Holy trilogy of the 'Karate Kid'
By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
Webster's definition for a trilogy: "A series of three dramas or literary works or sometimes three musical compositions that are closely related and develop a single theme."
Which brings us to the Karate Kid trilogy. Sure, there was allegedly a fourth installment ("The Next Karate Kid," featuring Hillary Swank as Mr. Miyagi's new student), but as far as I'm concerned, that movie never happened. You hear me? Just like "Rocky V," "Another 48 Hours," "Caddyshack 2," "Another Midnight Run," "Fletch 2," "Made," "Slap Shot II: Breaking the Ice," the final season of "90210" and everything else, "The Next Karate Kid" never happened.
For my money, the "Karate Kid" franchise lived and died with the immortal Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, and it remains the most memorable Sports Movie Trilogy of all-time. And since that trilogy ran the gamut from "superb" to "awkward" to "wait a second ... this isn't really happening, is it?", we might as well recap the LaRusso Era once and for all.
Here's a closer examination of all three films, in order:
"The Karate Kid"
Quite simply, one of the 15 best sports movies of all-time. Please ignore the ludicrous Page 2 voting, which omitted "The Karate Kid," "Fast Break" and "Major League" from the Top 20 and featured a chick flick (Bull Durham) at No. 1, the dumbest, most outrageous thing in the history of Page 2, and for the love of God, I will not argue about this. Any "Best Sports Movies" list that doesn't feature either "Hoosiers" or "The Natural" as the No. 1 pick shouldn't even count. Let's just pretend it never happened. OK? OK.
Back to the brilliance of "The Karate Kid." For one thing, there's a terrific plot: Lovable loser Daniel moves to California, feuds with a band of moped-riding karate bullies, gets his butt kicked repeatedly, turns to a Japanese maintenance man for guidance, learns karate, learns about life, falls in love, enters a tournament against the bullies, gets injured in the semifinals, rallies back to fight his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend in the Finals, improbably gets the win. The end. Does it get any better than that?
This was also Ralph Macchio's defining movie, and that sentence is funny enough in itself. But seriously, who else could have played Daniel-San? By the end of the movie, you actually believe that 1) Daniel could beat everyone from Cobra Kai in a karate tournament, and 2) he would have no problem wooing a young Elisabeth Shue (looking yummy here, even with the extra baby fat), which remains one of the all-time movie stretches.
Hey, this kid's 5-foot-7, he weighs 100 pounds, he can't defend himself, he has no money and no car, we run in different social circles, his mom has to drive him on dates, and everyone hates him. ... I think I'm in love!
Wait ... we're just getting started. The supporting cast was superb, including Morita, Shue (as Ali with an "i," one of those rare sports movie girlfriends who actually brings something to the table) and Martin Cove as Cobra Kai's evil sensei, John Creese, whose "Sweep the leg" order remains one of the more secretly chilling movie scenes.
(And didn't you love the Cobra Kai? They were like an Aryan Karate Machine, weren't they? Why hasn't anyone opened a chain of Cobra Kai karate studios across America? If you were studying karate, wouldn't you want to study at the Cobra Kai? Couldn't they at least sell the Cobra Kai karate outfits online? Has there ever been a better roto team nickname/movie homage than Cobra Kai? I could go on all day.)
Three underrated cast members really helped the cause here:
1. Randee Heller as Mrs. LaRusso, one of my favorite Hollywood Moms of the '80s (right up there with Mrs. Keaton and Mrs. Bueller). You know, in a five-year span, Randee played Gabe Kaplan's wife in "Fast Break," Ken Reeves' stripper girlfriend in "The White Shadow," and Daniel-San's Mom in "The Karate Kid," and then she was never seen again ... and I guess my point is this: You don't need to work anymore with a résumé like that.
2. Billy Zabka's watershed performance as the villainous Johnny Lawrence (Daniel-San's nemesis and the head of the Cobra Kai), which launched his much-lauded career as the definitive '80s movie villain. In my opinion, he has entered that rare group of actors who only need to go by one name: Eastwood, Stallone, Hanks, Cruise, Nicholson ... and Zabka.
