Retro Review – The Next Karate Kid

With the absolutely fantastic Cobra Kai series apon us (which I’ll get to in a later review) Karate Kid fever is reaching some fair heights again.

Always the king of the underdogs, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the black sheep in the Karate Kid family.

Ok full disclosure here, I’ve seen this film before some years ago, but to be honest I couldn’t remember much about it when I went in for this review.

The Next Karate Kid was released in 1994 – exactly ten years after the first Karate Kid film. Original Karate Kid director John G. Avilsden (who also directed the first Rocky) was set to return to direct this fresh instalment but dropped out for another project, and so Christopher Cain took over.

The basic plot is that Miyagi visits a Japanese-American war tribute in Boston and meets up with his old army friend’s wife – who just happens to have a troubled teenage granddaughter. The granddaughter is having issues at school from a sadistic teacher and his group of student thugs whom he trains as the school police. Miyagi then begins to train the young girl in the ways of Miyagi-Do Karate.

The film was generally panned by critics at the time, but was it really all that bad?

I guess we should start with the positives first.

Hillary Swank is excellent! She displays a genuine vulnerability cloaked in anger and the arc which sees her transform from a rage filled teen into a sweet and grateful young women is quite touching.

The magnificent Michael Ironside can never do any wrong, and he puts 100% into his bastard role as the evil teacher. It’s maybe a little typecasting and he plays roles like this in the future, but he does it so well and is genuinely intense. The third positive is that seeing Pat Morita in the Miyagi role again is never a bad thing. Miyagi is like a mentor to all us 80s kids and just hearing his voice again is great.

With all that said there are negatives, and there’s quite a few.

The script is awful! The words just don’t seem natural at all, almost as if a first or second draft was written then the director ordered the cast to stick to the dialogue word for word. It’s all very George Lucas, with the actors struggling with unnatural syntax and just too many words in general, plus some terrible exposition here and there.

It all looks a little cheap too. Films in the first half of the 90s tended to look quite TV-ish for some reason, and It’s no different here. The budget is obviously way lower than the other Karate Kid films (hence the setting change to the presumably cheaper Boston karate-mainrather than California). The locations are pretty dull – consisting mostly of residential streets, train yards, and docks. The most exotic location is the monastery which to be fair is quite pretty, but the whole monk section makes little sense as they don’t actually do anything and it just takes us away from the main story for a good chunk of the movie. Maybe if the monks had gotten into some sort of “fish out of water” badass fight with some street thugs or something that would have been cool, but they really don’t provide anything bar some very limited comic relief – none of which serves the story.

Pat Morita, although great to see again, seems to be phoning it in a little. It’s odd watching an actor do his thing under a different director and you can really feel the absence of John G. Avilsden’s super emotional touch that he gave to the other films. In saying that, Christopher Cain is no slouch when it comes to the Captain’s Chair. He directed the excellent “Young Guns” so it’s not a if he is some hack from the soap world. Still though, there’s a noticeable lack of passion in the directing and it seems like Cain was there just to get things running on schedule rather than to craft an amazing piece of art.

I think the biggest downer is that, for a film about Karate, there is practically zero action in the whole movie. Granted, the fights in the original Karate Kid films were never the focus, nor were they even that spectacular, but in The Next Karate Kid there are only two very short fight scenes – and that includes the main one at the end. Both are badly shot and quite poorly choreographed, which is a surprise considering that Pat E. Johnson was on board again as action choreographer. Pat did some really stellar work in the ninja turtles films, but here it genuinely looks like fighting from a TV show in the 70s, with the Miyagi gas station fight being particular pathetic.

To be fair, neither Swank or Morita are martial artists in real life so Johnson didn’t have much to work with. In the Ninja Turtles films they could swap out the actors for real martial arts experts during the action scenes and therefore some more flashy action could be on display. Still though, even an amateur can look good with proper editing and a few wide shots, but here it’s typical Hollywood tier hand held, close knit shots for the fights which are just plan boring.

After all my bleating about the negatives I will say that the film really isn’t that bad. Hillary Swank really puts effort into her role and there are touching moments here and there. It’s perfectly watchable, just really unspectacular, and it feels more like a pilot for a TV show more than a Hollywood feature film.

The premise for the film isn’t exactly a bad one ether. It was ten years after the first Karate Kid film, so marking it with something fresh was a decent idea, and I was quite ok with a new student being a girl too as it would add a different angle to the teacher/student dynamic.

It all drowns in a sea of mediocrity though. Bar the end fight there’s no real set pieces, and the film just drones along until the end credits role.

It’s an interesting showcase for Swank as it displays her good acing ability and dedication to a role, even at a young age. However, the lack of action, the forced “romance”, the awful dialogue and the apparent absence of any passion from everyone bar Swank and Ironside just makes it feel rather flat and “let’s make a few bucks off this famous name”.

I think it genuinely had potential to be something interesting, and it’s far from the worst film ever made, but bar giving a cast and crew some paid work it’s hard to recommend it past some fleeting curiosity due to being a part of  the Karate Kid Universe.

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Author: Kitsune Mifune

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