There are two Karate Kid movies, one good and one great. The first one is about a naive young man being taught valuable life lessons through karate, and the second one has him putting those lessons into action to save his neck. That's the saga, and it should have ended there. For all I know, there may have even been some idealistic young studio executive at Columbia Pictures who argued for not ripping off the fans and for stopping the series before it went too far. If that happened, I'm sure he's now an idealistic middle-aged waiter at Sizzler -- this is Hollywood. So after the success of Part II, we had the unintentionally comic Part III, which is so enjoyably over the top that I would be lying if I said I didn't like it. Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing of the next and final nail in the coffin, The Next Karate Kid. This one represents the breaking point where the director, screenwriter and star of the first three films said 'no' and the studio still said 'yes.'
But Miyagi comes back, right? Well, no. The oddest thing about The Next Karate Kid is that the character being played by Morita bears practically no resemblance to the dour, alcoholic handyman of the early films. Our Miyagi has been body-snatched and replaced by some kind of cloying, annoying fool with a weird inability to keep a straight face. When Miyagi first comes face to face with this film's 'Miyagi-bad-guy' -- one of the few resemblances of this film to the previous trilogy is that it reserves one bad guy for Miyagi and one for the kid -- he seems on the verge of a giggle fit. The bad guy he's facing is a fascist football coach for the local high-school, played by Michael Ironside. He's on the field, in the middle of delivering some kind of veiled invective against 'the enemy who live among us' when Miyagi innocently interrupts to ask for some help in finding a student he's there to pick up. Ironside's response -- to accuse him of trespassing and overtly threaten him -- is beyond ludicrous.
The person Miyagi is at the school to pick up is Julie Pierce, a youth being kept in his charge for reasons that, if I actually tried to write out, I would fall asleep on my keyboard. Julie is written and costumed as being about 15 or 16 years old, but she's played by 20 year old, big-breasted Hilary Swank. Even if it were possible for me to revisit this performance without knowing that Swank has since won two acting Oscars, I would cringe for some of the things she has to do and say in this film. She wears kiddie overalls, for starters. At one point, she sees her reflection in a car window and announces that "my teeth don't match my nose." There's a 'Julie babysitting' montage where she gets hit in the head with a big rubber ball. There are scenes where she ends a conversation by screaming in someone's face and running away. Her character does everything possible to telegraph immaturity short of collapsing on the floor and holding her breath until she turns blue.
Her school life is also bizarre in the extreme, and I'm not just talking about the fact that no one notices the pet hawk she keeps and regularly tends to on the roof of the building. She's also the victim of constant, totally unprovoked harassment by a gang of football-playing pansies who actually go around picking fights with girls. There's one scene where, as a group, these milquetoast-Kais chase her through the entire school and she ends up hiding from them in the metal cupboards of a giant cafeteria, like Jurassic Park. It's never clear what they would do if they caught her except maybe give her a pink-belly or something. There's no doubt in my mind that someone wrote this film with 15 year-olds in mind, and then at the next stage of the project's evolution, someone else decided to cast young adults in the roles instead of kids. When's the last time you heard of a gang of young men going around looking for non-sexual thrills by tormenting a young woman? What are they, retarded?
Smack in the middle of the film is a long, terminally boring sequence in which Miyagi takes Julie to a monastery with a bunch of Asian monks who are played for laughs one minute and serious the next -- whatever the script requires. At one point, they all sit down at a long table to eat and Julie sees a cockroach start to crawl across the table. She smartly grabs a shoe and tries to bash it, but one of the monks grabs it away from her, and then everyone gets up from the table and leaves, to shun her. Turns out that she wasn't 'respecting all life' or some nonsense. That's shortly before the moment when one of the monks shoots a bow and arrow at Miyagi so we can see him actually catch the arrow as its flying toward him. That's the level this screenplay operates at. There's one little moment during this sequence where we see Julie waxing a car and she mumbles 'wax on, wax off' -- that made me sort of laugh, but is that all I get for my rental fee?
If I told you that the 'climax' of the film comes when the bad guys drop into the middle of the school dance on bungee cords to confront our hero and her boyfriend, you'd probably accuse me of making things up, so why bother? Actually, that's exactly what happens. The leader of the girl-harassers and his gang confront Julie and her fella and the fight ends up happening at some abandoned dock, where Julie uses some flaky, unimpressive karate to win the fight. The film doesn't even bother giving Julie one of those secret moves, like the ones Daniel LaRusso would nurse throughout each of the previous films and then bust out at a critical moment. The Next Karate Kid was someone's idea for keeping a cash cow grazing, and if it weren't for the fact that its star would go on to huge success and mainstream stardom, I doubt that anyone would even remember the film today. I just watched it a few hours ago, and even I don't remember it.