Holy Trilogy – Bill Simmons
Posted by Jason A. Churchill on November 22, 2005
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."
Sports Guy's definition for a movie trilogy: "A series of three dramas in which the first movie did so well, they couldn't help themselves, so they brought everyone back to make more money in an uninspired sequel, only that one did pretty well, too, so they brought everyone back again for a third movie, just to beat the dead horse completely into the ground."
Which brings us to the "Karate Kid" trilogy. Sure, there was allegedly a fourth installment ("The Next Karate Kid," featuring Hilary Swank as Mr. Miyagi's new student), but as far as I'm concerned, that movie never happened. For my money, the "Karate Kid" franchise lived and died with the immortal Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, remaining the most memorable Sports Movie Trilogy ever to this day. And since that trilogy ran the gamut from "superb" to "awkward" to "wait a second … this isn't really happening, is it?" let's recap the LaRusso Era once and for all.
Here's a closer examination of the three films, in order:
"The Karate Kid"
You can't ask for a better '80s 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 with a girl who is roughly 900 miles out of his league, enters a tournament against those same bullies, gets injured in the semifinals on a cheap shot, 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?
You forget this now, but Mr. Miyagi's character was a stroke of genius at the time, a cross between Mickey from "Rocky," Pop from "The Longest Yard" and Confucius. Who didn't love Mr. Miyagi? That character was so well-written it garnered Pat Morita (best-known at the time as Arnold from "Happy Days") a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, which was the 1985 equivalent of Dennis Haskins or Joe E. Tata being nominated for an Oscar now. When Morita passed away last week, it practically felt like a family member died.
Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel-San karate and life lessons in the "Karate Kid" saga.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 John Creese, Cobra Kai's evil sensei, whose "sweep the leg" order remains one of the more secretly chilling movie moments from that decade. Plus, 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), launching his much-lauded career as the definitive '80s movie villain and eventually leading to Luke's memorable "Welcome to the OC, bitch" scene in "The OC" pilot two decades later. Even now, he still resides in that rare group of actors who only need to go by one name: Eastwood, Stallone, Hanks, Cruise, Nicholson, Crowe … 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? By the way, I'm still convinced that his career would have been totally different if Keith Gordon hadn't punched him out near the end of "Back to School." I could accept Macchio getting lucky in the All-Valley tournament. I could even accept the dude from "Just One of the Guys" kicking his butt on prom night. But Keith Gordon? Come on. That was his Tyson-Douglas moment.)
3. The Cobra Kai flunkie who screams "Put him in a body bag … 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 textbook '80s device — the "Everyone's laughing at me, and I need to get out of here" scene.
And don't forget these crucial wrinkles:* A random appearance by Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" (an '80s classic) during the scene when Daniel gets kicked off the soccer team. Always gets me fired up.
* Miyagi teaching Daniel-San karate by forcing him to perform household chores like painting fences, sanding floors and waxing cars. That always killed me. Daniel-San somehow learns karate from all of this, while Miyagi gets his house remodeled. Only in Hollywood.
(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 actually one girl we just referred to simply as "Miyagi." That's right, college … $22,000 a year at the time.)
* Obscure members of the Cobra Kai included the gay guy from "Revenge of the Nerds" (Larry B. Scott, showing some outstanding range) and future "Melrose Place" star Andrew Shue. And yes, it took me between 350-375 viewings to notice Shue — almost as random of an '80s movies sighting as James Eckhouse popping up during the resort scenes in "Cocktail."
* The "What's the matter, Danny, mommy's not here to dress you?" putdown right before the tournament. Always makes me giggle. In another column, I decided that this was the single-greatest putdown in movie history, and only because there was absolutely no comeback possible for Daniel-San. That insult was like the perfect poker hand — there wasn't a hand out there that could beat it.
|"The Karate Kid" Report Card|
* Miyagi's surreal ability to massage any injured part of the body and bring it back to life. I don't even have a joke here. At least one that we can print.
