Even if you haven’t seen one of the 1980s Karate Kid movies in years, you’ll probably remember something about them. Pat Morita’s gentle, noble performance as wise martial arts trainer Mr Miyagi. Ralph Macchio’s turn as the young Daniel, whom he played as a kind of pocket-sized Rocky Balboa who shrugs and moves his head a lot. Then there was Bill Conti’s oriental-inspired music. The crane kicks. Maybe even the dialogue (“There is no fear in this dojo!”).
After The Karate Kid Part III failed to do the business of its predecessors, The Next Karate Kid was an attempt to shake the ingredients up a bit, rather than reboot the series completely – this essentially involved ousting the now rather old Ralph Macchio, and replacing him with a new callow youth for Mr Miyagi to train.
Unfortunately, while the usual template was mostly there in this third sequel, audiences weren’t particularly interested – it made just $15.8 million at the box office, which was less than half of what its predecessor made. Receiving the weakest reviews of the series so far, The Next Karate Kid marked the end of the series, at least until the 2010 reboot revived its fortunes. But while The Next Karate Kid was unfavourably received by critics and public alike, there are still some noteworthy things to say about it, including the following…
Hilary Swank has a pet hawk
In one of her earliest feature roles, Hilary Swank plays troubled teenager Julie. Having lost her parents in a tragic car accident, she’s left in the care of Louisa (Constance Powers), the widow of soldier with whom Mr Miyagi served during World War II.
With few friends of the human variety, Julie finds refuge in a pet hawk called Angel, which she keeps hidden in a pigeon coop on the roof of her school – presumably, the hawk has long since eaten all the pigeons. The Next Karate Kid, then, is a kind of high-kicking homage to Ken Loach’s Kes, in which a similarly lonely teenager who finds comfort in the training of a young kestrel.
In place of Ken Loach’s bleakly British social realism, however, we have dungarees, big cars, and prancing Buddhist monks. Where The Next Karate Kid is all about growth and enlightenment, concluding as it does with the image of the mended hawk soaring into the heavens, Kes ended with the bird dead in a dumpster and a small boy crying. That’s an apt summary of the difference between Hollywood and UK movies, we feel.
It has Michael Ironside in it
Yes, one of the finest character actors currently working appears in The Next Karate Kid. Curiously, the filmmakers introduce this talented performer not with a grand, villainous entrance (because, let’s face it, when Michael Ironside appears on a movie’s credits, you can be fairly certain he’s playing a bad guy), but with a montage cut to M-People’s Moving On Up. While this up-tempo 90s dance number plays in the background, Ironside skulks in a high school corridor, a vein on the right side of his head subtly pulsing.
We’ll get to exactly who Ironside plays in a moment, but for now, his expression says it all: this is man who really hates M-People.
Deadly paramilitary hall monitors
We soon learn that Ironside is actually Colonel Dugan, the leader of a group called the Alpha Elite. Distinguished by their uniform of tight black shirts tucked into nipple-high jeans, the Alpha Elite are the Delta Force of hall monitors – a highly-trained group muscle-bound prefects who maintain order by glowering at the pale-faced and less socially endowed and dishing out the occasional wedgie.
Colonel Dugan is their despotic commander, who lines his troops up on the school playing field, screams at them each in turn, and challenges random members to bare-knuckle fist fights in the mud. Inevitably, their youth and tight jeans are no match for Dugan’s scowling virility, and the colonel’s opponents are swiftly punched to the ground and mocked.
One of Dugan’s victims is Eric (Chris Conran), who soon grows weary of his master’s violence, and becomes Julie’s alarmingly mature love interest instead. Which leads us onto our next important point…
Hilary Swank and various other actors pretend to be teenagers
Hilary Swank was 20 when she made The Next Karate Kid, but thanks to some clothing decisions from the wardrobe department (dungarees, baggy T-shirts, chunky trainers) and an unfeasibly straight fringe, she just about passes for an average 90s teenager – albeit one of the sulkiest teenagers in all cinema.
Chris Conran, meanwhile, was about 24 when he made the film, and looks older. When we first see him at school, fiddling with a photocopier and winking at Swank’s character, we initially assumed he was some sort of creepy supply teacher. Instead, it turns out he’s another pupil in a school populated by 20-something actors in an eerie state of arrested development.
Take Dugan’s Alpha Elite squad of milk monitors as another example – they look like a troupe of strippers wandered in from Magic Mike, as opposed to the kind of spotty, rubber-band flicking bullies we remember from Grange Hill.
Buddhist monks dance to The Cranberries
A Karate Kid movie wouldn’t be the same without at least one toe-curling moment (witness Daniel-san’s horrifying kiss with leading lady Elisabeth Shue in the original film, for example). The Next Karate Kid’s most cringe-worthy sequence arrives when Mr Miyagi, having decided to take Julie on as his latest student, whisks her off on a visit to a nearby Buddhist monastery. Here, Julie gradually learns more about karate, and while practising her moves one evening, turns on The Cranberries’ 90s hit, Dreams.
Just as lead singer Dolores O’Riordan starts to yodel through the first verse, a group of monks file into the room, and for reasons best known to director Christopher Cain (Young Guns, The Amazing Panda Adventure), begin dancing daintily to the up-tempo rock hit.
