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Why 'The Karate Kid Part III' is the best film in the trilogy

The much-maligned final chapter in the trilogy has its merits.
/ Source: TODAY

All week long, TODAY is marking the 30th anniversary of the summer of 1989 with a look back at some of the notable (and not-so-notable) people, milestones and moments from that wild and crazy time.

As I was bingeing the second season of “Cobra Kai,” the YouTube spinoff of the “Karate Kid” movie franchise, a couple of months ago, one scene really caught my attention. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) stood in front of his karate students and opened up about a dark and painful time in his past — the time he joined the Cobra Kai dojo.

“I learned to strike first, strike hard, show no mercy, and it turned me into an angry and violent kid,” he recalled. “It changed me.”

“You never told me about any of this,” his daughter, Sam, said.

“It’s not something I’m proud of, Sam,” he replied.

I, however, was thrilled to see Daniel acknowledge the events of “The Karate Kid Part III,” the much-maligned final chapter in the Ralph Macchio-Pat Morita trilogy, released in June 1989 — and also my favorite “Karate Kid” movie.

Karate Kid 3
Daniel strays from Mr. Miyagi's guidance and briefly turns to the dark side in "The Karate Kid Part III," released in June 1989.Alamy Stock Photo

I’m sure many “Karate Kid” fans will think I’m nuts for actually liking “Part III.” When I asked Sunday TODAY host Willie Geist — who considers the first “Karate Kid” a classic — for his opinion on “Part III,” he offered this response:

“I could dismiss your take that ‘Karate Kid 3’ is the best ‘Karate Kid’ movie as gratuitous clickbait contrarianism if it weren’t so darned dangerous. To distort history is to deprive young people and future generations of the fundamental fact that the original ‘Karate Kid’ is the only ‘Karate Kid.’ Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka accept your apology.”

I get it. “The Karate Kid Part III” has its flaws, including the fact that it basically recycles the plot of the original: Daniel’s bullied, he trains with Mr. Miyagi, he wins the All Valley Karate Tournament, Mr. Miyagi smiles, the credits roll.

So what makes “Part III” so special, in my view?

Terry Silver, the lead villain (played to perfection by Thomas Ian Griffith). He’s tall, he’s athletic, he’s rich, he has a ponytail, and he’s out to make life miserable for Daniel as a favor to John Kreese, the Cobra Kai leader whom Daniel embarrassed in the first movie. (Friendship goals!)

“When I’m finished with that kid he’ll be begging me to be his teacher,” he explains to Kreese on the phone, while working up a sweat in a sauna. “And you know what he’s going to learn from me? Pain. In every part of his body. And fear in every part of his mind. And here’s the kicker: He’s going to thank me for it.”

He asks if Kreese has any special requests.

“Yeah. Make his knuckles bleed,” Kreese answers.

Here’s where Silver really shines.

“Hey ... HEY, I LIKE THAT! OH, I LIKE THAT, JOHNNY! I’M GONNA USE THAT!” he shouts/laughs into the phone, perhaps a tad too excited at the prospect of making a teenager’s knuckles bleed.

I love the Terry Silver character because of moments like this one. He’s evil, yes, but he’s so over-the-top evil, so passionate about being evil, that you can’t help but revel in his evilness.

The Karate Kid Part III
Mr. Miyagi would not approve of this training method.Alamy Stock Photo

You can thank the film's director, the late John G. Avildsen, for allowing Griffith the freedom to add his own personal touch to the role.

“I give John Avildsen so much credit for that ... whatever you bring to the table, he would watch in rehearsals,” Griffith told me in a phone interview. “I would try something and I would go for it.”

Even if that something might be “ludicrous.”

“When (Kreese) says, ‘Make his knuckles bleed,’ Terry Silver thinks that’s the most hysterical thing he’s heard. And we were like, ‘Where else can we use that and bring it in?’” Griffith recalled.

He's evil, yes, but he’s so over-the-top evil, so passionate about being evil, that you can’t help but revel in his evilness.

Griffith was able to apply his extensive tae kwon do experience to the part, too. Originally, his character wasn't scripted to perform martial arts.

“The physicality, I could let loose and have fun with it and incorporate my background into the character,” he shared.

In one of the more notable scenes in the film, Silver, Kreese and their martial artist-for-hire, Mike Barnes, challenge Mr. Miyagi to a fight after Daniel wises up to their plan (and after his knuckles bleed).

Of course, Mr. Miyagi being the good guy, he handles the Cobra Kai trio with ease, despite being outnumbered. He tosses Silver into a mirror, causing the glass to shatter and buckets of paint to fall on his head. (Note that there's profanity in the clip below.)

Silver is angry, but as far as he’s concerned, the broken shards of glass and the paint in his slicked-back hair are only temporary setbacks.

“You think this is the end of it, old man? I’m going to open Cobra Kai dojos all over this valley! Hell, I might even teach for free!”

Mr. Miyagi walks toward the door, but Silver isn’t finished.


The Karate Kid Part III
You have to admire a guy who remains confident despite having paint all over his body.Alamy Stock Photo

For all his cunning and bravado, Silver is unable to live up to his promises. Flash-forward to the All Valley tournament: Daniel and Mr. Miyagi win, Cobra Kai loses, and we never see Silver again.

At least, we haven’t seen him yet; his name is mentioned in a season-one episode of “Cobra Kai.” As Johnny Lawrence (Kreese’s prized pupil in the original movie, played by Zabka) lobbies to have Cobra Kai reinstated in the All Valley tournament, he’s asked to state his relationship to Terry.

“Ma’am, I have no idea who that even is,” he says.

Griffith is a fan of the series, recalling that after watching the first season he thought the cast and crew “did such a great job. The acting, the writing, the direction, the tone of the whole thing, I was so pleased with that.”

While he's currently concentrating on his career as a TV writer — he worked on the NBC fantasy drama “Grimm” and has co-written an episode of “Dolly Parton's Heartstrings,” an upcoming Netflix anthology series based on the country legend's music — he left the door slightly open for him to revive Terry Silver.

“It would be fun to see the whole gang,” he said.

Now, for the most important question: Does Griffith rank “The Karate Kid Part III” as the best movie in the franchise? Despite his connection to the film, his response will undoubtedly please Willie Geist and many other fans.

“That first film, there was such an innocence and simplicity. ... I think there was something so special in that and I think that’s why it reached so many people. It was such a great character piece,” Griffith said.

I agree. The first film was special. But so was the third film, all because of Terry Silver. He'll always be a memory to me.