been hurled non-consensually by Mr. Miyagi, who fights all these guys, and then finally agrees to train Daniel for the tournament. I don’t get how this fits in with his philosophy – he’s angry, so now he will go against his stated beliefs that karate to defend a plastic trophy is meaningless? Seems like kind of a sell out. But a crowdpleasing sell out.
Now that the cat’s out of the bag Terry Silver can dress the way he prefers at the tournament, which means he wears an ascot. And you really had to be rich to wear an ascot in 1989. Note that Bruce Wayne did not wear an ascot in BATMAN, but Brad Wesley did in ROAD HOUSE. So you had to be rich and evil to wear one.
I suppose I should mention that there’s a bunch of stuff in the movie that has nothing to do with Terry Silver. Daniel’s mother only cameos to be written out – she has to take care of an uncle with emphysema. So Daniel lives with Miyagi and has a pile of cash he’s supposed to use to go to college. Instead he, without Miyagi’s permission, uses it to buy some building that’s pretty much a crackhouse where he has decided Miyagi has to start a shop for selling his bonsai trees. Miyagi stands there and stews as Daniel skips around giving his delusional speech about what a great building it is and all the amazing things he’ll do with it and it seems like Miyagi is finally going to do the right thing and use some Miyagi Dim Mak move to explode Daniel’s head like one of Gallagher’s watermelons. But then it’s a twist where actually he’s moved by the fact that Daniel bought a total shithole because it means he’s willing to work hard. So he makes Daniel his business partner.
It’s supposed to be a bad neighborhood. We never really find out why, and the only other business we know of is a pot store (as in ceramics, not weed) directly across the street, whose only employee we ever see is a sweet teenage girl named Jessica (Robyn Lively, TEEN WITCH, Twin Peaks, OUIJA) who immediately starts hanging out with Daniel. Lively (who is Blake Lively’s half-sister) is pretty charming, and it’s kind of an interesting touch that on their first date she reveals that she’s decided to get back together with her boyfriend in Columbus, Ohio, and he doesn’t have a problem with that and they remain platonic for the rest of the movie. My only guess why they did that is they realized he’d already had two girlfriends that didn’t return for sequels and they didn’t want to do that a third time.
Daniel or Daniel and Jessica keep finding themselves alone in the not-yet-open bonsai store when Bad Boy etc. Mike Barnes and two other bullies, Snake (Jonathan Avildsen, “Druggy,” ROCKY V) and Dennis (William Christopher Ford, “Blue Ninja,” POCKET NINJAS) bust in and try to force him to sign an entry form for the tournament using threats, beatings, and breakings. In one scene Barnes, who is an internationally famous karate champion, kicks this untrained teenage girl. Later Daniel rants that, “You know, this is the ’80s, you gotta do something Mr. Miyagi. You can’t be so damn passive. Somebody’s gotta do something about these guys,” and what he does about them is call the police, who don’t help at all. I guess that’s why Miyagi ultimately trains him for the tournament, though. Because this is the ’80s.
There’s some cool HIGHLANDER style helicopter shots of Miyagi and Daniel doing katas on top of a narrow ridge surrounded by ocean. We learn that Miyagi once planted a rare Okinawan bonsai tree on the inaccessible wall of an enclosed cliff/sea cave thing and when the business is in trouble Daniel stupidly decides to take the tree to try to sell it. Jessica teaches him how to rappel but points out what an idiotic plan it is and he does it anyway. Also the bullies trap them at the bottom and demand that he sign the entry form – which he produces from his pocket!
As in all the original KARATE KID movies there’s not a huge amount of karate. There are nice sunset training montages. There’s an inexplicable new rule that he only has to fight in the finals this year, which rules out a tournament montage. The little bits with Miyagi fighting are well performed to make a small old man who is not really a martial artist seem unbeatable.
The fights are choreographed by Pat E. Johnson, who also plays the referee in the first three KARATE KIDs. He’s a legit westernized-martial-arts movie guy because he came up in Robert Clouse movies as a stuntman in ENTER THE DRAGON and BLACKBELT JONES and stunt coordinator for GOLDEN NEEDLES, HOT POTATO, BATTLE CREEK BRAWL (aka THE BIG BRAWL) and FORCE: FIVE. He also did the fight in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and choreographed the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES movies, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO and MORTAL KOMBAT. Pretty much all of which have cooler fights than this series, but I don’t think that’s his fault.
It’s the same screenwriter as parts 1 and 2, Robert Mark Kamen, who told our friend Fred Topel in a 2012 interview that he had originally turned down the movie when the producers rejected his idea:
Well, the truth will now be told. I turned down doing Karate Kid III because I wanted to do something different. I wanted to have them flashback to 16th century China and do a historical flying people movie. I wanted to do a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie. That’s what I wanted to do. Guy McElwaine, rest his soul, refused to do it. He wouldn’t do it. Jerry [Weintraub] wouldn’t do it. They didn’t want to mess with the franchise and I felt very strongly that doing the same story all over again was f***ing boring so I didn’t do it and they hired somebody else to do a draft. Somebody else could not write Mr. Miyagi and Daniel, couldn’t write them. So Dawn Steel took over the studio from Guy McElwaine and she was a good friend of mine. She said, “How much would it take for you to do what they want to do?” I was very flippant and I threw a number out and she said okay. I didn’t really want to do that one but I ended up doing it because first of all, they appealed to me. They said, “What, do you want somebody to f*ck up Mr. Miyagi? Because we’re going to make the film.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll do it” but I wouldn’t do the fourth one, the one with the girl with Hilary Swank.
That would’ve been really ahead of its time. And I’m not sure how it would make sense (but read the interview for further explanation). I wish we could see what that would’ve been, but since we can’t I’m glad he sold out and gave us this.
The movie did okay, despite poor reviews. It opened a little below the previous week’s releases BATMAN and HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS. But there wasn’t another movie in the series for five years, at which point Daniel was gone and Miyagi mentored THE NEXT KARATE KID, played by future two time best actress winner Hilary Swank. The character of Daniel didn’t return until last year’s acclaimed Youtube Red series Cobra Kai, a show that (judging by the two free episodes I watched) correctly pegs him as kind of a dickwad.
Griffith went on to a decent career as a b-action star, appearing in EXCESSIVE FORCE, KULL THE CONQUEROR, xXx, TIMECOP 2: THE BERLIN DECISION and (most notably to me) John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES, where he plays lead villain Valek. He’s also a writer, having already written one called A PLACE TO HIDE the year before this, his screenplay NIGHT OF THE WARRIOR ended up becoming a pretty good Lorenzo Lamas movie, and in recent years he was a writer and producer for the TV show Grimm.
Screenwriter Kamen later wrote LETHAL WEAPON 3 and then began writing for Luc Besson productions including THE FIFTH ELEMENT, KISS OF THE DRAGON, THE TRANSPORTER 1, 2 and 3, BANDIDAS, TAKEN 1, 2 and 3, COLOMBIANA and ENTER THE WARRIORS GATE. He’s still in the action game, with a credit on the upcoming ANGEL HAS FALLEN. He also got a story credit on the KARATE KID remake, but that probly just means the original screenplay? I don’t know, it’s an odd credit.
When the movie came out, the #1 song was “Satisfied” by Richard Marx. But remember that about a month earlier the #1 song was “Forever Your Girl” by Paula Abdul. I bring that up because Abdul is also credited as choreographer of the corny teen dancing that happens at the club. That’s a meteoric rise to go from doing a gig like that to being a top pop star before the movie even comes out.
Also on June 30th was a movie that was much more important to me and the culture at large: DO THE RIGHT THING. It turned Spike Lee into a phenomenon, raised the profile of black directors and black cinema tremendously, blessed us with the anthem “Fight the Power” and spoke to very timely issues of race and racism that are sadly still topical now. 30 years later it’s still Lee’s best film and an American classic. Of course, it’s not an action film, so I’m not reviewing it in this series, but I’m mostly happy with the piece I already did on it for the 25th anniversary anyway.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.