“What’s going on?” Julie asks, possibly as horrified as we are. “Nothing,” Mr Miyagi replies, “Just monks having a good time.”
Then the old sage joins in with the dancing, no doubt thinking “Was it really only 10 years ago that I got an Oscar nomination for playing this character?”
Julie’s already quite good at karate
In an unusual twist to the usual Karate Kid proceedings, Julie isn’t at the mercy of bullies or even particularly bad at fighting at the start of the film. In fact, she’s already been taught a fair bit of karate by her father (whose father was in turn taught by his war friend Mr Miyagi), and is so good at the discipline that, when she’s almost run over by a pizza delivery vehicle, she’s able to avoid injury by leaping four feet into the air and landing perfectly on the bonnet (or hood, if you’re in the US of A).
This leaves Mr Miyagi at a bit of a loose end for much of the film, and he instead concentrates his energies on honing Julie’s skills by swinging bags of sand at her, forcing her to jump off boulders, and desperately trying to stop her from sulking. He does, however, manage to get Julie to wax his car for her, which saves on car wash cleaning bills if nothing else.
Julie is brainwashed
Having completed her spiritual and sandbag-kicking training at the monastery, Julie undergoes a weird personality change. Where her sulking face would have once wilted a crisp salad, she returns to school with a permanent grin on her face. More worryingly, she begins to recite Mr Miyagi’s enigmatic catchphrases back at her teachers.
“Ambition without knowledge is like a boat on dry land,” Julie says with an air of eerie serenity.
“I don’t quite understand” her teacher replies, visibly perturbed.
“The answer’s only important if you ask the right question,” Julie bats back with a spooky grin. The teacher walks back to his office, probably to call the police.
Mr Miyagi threatens a young man with a courgette
John G Avildsen would never have allowed this to happen.
There’s a bit of a fight at the end
The Karate Kid movies have never been known for their bone-crunching action, but even by the standards of the first three, The Next Karate Kid is curiously violence-free. Towards the end of the film, even Mr Miyagi seems a bit bored by the lack of anarchy, and decides to take his Buddhist monk friends bowling, in true Lebowski style.
Having been sidelined almost from the very beginning, Colonel Dugan and his goons finally make a dramatic re-entrance during the final reel. While Julie and Eric are rubbing noses at the high school prom, the Alpha Elite come bungee jumping down from the ceiling and ruin everyone’s fun. Why? We’ve no idea. But somehow, they fall from the air with their baseball hats still secured to their heads, which means they must have used that special tape that wig wearers use.
After Eric’s picked on for no particular reason, a final confrontation takes place at the docks. With the Alpha Elite piling onto Eric, Colonel Dugan turns up and sets fire to some cars, presumably to create an added air of apocalyptic finality.
Oddly, this brutal beat-down doesn’t actually feature much karate – just a lot of punching, knees to the sternum and grunting. Having roundly thrashed Eric, the black-clad bad guys are commanded by Colonel Dugan to “Finish him.” The goons look round at their master as if to say, “Wait, Colonel – isn’t this meant to be a kid’s film?”
Dugan simply glares them with an expression that says, “I’m Michael Ironside. What did you think was going to happen?”
Right on cue, Mr Miyagi and Julie turn up to join in the fray. Using her spiritual strength and righteous superiority, Julie defeats the preening, grinning Alpha Elite frat-boy Ned (Michael Cavelieri) in mild combat. Even with wet sand chucked in her eyes, Julie manages to focus her power, and kick Ned squarely in the face.
“The war’s not over!” Colonel Dugan roars, before launching into an ill-advised scrap with Mr Miyagi. Just like all the other embittered ex-army types in previous Karate Kid movies, Dugan finds his aggressive style of fighting is no match for Miyagi’s slow and gentle kicks and punches.
Dugan is vanquished, and left to look emasculated and rather silly in the eyes of the now disbanded Alpha Elite. Mr Miyagi rounds up the film with a knowing wink to the camera, and presumably, his accountant.
Daniel-san has vanished
The final credits may be rolling, but one key question remains unanswered: just what happened to poor Daniel-san? Admittedly, actor Ralph Macchio was almost 30 by the time he made The Karate Kid: Part III in 1989, which was already pushing the ‘Kid’ part of the title to breaking point. Nevertheless, the fact that Mr Miyagi only mentions Daniel in passing in The Next Karate Kid, added to the film’s relocation from Los Angeles to Boston, leaves us wondering whether Mr Miyagi might have killed him.
Is The Next Karate Kid a hint that Mr Miyagi is actually a Stepfather-style serial murderer, who trains people in the art of unarmed combat for a few years before slaughtering them and moving on? There’s a scene where Miyagi calmly ties a headscarf around Julie’s eyes like a blindfold – a headscarf he once solemnly gave to Daniel. This, perhaps, is a further clue to the franchise’s murderous subtext. The headscarf is not a gift, but a mark of death.
At the very least, it explains Julie didn’t appear in a further sequel – she mysteriously disappeared some time in 1994, and Mr Miyagi drove off to another town, no doubt humming The Cranberries’ greatest hits as he went.
Other entries in the ’10 remarkable things’ series:
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