For the first 90 minutes or so, “The Karate Kid Part III” (1989) is shaping up to be the worst of the trilogy chronicling the coming of age and burgeoning karate skills of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). The last half-hour redefines the film – somehow written and directed by the returning team of Robert Mark Kamen and John G. Avildsen – as a hilarious unintentional comedy. At least I think it’s unintentional; I suppose it’s possible the film was shot in sequence and the filmmakers decided to lean into the absurdities at this point. It’s still the worst of the trilogy, but at least it gives me my recommended weekly allowance of laughs in one sitting.
This series has always had ridiculous villains, but “Part III” takes the cake. The plot is built on the bizarre premise that every student departed the Cobra Kai dojo after Daniel won the championship in the first film. What’s more, Daniel is some sort of local god among the community. So for the following year’s tournament (I had to keep reminding myself this is only one year later, somehow), Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), an old buddy of Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove), devises a scheme with this end goal: A Cobra Kai ringer, Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), will defeat Daniel in the championship match, thus restoring the dojo’s glory.
Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this scheme from a theoretical perspective. First, would students leave a dojo in droves because it doesn’t hold the annual championship at the moment? It seems unlikely, but that’s the reality that’s presented here, unchallenged. Second, does the community just blindly embrace whoever the frontrunner is? That notion is somewhat challenged, in that the crowd’s sympathies lean toward Daniel in the final fight, even when Barnes takes the lead. I guess we’re still supposed to believe the crowd will embrace Barnes (and Cobra Kai) if he wins – no matter how he wins, and even with Silver and Kreese standing at the mat’s edge glorying in Daniel (who is still a teenager, remember) getting the crap beat out of him with illegal blows.
That theory assumes the crowd won’t behave like normal human beings and root for the likable defending champ who is being peppered with rule-breaking moves by a rage-aholic. But as weird as “Part III” is, it’s not on the whole presenting an alternate world of human behavior. The villains are the exceptions, as they always have been in the “Karate Kid” series; this film simply takes them to new extremes. In addition to the main trio, there’s also a sidekick named Snake (Jonathan Avildsen), who has the role of taunting Daniel from the sideline. He’s also very enthusiastic about Barnes’ threat that they will gang-rape Daniel’s friend Jessica (Robyn Lively, half-sister of Blake) if Daniel doesn’t sign up for the tournament.
If one were to approach the various characters’ interests calmly and rationally, the whole plot of “Part III” is impossible. If Cobra Kai has lost students because it doesn’t have a champion, it’s probably enough to have Barnes win the championship; it probably doesn’t need to come against Daniel. But if Daniel is a hot-ticket item, it seems Cobra Kai could play on his love of karate and get him to join a reformed, decent version of Cobra Kai. Daniel and his guardian, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, still good despite the absurdity around him), are having money troubles. Perhaps Cobra Kai could help Daniel out financially in exchange for him joining their dojo.
At any rate, by embracing the film’s steadily ratcheting stupidity in the final act, “Part III” turns into hilarious camp. Daniel finds out Silver has been tricking him — by training him (don’t overthink it) – and as Daniel takes his leave of the dishonest partnership, Kreese jumps out of the dojo’s shadows and lets out a roar. Then Miyagi shows up like Yoda reluctantly fighting Count Dooku, and Silver squares off with the old master with a series of “Wah!” shouts that almost had me rolling on the floor. This movie gets a 1.5 rating without that sequence, which raises it a full bonus point.
Also in “Part III’s” favor is Lively, who has a star quality but ended up settling for a steady career as a working actress. The film makes the unusual choice of having Daniel and Jessica’s friendship be platonic, as she immediately tells him she has an off-screen boyfriend in Ohio, where she plans to move (and even though we don’t see the guy, it seems she’s being truthful). Maybe the filmmakers became embarrassed by a cute girl throwing herself at Daniel in every movie, and this is their workaround.
Ultimately, the two Daniel LaRusso sequels are a missed opportunity to explore this LA neighborhood’s karate culture and the people in it. The first film is flawed, but it gets at the heart of the “new kid in school” theme and shows potential for a robust series. “Part II” is fine, but safe. “Part III” completely runs off the rails, and it’s not until the “Cobra Kai” TV series (2018-present) that the “Karate Kid” series builds on the first film’s foundation in a serious way.