(Note: Some of my readers have been pining for a "Billy Zabka DVD Collection" -- "Karate Kid," "Just One of the Guys" and "Back to School," with director's commentary from Zabka and deleted scenes -- and frankly, there's still time. They could even call it "Zabka!" It's a no-brainer. Like you wouldn't buy this?)
3. The Cobra Kai flunkie who screams "Get him a bodybag ... yeahhhhhh!" during the climactic Daniel-Johnny fight scene, which emerged as one of the signature movie quotes from the '80s - right up there with "How 'bout a Fresca, hmmmmm?", "Dammit Maverick!", "Looks like the University of Illinois!" and "Two months, Bender ... you're mine for two months."
Some other classic moments: Miyagi saving Daniel-San on Halloween night (and wiping out the Cobra Kai) ... Miyagi and Daniel-San trying to catch flies with chopsticks ... the well-filmed scene when Daniel is trying that balancing thing on the beach ... the emotional 16th birthday party, when Miyagi gives Daniel-San one of his antique cars (awwwww) ... Daniel and Ali's first date, one of those hokey, "We're on a date and having a good time" '80s montages ... Daniel crashing Ali's country club party, then getting a plate of spaghetti on him, prompting another classic '80s device -- the "Everyone's laughing at me, and I need to get out of here" scene.
(Note: This sequence was especially beneficial for me and my college buddies, since we used to joke that the Irish-Catholic girls in our school were trained by Mr. Miyagi -- every time you made a move on them, they rebuffed you with either "paint the fence," "wax on/wax off" or "sand the floor." There was one girl we actually just referred to simply as "Miyagi." That's right, college ... $22,000 a year at the time.)
Still, a great sequence, capped off by Daniel-San's injury, Miyagi's massage trick, a chill scene when Daniel-San limps out of the locker room to fight Zabka ("He's gonna fight! Daniel LaRusso is gonna fight!"), and, of course...
Unfortunately, "The Karate Kid" was a little too good, which means we had to deal with ...
"The Karate Kid, Part II"
While preparing for this column, I realized that I hadn't seen "KKII" in years. That led to this exchange between me and the guy answering phones at my local Hollywood Video store:
Guy: (Dead silence)
Me: "You know, the sequel to 'Karate Kid'?"
Guy (a little frightened): "Um, yeah, we do."
Me: "Great, I'm coming down right now to pick it up."
Guy (picking up his other phone to alert local police): "Sure."
(I'm telling you, you haven't really died a slow death in life until you've entered a video store and muttered the words, "Hi, I'm the guy who called about 'Karate Kid II.' ")
A quick plot recap: Miyagi's father in Okinawa dies, so Miyagi decides to fly to Japan. Since Ali dumped Daniel-San, he has no friends and nothing to do all summer ... this prompts a painful scene in which Daniel-San arrives at the airport just as Miyagi is boarding his plane, leading to some "Please, let me come with you" begging and this hair-raising quote:
"Mr. Miyagi, you're more important than college, you're more important than anything to me."
(Yup ... this was the point in the trilogy in which the Daniel-Miyagi relationship could officially be described as "a little uncomfortable.")
So they fly to Japan together, as everyone worries that they might join the "Mile High Club" on the flight. Turns out that Miyagi fled Okinawa after stealing his best friend's girlfriend, and the friend (Sato) challenged him to a death match or something. The old girlfriend is still around (caring for Miyagi's father), and in the WATFO's of WATFO's, she has a daughter who digs Daniel-San. Unfortunately, Sato is still around as well, accompanied by his evil nephew, best described as "The Japanese Zabka" (the JZ).
And we go from there. The JZ immediately starts feuding with Daniel-San; it doesn't matter if he's in America or Japan, folks, there's just something about Daniel-San that rubs people the wrong way. Sato tries to goad Miyagi into a death match, calling him a coward about 160 different times. Some property is destroyed. Daniel-San and Miyagi both find true love ... and fortunately, not with one another. There's even a grating hit song from the '80s (Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love"). I would tell you more, but it was difficult for me to watch the movie with blood pouring from both eyes.
Maybe the only enjoyable twist was the birth of the Ralph Macchio Face -- scene after scene of people threatening either him or Miyagi in Japanese, while Macchio squints his eyes, lurches his body forward and opens his mouth in disbelief. He's so annoying that, right around the middle of the movie, you turn against him and start openly rooting for the JZ to kill him. And hey, it almost happens.
