If there is one thing we learned from Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid,” it’s that you can heal a broken leg by rubbing your hands together and then touching it. Countless lives have been saved with this knowledge. And if there’s another thing we learned from Mr. Miyagi, it’s to never, ever give up, no matter what. Even if the third film in your franchise is a complete disaster, that is no reason not to make a fourth one.
Did you even remember that there WAS a third “Karate Kid” movie? Well, there was, in 1989. It was a financial and critical failure, as Part Threes tend to be. When it came time to make a fourth movie, Ralph Macchio was too old to pass for a teenager, but Pat Morita wasn’t too old to pass for an old guy, so all they needed to do was find him a new protege and call the film “The Next Karate Kid.” (You might think that wasn’t ALL they needed to do, that they also needed to write a screenplay, but that was taken care of with the help of a thousand monkeys and a thousand typewriters.)
When it came to casting someone to wax Mr. Miyagi’s car and pretend to be charmed by his broken-English aphorisms, the producers decided to shake things up a bit. They chose Hilary Swank, who was basically the opposite gender of Ralph Macchio, more or less. Yes, “the next karate kid” is a female girl lady person (essentially)!
Mr. Miyagi is in Boston to attend a ceremony honoring Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II, which apparently includes him. (Whenever he emigrated to America from Okinawa, it must have been before World War II, making him about 80 years old here.) Mr. Miyagi’s Army buddy’s widow lives nearby, and it’s her granddaughter, Julie, who might just be the next karate kid. Grandma has a hard time controlling the rebellious and sullen Julie, who’s still bitter about her parents being killed in a car wreck (DRAMA QUEEN) and sneaks out of the house a lot so she can care for a wounded hawk that she keeps in a cage on the roof of her high school. Julie keeps the hawk a secret because she’s afraid it will be taken away if anyone finds out about it. The last thing she wants is for the injured bird to be cared for by a trained veterinary professional.
Mr. Miyagi suggests that Grandma go back to his place in Los Angeles for a vacation while he stays here in Boston to whip Julie into shape. And what a reasonable, not-at-all-insane suggestion that is! Everyone knows the best way to get through to a stubborn teenager is to make her live alone with an elderly Japanese man who helped her dead grandfather fight Nazis. That was the moral of several After School Specials.
Yeah, yeah, whatever, you think. Get to the part where somebody has to fight! Believe me, I kept thinking the same thing. For a movie called “The Next Karate Kid,” there isn’t much karate in it. A more descriptive title would have been “The Sour-Faced Tomboy Who Met an Inscrutable Immigrant.”
At Julie’s high school there is a group of boys called the Alpha League that is dedicated to preserving law and order through fascism, employing violence and intimidation to prevent incidents of littering, graffiti, and hall-pass-not-having. These jackbooted thugs, fully endorsed by the principal, are led by Col. Dugan (Michael Ironside), an ex-military jerk who treats his Alpha Leaguers like soldiers in a boot camp, complete with hazing and punching. The Alpha Leaguers dress in matching black shirts, blue jeans, and black belts, giving them the appearance of an unfriendly college a cappella group. There is not a single thing about the Alpha League that is remotely plausible (or, in many cases, even legal, at least not at a public school), and I admire the filmmakers for centering the plot around it anyway.
Dugan teaches his boys martial arts, encouraging them to fight whenever possible. This runs contrary to the true ideals of karate, which, as you know, focus less on hitting and kicking and more on waxing and painting. Still, as Mr. Miyagi so eloquently says in this film, “Fighting not good. But if must fight, win.” But if must fight, win, indeed.
Julie runs afoul of the Alpha boys and especially of their student leader, Ned (Michael Cavalieri), who serves as a reminder that it is impossible to take a villain seriously who is named Ned. One night Julie sneaks into the school to go to the roof and feed the hawk, but this time Ned and his gang are waiting for her, and some rather rape-y insinuations are made, and she flees the premises just as the cops arrive … to arrest her for breaking into the school. The Alpha boys are off the hook. It turns out Col. Dugan is in with the police, too. This man must be taught a lesson! Preferably by an Asian man twice his age and half his size!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Silly me, I keep wanting to get to the karate parts of the movie with “karate” in its title. Mr. Miyagi discovers that Julie has a secret knack for martial arts after she has an argument with him and runs into the street, directly into the path of an oncoming car, which she avoids by leaping onto its hood at the last second. Only someone with fight training would have reflexes like that, and only someone who was an idiot would run into the path of an oncoming car. Mr. Miyagi has found his new Daniel-san!
Julie got suspended from school for two weeks for breaking in to feed the hawk, which makes it convenient for Mr. Miyagi to drive her out to a Buddhist monastery in the countryside to train her to fight. Julie has a hard time grasping Mr. Miyagi’s vague, cryptic instructions, and doesn’t necessarily fit in with the unsmiling monks who live there. One day she almost kills a cockroach crawling on the dinner table, offending the monks and their “respect all life” sensibilities. Then she finds a praying mantis in the meadow and brings it to one of the monks, and all is forgiven. The movie doesn’t even attempt to explain the logic here, but I take it to mean that if you ever hurt a monk’s feelings, a praying mantis will smooth things over. In fact, should you ever visit a monastery, you would do well to bring a praying mantis with you, just in case.
Finally it’s time to get back to Boston so Julie can fight the– oh, geez, first she has to go to the prom. Crap. She’s going with Eric (Chris Conrad), a former Alpha League member who befriended her earlier, when I wasn’t paying attention. Julie is worried that prom might involve waltzing; evidently she has confused prom with a cotillion. Nonetheless, Mr. Miyagi teaches her how to waltz. It is very sweet, not to mention useless. Hey, anything to kill time and avoid showing scenes of karate. No one wants to see a lot of karate in a movie called “The Next Karate Kid.”
At the prom, for some reason, three of the Alpha League jerks bungee-jump from the rafters of the gym. This creates a disruption that makes Julie and Eric decide to leave early. This makes Ned and the Alpha Leaguers pursue them and smash the windows in Ned’s car. This makes everyone go to the docks to have a fight. I don’t see the cause and effect in any of this, either, but the movie seems to think it’s there. Finally, at long last, Julie gets to fight Ned and Mr. Miyagi gets to fight Col. Dugan. The results of both bouts are predictable: Hilary Swank and Pat Morita, neither of them actually skilled at martial arts, do a few kicks and punches, and careful editing almost makes it sort of look like they were fighting. It’s not good karate, but at least it’s karate. Finally.