'The Next Karate Kid' has no grip on reality

September 12, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Amid its familiar banalities and formula twists, "The Next Karate Kid" comes up with one new idea for dealing with difficult American teen-agers: ship 'em off to a Buddhist monastery for two weeks!

When Mr. Miyagi does this to Julie (Hilary Swank) in the film, it works the kind of wonders in attitude-adjustment most parents would pay a fortune for. When she gets home, she even picks up her room!

The film has one other nice touch: It begins with a ceremony honoring the Japanese-Americans who fought so valiantly in the European theater in World War II while their parents and younger siblings languished in internment camps, a story that shouldn't be forgotten. Miyagi, if you recall your "Karate Kid" lore, is a veteran of that outfit (the 416th Regimental Combat Team), and he won the Medal of Honor while serving in it.

As it is, the film merely uses this to set up its premise: that the granddaughter of the Anglo officer who fought alongside him (and died) has now come upon hard times, her parents having been killed in an auto accident. She lives with her grandmother -- the young lieutenant's wife -- and is drifting through school, seething with anger at her loss.

Enter Mr. Miyagi, karate teacher, bonsai gardener and amateur psychologist.

Now I'm thinking: This looks like it might be OK. Noriyuki "Pat" Morita always brings a restrained dignity to this role and he never calls anyone "Grasshopper." Swank is a reasonably talented young actress, and her bitter rebelliousness is nicely felt and projected.

What, am I a fool? Did I think this was a real movie and not "The Next Karate Kid"? And soon enough, "The Next Karate Kid" had yielded to the melodramatic impulse and turned to junk. It seems that the school in which poor Julie is isolated is dominated by a para-fascist group called the Alpha-Elite, under the leadership of a right-wing ex-soldier (Michael Ironsides) who counsels his followers to "destroy the enemy when he is weakest" and practices full-contact, padless karate exercises in the schoolyard, that is, when he's not bristling with crude bigotry and sexism.

So where is this high school, Sparta? Nuremberg in the '30s? Italy under Mussolini? No, actually it's in nice liberal Boston, where such a thing wouldn't be tolerated for more than a second.

Of course having lost all grip on reality, the movie gets even worse: literal black shirts from the Alpha-Elite patrol the hallways, and of course their smarmy leader Ned (Michael Cavalieri) has an intense sexual attraction to Julie, which of course leads to a number of unpleasant sequences of baiting, where he attempts to intimidate and insult her. He thinks that's how you get girls.

It goes on and on, stage-managing little epiphanies of triumph through self-belief and a flying dragon spin kick, and guided by a spirit of fortune-cookie profundity. Whatever core of original passion sustained and dignified the original "Karate Kid" all those years back has long since vanished. This film feels like a desperate attempt to squeeze a few last bucks out of what was once a very obliging cash cow.

$ But the cow is dead.

MOVIE REVIEW

"The Next Karate Kid"

Starring Noriyuki "Pat" Morita and Hilary Swank

Directed by Christopher Cain

Released by Columbia

PG-rated

... **

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