After Sato and Miyagi bury the hatchet (after an improbable hurricane scene), everyone in the village gathers for a conciliatory ceremony ... which gets rudely interrupted when the JZ hijacks Daniel-San's girlfriend with a knife, forcing Daniel-San to fight him to the death. As Miyagi says, "Daniel-San ... this not tournament, this for real." Thanks for clarifying that.
Well, you can guess how it turns out: With Daniel-San on the verge of losing, everyone starts shaking those little Japanese two-sided drum thingies (shouldn't they hand these out at baseball games?). Inspired, he knocks the JZ unconscious with an absurd barrage of two-handed punches, saves his Japanese girlfriend and guarantees himself a happy ending. Also, the movie ends happily. Just a dreadful film. And not even in a good way. It should have ended here.
And yet, inexplicably, for whatever reason, it spawned another sequel ...
"The Karate Kid, Part III"
Good God ... where do we begin? Back in the '90s, you had a 75.638% chance of catching "KKIII" on one of the three HBO channels at any time. I'll never forget the spring when I was vacationing in the Caribbean -- our hotel TV had six channels, including a Spanish HBO. Needless to say, one morning, "KKIII" was showing with Spanish dubbing. You couldn't get away from it if you tried.
Since it wouldn't be a Karate Kid movie unless someone was trying to ruin Daniel-San's life, they created a plot centering around the millionaire friend of Creese, who fell on hard times after Zabka lost the All-Valley Karate Championship. Blaming Daniel-San, The Rich Guy (played in career-ending fashion by Thomas Ian Griffith) develops an elaborate plan to deceive Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, hoping to eventually destroy both of them. Honestly, I wish he had.
Some lingering questions and thoughts from 95 delightfully unappealing minutes ...
What was he thinking? Seriously, what was he thinking? Was there a bigger loser in the history of Hollywood lead characters than Daniel-San? And does this explain why so many people went out of their way to antagonize him? Do you realize that, in the span of 12 months, this kid was terrorized by three different groups of people in two different countries. What were the odds? Couldn't this kid catch a break? Was he really that bad?
(I'm brimming with rhetorical questions. This movie dumbfounds me. Is that a word? Can you be dumbfounded? And while we're here, why is it so damned hard to find a good bonsai tree? And why can the simple phrase "Ay! Must stay focus!" feel so inspirational and life-altering? All right, where was I?)
Writer No. 2: "Yeah, we'll name him Mike Barnes ... he could be a renowned teenage karate champ with a mean streak."
Writer No. 1: "That's just what I was thinking! Like an over-the-top Zabka!"
Writer No. 2: "Yes! And in the Finals, Daniel-San somehow beats him."
Writer No. 1: "Perfect! The audience will never see it coming!"
(Guaranteed laughs for the entire room. It gets contagious. Pretty soon, everyone will be narrating things like "You know, Daniel-San, you built a little like Miyagi's first wife." Never gets old. I'm tellin' you, everyone will think you're a comedic genius. Just trust me on this.)
Then, just when Daniel-San starts winning the final match, Miyagi comes flying in and hits him the head with a bonsai tree, causing him to lose the title and selling him out in the process. And the movie wraps up with Miyagi, Creese, the Rich Guy and Shue celebrating over Daniel-San's battered body as the crowd collectively laughs at him, followed by Daniel-San going into the shower and hanging himself. The end. A fitting finale to the trilogy.
Nope. Never happened. The actual movie ends with Daniel-San retaining his title against Barnes, then raising Miyagi's hand in the air as Creese and The Rich Guy try desperately to look outraged. Just a goofy ending to an utterly goofy movie.
And just like that, the most memorable Sports Movie Trilogy of all-time was finally over. Maybe we never found out what happened to Daniel LaRusso when he grew up, but I can tell you this: If they ever made a "Return of the Karate Kid" movie -- with a grown-up LaRusso opening a karate studio to compete with Cobra Kai, then getting picked on by his own students and eventually pulling Miyagi out of a nursing home to help him survive -- I would be the first person in line.
Come back, Daniel-San. We miss you.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.