* As California reader Dave King points out, "Somebody needs to publish the following bulletin to all directors of sports movies: It strains credibility to have sellout crowds for obscure sports. No tickets available for the All-Valley Karate Championships? Doubtful. Red-clad fans packing a high school gym for wrestling in 'Vision Quest'? Uh, no. A full house for the diving team in 'Back to School'? Don't think so."
(An excellent point. For instance, the All-Valley championships took place on a Saturday afternoon in California, where you couldn't even find 500 people inside a building for more than 20 minutes unless you were handing out $100 bills … and yet these people were there for hours on end? What do you want to do today? Should we go to the beach? Go hiking? Play some hoops outside? Hey, I know, what about spending the day indoors and taking in five to six hours of high school karate?)
* The inspiring All-Valley Karate tournament montage (one of my favorite sports movie sequences ever), taken to the next level by Joe Esposito's "You're the best … around … nothing's gonna ever keep you down!" song. I've probably watched this sequence 465 times in my life, and if it was showing on HBO8 right now, I'd be taking a break for No. 466. And what about when Daniel beats Dutch (the white-haired kid, played by Chad McQueen, who eventually made a name for himself on Skinemax)? In real life, would Daniel-San have ever beaten Dutch? In a million years? Of course not. Even in the movie, they skimp over that fight because they know it's totally improbable.
Still, it's a phenomenal sports sequence, capped off by Daniel-San's injury (did you ever notice how he practically blew out his ACL on a slight tap?); Miyagi's massage trick; a certifiable 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 …
* The Crane Kick. 'Nuff said. Remember my riff in my "Hoosiers" diary about the greatest ideas in sports movie history (Ollie winning the regional championship, Rocky losing the first Creed fight, the Good Nazi standing after Pele's bicycle kick in "Victory" and so on)? Doesn't the Crane Kick rank right up there? Of course it does. Perfect ending, splendid movie — on my "Best sports movies" list, I'm ranking it 11th. It's so entertaining, we'll even overlook the crazy scoring system in the final match in which Zabka gets penalized for punching Daniel-San in the face, but Daniel-San wins the final point with a kick to the face. You figure it out.
Unfortunately, "The Karate Kid" was a little too good, which means we had to deal with …
The Karate Kid, Part II"
While preparing for the original version of this column in 2002, 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:
Daniel goes overseas to find trouble in "The Karate Kid, Part II."Me: "Hey, I was wondering if you guys had 'Karate Kid II' in?"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.'")
Anyway, it was just as excruciating as I remembered. Probably the highlight comes in the beginning — which picks up right where "KKI" left off — when Creese breaks Zabka's second-place trophy, then tries to attack Miyagi before punching through two car windows and passing out. Then again, that was the original ending of "KKI" before everyone had the bright idea, "Why don't we just end with the Crane Kick?" So you could make a pretty good case that the "Karate Kid II" filming didn't yield a single decent scene.
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, prompting a painful scene in which Daniel-San arrives at the airport just as Miyagi is boarding his plane. That eventually leads 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 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 of all WATFOs — that's the acronym for "What are the f—— odds?" — 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" (or the JZ).
Well, the JZ immediately starts feuding with Daniel-San. I mean, immediately. 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. The only enjoyable twist was the birth of the Ralph Macchio Face — scene after scene of people threatening 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 astutely points out, "Daniel-San … this not tournament, this for real." Thanks for clarifying that.
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 (shades of Swan in "The Warriors"), 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 percent chance of catching "KKIII" on one of the three HBO channels at any time. I'll never forget when I was vacationing in the Caribbean one spring — 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.
