Reviewed by Brian Ludovico (February 21, 2005)
Hollywood’s not an industry that’s been known for quitting while it’s ahead. At every turn, there’s a movie that the industry is trying to throw the franchise tag on, desperately trying to create the next Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, most of them end up like Jaws: obviously driven by dollar signs, as opposed to anything that the preceding narrative might have spawned.
Rest assured, if you can attach a line of toys and a fast food joint promotion to a movie that made $100 million in its theatrical run, there will be a sequel, even if it’s Tomb Raider II or Jurassic Park III. This isn’t a cinematic convention limited only to the last ten or twelve years, by any means: witness 1989’s The Karate Kid III.
We start with a deposed and despondent John Kreese (the Kove returns). He finds his life in shambles, ostensibly wandering the streets with no money, no students, and no prospects. Kreese decides to pack it in.
His former war buddy and apparent financial backer Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Mitchell) is saddened by this news, so he sends Kreese to Tahiti and promises to avenge his honor. Apparently, the schedule in running his multi-billion dollar toxic waste dumping industry (gee, think he’s a villain?) has some time built in for petty revenge plots. His evil plan is simple in its crazy complication. He’ll employ this film’s version of Johnny Lawrence, karate’s bad boy Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), to kick the living crap out of Daniel (Ralph Macchio) at his defense of the All Valley karate title. What’s more, he’ll get Daniel to want to accept the Silver way of training, which is of course subversive and designed to make him confused and afraid.
Daniel and Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), in the meantime, are sharing a budding romance. Actually, they’re still friends, but since Daniel now appears to be thirty two, not to mention forty pounds heavier, it’s starting to look a little unseemly.
Now living together full time thanks to the condemnation of their old apartment building, Daniel comes up with a plan for Miyagi’s retirement. Without any business plan, credit history or, more importantly, Miyagi’s signature on the lease, Daniel manages to secure a building for Miyagi to run a bonsai store. The scene is set for the two of them to live an ambiguously gay life together as what amounts to florists, particularly when Miyagi convinces Daniel that he’s got nothing else to prove in karate. It doesn’t matter that Daniel, thanks to a convenient new rule change, would only have to fight in the finals. How is that fair to everyone else?
Of course, Daniel’s refusal to fight throws a monkey wrench in Silver’s ridiculous plot to mentally destroy him. Silver orders Barnes and his thugs to make it happen by any means necessary. When the thugs destroy Miyagi’s stock of bonsai trees because of Daniel’s stubbornness, Daniel’s wracked with guilt.
What’s his big solution to restoring Miyagi’s fortune? Go fetch Miyagi’s ‘priceless’ original bonsai tree that he brought from Okinawa. I don’t know who he planned to sell it to, or for how much, but apparently he thought there was a buyer willing to pay enough to set Miyagi up for a while. Of course, the thugs catch wind of this plan and use the tree as a tool to get Daniel to finally acquiesce to their demands. In his frustration, Daniel decides that he will fight in the tournament, but finds out that Miyagi won’t train him. It’s against what Miyagi believes karate is all about. That, of course, is where Terrible Terry comes into the picture.
In the film’s most hilarious scene, a scene in which he stops just short of donning a cape, putting on a top hat and twisting his moustache, Terry’s plan’s comes to light. All at once, Daniel finds out that Terry’s not who he says he his, that Mike Barnes has been in his employ the entire time, and that, shock of shocks, Kreese is alive! Yes, the Kove returns, apparently after some facial work, a little eyeliner, and frosting his hair. It’s difficult to say which is funnier: Daniel’s forced look of fear, or The Kove’s jumping around and hooting. Of course, Miyagi comes to extricate Daniel from yet another mess, gets a look at the situation, and decides he’ll train Daniel.
The only suspense left in the film now is figuring out what this year’s indefensible move will be. Obviously, Daniel’s too fat to do the crane kick from the first one, and no one’s buying the power bitch slap from the second one. Miyagi decides he’s going to teach Daniel a dance that will apparently lull Mike Barnes into a confused state and allow Daniel to move in for the kill. Yes, a dance. This makes the power bitch slap look like something out of Iron Monkey.
Cobra Kai’s evil plan, besides having the two older gentlemen to look as dastardly as possible - Silver even wears an ascot! - from the sidelines, is…well, let this little interchange between Silver and the Kovemeister tell the tale:
Terry (gleefully evil): “Remember…first he suffers!”
Kreese (sinister but debonair): “…Then he suffers some more! Mwuhhhahhahaha…HAHhahahahah…MWUAHHHAHHAHAHH!”
In practical terms, Barnes is to win a point and lose a point on penalties for the entirety of the fight, inflicting maximum pain and humiliation on Miyagi dojo. Of course, when three minutes of being brutalized is up, Daniel kicks into his Vogue-fu, Barnes is stunned by his grace a sublime beauty, and Daniel scores a single punch to win the match. Talk about an unsatisfying ending; at least he held his own against Johnny. Here he was a quivering punching bag and lands a lucky punch. What a load.
Seriously, this is one of the worst major studio releases of the 1980’s. Basically, Robert Mark Kamen, writer for all three installments, takes the conflict elements of The Karate Kid and shuffles them around, adorns it with just a few different baubles, and calls it a movie. It’s symptomatic of the script’s sloth that this movie that can’t come up with a better name than “Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees” for a bonsai store.
Characters are thrown together and when they don’t work, they’re just pushed out of the film. The love interest is pretty much just dumped about two thirds of the way through the movie, and no, I don’t mean they get rid of Miyagi. Daniel gets interested Jessica (Robyn Lively), a pottery worker from across the street. The script obviously decides it has nothing for her to do, and since there’s more romantic chemistry between a vacuum cleaner and a potted plant, they send her to Ohio for some reason.
The villains are the best part of the movie, mainly because of this lassitude. There’s no attempt to rationalize their actions; they’re just obsessed and evil. Thomas’s performance as Silver is hilariously over the top; check out the scene where he’s sitting in the steam room talking to the Kove. For the record, Thomas is actually younger than Macchio, who now looks like the Karate Man.
In no uncertain terms, The Karate Kid III is a narrative failure. The filmmakers count on us to simply reconnect with these characters on the same level we did in the original, and to a lesser extent in Part II, but they offer us nothing new as an incentive to do so. We know that Daniel and Miyagi are on the right side of karate, and the Cobra Kai thugs represent the wrong. We know that in spite of the odds, Daniel will triumph, which is nothing new for this series, but we aren’t invested enough in the story to really care about the journey. If the consumer home video market was as big in 1989 as it is now, this movie likely wouldn’t have even see the silver screen, and would have been a cruddy direct-to-video job.
Still, as bad as it is, it isn’t the worst of the series. The Next Karate Kid still looms…