Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Karate Kid Part III
1989 was, in many ways, the end of the wave begun by Star Wars in 1976. It was also a transition from the strange world of fantasy and sci-fi films to the franchise-heavy summer movie rotation of decades to come. Curiously, this change was marked by the arrival of the first Tim Burton Batman, a fifth Star Trek film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, finally, The Karate Kid Part III. The two are linked as both were thought to be the final films in their cycles and both relied heavily on the iconography of their original installments after wandering far from their initial formats in both of their second parts; a last holdover from Star Wars as its third installment, Return of the Jedi also leans on its initial film for visuals and plot. But since Return of the Jedi is not a cheesy movie thanks to the Death Star scenes, we will not discuss its choices here. Instead, let’s focus on The Karate Kid‘s third installment, a film star Ralph Macchio recently told me had “certain issues” in its script despite its growing following online.
He was also very good-natured about my interest in a flick he dismissed as “the second sequel.”
Like the Rocky films, Part III opens with a recap of previous events; namely Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese’s (Martin Kove) humiliation at the hands of Miyagi. As predicted by Miyagi at the end of their fight, living with himself was the punishment Kreese deserved for instilling the “no mercy” philosophy into his students. We soon see that as the events of The Karate Kid Part II unfolded — including its initial six-month time jump — Kreese fell on hard times. After the All-Valley tournament, his students abandoned him and the Cobra Kai dojo fell into disrepute.
Tired of paying bills and dodging calls from the All-Valley Tournament organizers, Kreese decides to back up and leave town. But before he does, he heads to the hills to let the true owner of Cobra Kai know he’s giving up. Enter business tycoon Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith). He listens to Kreese’s tale of woe and vows to get the sweetest of revenge upon Daniel (Macchio) and his mentor, Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita). Kreese saved Silver’s life in Vietnam and will do just about anything to make sure his best pal gets the best in life.
Meanwhile, Miyagi and Daniel return from Okinawa (where the bulk of Part II transpired) with Daniel expecting to begin college in a few days. But when they discover that the apartment building is being torn down — ending Miyagi’s employment there — and Daniel’s mother has gone back to New Jersey to take care of an ailing uncle, plans swiftly change. Daniel uses his tuition money to help Miyagi start a bonsai shop — his mentor’s suddenly stated dream. As they get ready to open the shop, Daniel learns he would only have to compete in the final championship match during the All-Valley tournament should he want to defend his title. He’s thrilled, but Miyagi refuses to sign on as his sensei for reasons of honor.
Soon, Silver makes his presence known by bringing “Karate’s Badboy” Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) to town and sending him to threaten Daniel and his new friend Jessica (Robyn Lively). Silver soon appears as a sympathetic ear to Daniel; explaining himself as a student of the same sensei who originally trained the allegedly deceased John Kreese. As Miyagi continues to refuse to teach Daniel, he turns to Silver, who instructs him in “Quick Silver” techniques which will put him at a disadvantage should he fight Barnes. When Miyagi learns the truth about Silver and Kreese, he finally agrees to train Daniel.
And if the highly-detailed description of the film sounds solid, that’s part of the charm. The Karate Kid Part III isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it’s just a late and poorly executed one. Inspired by sequels like The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II, The Karate Kid Part II attempted to expand its world by delving deeper into Miyagi’s history and moving the story out of the San Fernando Valley. At the time, it seemed like a good idea — in fact, breaking the first film’s format was very much the format of 80s sequels — but it loses some of the charm of the Daniel/Miyagi relationship found in the first film. Returning to the Valley and bringing the Cobra Kai threat back were intentional attempts to recapture the spark of the first film even as the plot tested the friendship of the main characters. While some of this repetition would seem more natural in a second installment, especially to modern eyes, it just looks lazy as part of a third film. And yet, there’s something perversely satisfying in watching director John G. Avildsen and writer Robert Mark Kamen reheat the first film’s leftovers.
Another strange thrill is the film’s overall sense of fatigue. Despite being set in the later half of 1985, it was shot nearly four years later. Those years are apparent on Macchio, who tries his best to recapture his own youthful vigor, but cannot hide the six years between the first and third productions. Similarly, Morita seems over it. He grumps through much of the film as Miyagi’s friendship with Daniel strains, losing some of the wit, charm and joy of the character in the earlier installments and the attempt to return to successful elements of the first film. The Karate Kid Part III also commits to a third secret of Miyagi family karate — a special kata which is less visually interesting than the first film’s crane technique or even the second film’s drum technique; and in having Miyagi call it the secret of his family’s discipline, the plot point creaks as it repeats an idea from the previous two films and telegraphs Daniel’s ultimate victory at the end of the picture.
Thankfully, Griffith’s performance as Terry Silver does not creak. As the film was his first feature role, the actor gives it his all and just about pulls off pretending to be ten years older than he really is — Griffith is eight months younger than Macchio despite playing a Vietnam Vet — and offers the film a wonderfully sleazy and over-the-top villain. He is the main reason to watch the movie as he absorbs every late ’80s evil businessman cliche into his soul. Similarly, Kanan gives Barnes the smarm you need from a younger villain in a film like this. He’s gloriously one-dimensional as he cruises around town with his manager, Snake (Jonathan Avildsen), and harassing Daniel wherever he goes. Sure, it’s a retread of Johnny (William Zabka) from the first film, but it’s a glorious retread.
In fact, the whole film is sort of glorious in the way in retreads the original film. I think that is due in part to the film’s inability to hide how much it copies the first Karate Kid; almost as though Avildsen, Kamen, Macchio and Morita are all unwilling participants in a film the studio (Columbia Pictures) demanded, but they were powerless to stop. There are little subversions, though, like the way the romance subplot between Daniel and Jessica is aborted in their second scene together. But even these weak attempts to differentiate the film from its predecessors highlight the way it is uninspired. And yet, that lack of inspiration — backed by the strong performances of the antagonists — make it an infinitely more watchable movie than Part II. Well, more watchable if you come to it with a bucketful of irony, I suppose. It’s also a perfect for group riffing as Silver evils up his scenes, Snake makes himself way too much of a character and Macchio looks out of place as a recent high school graduate.
The Karate Kid Part III is available to stream on Hulu and for rent at the usual streaming platforms. Blu-ray and DVD versions are also available wherever disc media is still sold.