Daniel-San and Miyagi develop a very tight bond.Fortunately, if there was a Hall of Fame for "Enjoyably Bad Movies," "KKIII" would probably have its own wing. Ralph Macchio returns as the college-age Daniel, which would have been fine except for the fact that he was at least 35 years old, weighed over 200 pounds and suddenly and inexplicably developed a Charles Barkley-sized rear end. Just the sight of him wearing jeans is enough to crack up an entire room. I've seen it happen.Since it wouldn't be a "Karate Kid" movie without someone trying to ruin Daniel-San's life, the plot centers around the millionaire friend of Creese, who fell on hard times after Zabka lost the All-Valley Championship. Blaming Daniel-San, The Rich Guy (played in career-ending fashion by Holy Cross grad 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 …
* Why did The Rich Guy devote weeks of his life to destroying Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi? Didn't he have anything more important on his plate than bringing down a teenage karate champion? Was he saying to himself, "You know, I feel pretty good about my stock holdings this month … I think I'll take some time off and browbeat an 18-year-old kid"?
* Once The Rich Guy started training Daniel-San, why didn't Daniel realize that his new sensei was evil, especially when his training regimen consisted of instructions like, "Punch these wooden boards with your bare hands until they start bleeding"?
* Why in God's name was Daniel-San still hanging out with Mr. Miyagi? How come he couldn't make any friends that were within 45 years of his own age? In one scene, he kicks off a date by bringing the girl over to meet Mr. Miyagi, essentially telling the girl, "Hey, instead of going out, let's go meet my 85-year-old Japanese buddy, Mr. Miyagi. He's weird, he talks in grunts and his first name is 'Mister.' You'll love this guy!"
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?)
* Apparently, the writers for "KKIII" had a meeting where this exchange happened:
Writer No. 1: "I think we should have The Rich Guy recruit a bully from out of town to help terrorize Daniel-San."
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!"
When Daniel-San finds out that The Rich Guy has been working for Creese all along, he and Miyagi confront him at the Cobra Kai studio, pushing him around a little, then crossing their arms and laughing like cartoon villains at him ("HAH HAHA HAH HAH!") before Miyagi saves the day. You can't even measure this scene on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. It's impossible. I can't believe everyone was filming that day with a straight face.
That reminds me, when you're watching this movie with buddies and pulling the "Mystery Science Theater" routine, remember this tip: Every time Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi have a scene together, crack jokes in the Miyagi voice like, "Daniel-San, take off your shirt, Miyagi show you special massage trick."
Guaranteed laughs for the entire room. It gets contagious. Pretty soon, everyone will be narrating things like, "You know, Daniel-San, reach in Miyagi's left pocket, have present for you" and "Daniel-San, ever kissed other man?" Never gets old. I'm tellin' you, everyone will think you're a comedic genius. Just trust me on this.
"The Karate Kid, Part III" is a huge hit … on the Unintentional Comedy Scale.* Finally, why didn't the "KKIII" writers think up a better ending? They should have gone with a WWE-style twist for the final 20 minutes: First, The Rich Guy buys off Miyagi, only Daniel-San doesn't know about it. Before the finals of the All-Valley Tournament, The Rich Guy shows up with John Creese and his new girlfriend … Elisabeth Shue, who's all over him as a stunned Daniel-San looks on (making the Ralph Macchio Face). Then, just when Daniel-San starts winning the final match, Miyagi comes flying in and hits him over 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 lame ending to an utterly preposterous movie.
And just like that, the most memorable Sports Movie Trilogy of all time was finally over. Sadly, we never found out what happened to Daniel LaRusso when he grew up. I always wanted them to make "Return of the Karate Kid," 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. Now that Mr. Miyagi's gone in real life, maybe the plot could revolve around Daniel-San opening that same studio in Miyagi's memory, getting picked on by his students, and eventually getting saved by Miyagi's illegitimate daughter … played by none other than the completely insane Bai Ling!
Bai Ling and Daniel-San could fall in love, she could break out the family's famous massage trick on him, and they could combine to wipe out all the evil students — including Johnny Lawrence Jr., played by J-Lip himself, Jonathan Lipnicki — capped off by Bai Ling singing "The Power of Love" during the closing credits. Now that sounds like the start of another classic trilogy.
Come back, Daniel-San. We miss you.