The original Karate Kid film from 1984 had a lot going for it, but unfortunately the fourth installment in the series swaps out the plucky protagonist (and most of what worked previously in subsequent sequels) to create a forgettable end to the saga.
No, this is not a review of the 2010 remake with Lil Will Smith and Jackie Chan forming a pre-teen version of Rush Hour. This is the much overlooked and far worse 1994 debut of Hilary Swank as an angry Boston teen with a penchant for bare midriffs and karate kicks which most fans of the Ralph Macchio movies choose not to recognize.
This time around, we don’t get many characters from earlier installments, an athletic tournament showcasing dedication to martial arts, or even inspiring life lessons from Mr. Miyagi / aka the Colgate Wisdom Tooth (Pat Morita), in, mercifully, his last iteration of the role.
Instead viewers of the franchise are treated to what amounts to a toothless afterschool TV special (remember those?) version of The Karate Kid formula which aims to address female empowerment but only succeeds to dishonor any fond memories one might have had for the other films.
The story starts with Miyagi going to Boston for a ceremony honoring Japanese-American soldiers who fought in WWII and visiting with the widow of his now-deceased commanding officer. Their melodramatic reunion dinner is interrupted by the widow’s granddaughter Julie (Swank), who is grieving the loss of both parents in a fatal auto accident and lashing out as any teen girl facing such a trauma might be expected to do.
Believability, however, starts to wane immediately when Miyagi offers the widow the use of his home in California to grieve while he takes care of her home and granddaughter. Reality becomes even more strained when we learn the latent bond between Julie and her father was dutiful karate instruction, which manifests itself again when she is almost run down in the street by a distracted pizza delivery driver. (That’s some foreshadowing for you there, reader-San!)
Added into the mix is a fascist military man Col. Dugan (Michael Ironside) at Julie’s high school, who is somehow connected to the football team but mostly just uses those athletes as his personal Mussolini pep rally to enforce hall-monitor rules on campus. One of those recruits is Ned, a genetic and generic cross between Richard Grieco and Ben Stiller who makes a fairly rapey move on Julie when he discovers her only outlet at school is tending to the injured hawk she is nursing back to health on one of the school’s secret rooftop aviaries.
Things begin to turn around for Julie when she is befriended by a feather-haired outsider among Dugan’s black-shirted Alpha Elite goons named Eric (Chris Conrad), who looks so overaged for the role I initially thought he would be the ‘cool teacher who cares’ when he first appeared on screen.
After some initial awkwardness between Julie and her inexplicable new at-home mentor when Miyagi walks in on her changing clothes, the two begin to bond and the inevitable alternative karate training from the other KK movies begins.
However, instead of locating these scenes on sunny beaches as was the practice in previous installments, these montages take place at a Massachusetts monastery, where in addition to demonstrating Zen archery Miyagi’s patented tutelage places our master-of-all-things Asian in zen gardens and under waterfalls. In return, our girl introduces the monks to the grunge-lite music of The Cranberries while they practice Tai Chi and she celebrates her athletic evolution in a manner which predates Brandi Chastain’s 1999 sports-bra-baring moment of euphoria.
Things get even more derivative when our new dojo duo return home and Miyagi prepares Julie to attend prom with Eric Miyagi by modifying a karate kata to teach ballroom dancing.
Because there must be a climatic showdown in all these stories, Dugan’s goons (including a pre-Justified Walton Coggins) for some ’90s reason bungee jump into the prom, and greasy proto- date rapist Ned later responds to Eric’s subsequent public rebuking of all this nonsense by shattering the windows of Eric’s prized Oldsmobile and challenging him to a fight.
They all relocate to Boston’s waterfront docks (where nothing ever good happens) and the entire Alpha Elite squad kicks Eric around Kobra Kai style until Miyagi and Julie San intervene to reconfigure the pinnacle of this lukewarm female empowerment narrative into both a brief battle of both the sexes and wills.
Maybe it is a product of its time, but The Next Karate Kid only serves to deliver mediocre lip service to the concept of female athletes and inspirational sports movies. If you never saw it, it may be best to keep it that way as even the studio releasing this last original Miyagi movie waited several years before putting it on home video.
Perhaps Miyagi’s final line in the film is the most prophetic. He leaves Julie and the audience with the broken English zen koan “Fighting not good, but if must fight: win.”
I would suggest many sportsball fighting movies are not good, but if you must watch one watch a winner. The Next Karate Kid is neither worth your time nor effort.
The Next Karate Kid
Directed by Christopher Cain
1994, Starring: Pat Morita, Hilary Swank, Chris Conrad, and Michael Ironside.
Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes, Rated PG for violence and mild language.
Grade: C+ for boring and forced formulaic end to what was once an inspiring sportsball series.
Take it away, Tai-Chi line dancing Buddhist monks. She’s all yours: