The Next Karate Kid may be the least regarded entry in the franchise. Some folks have called it unnecessary. Rotten Tomatoes have it at 7%. The Next Karate Kid came out in 1994, and is fourth in the series, and is absent of Ralph Macchio. But Pat Morita is still around, even if the venue shifts from California to Massachusetts. Them critics didn't lie, though. This was a pretty forgettable flick. Back in the day, there was one concensus take-away: that young actress, Hilary Swank, was pretty damn good.
Plot: Miyagi Yakuga (Morita) has traveled to the east coast to attend a ceremony commending the Japanese-American soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regiment during World War II. Afterwards, Mr. Miyagi is invited by his commanding officer's widow (Constance Towers) to her Bostonian home to catch up on old times. At her house, Mr. Miyagi meets the widow's granddaughter, Julie Pierce (Swank), a petulant, insubordinate 17-year-old who is having a hard time of it after the deaths of her parents from a car accident.
The grandmother has tried her durndest to get thru to the girl, but Julie is just always angry. They're both at the ends of their ropes. Miyagi notes this and suggests to the widow: Why not have her go to his home in California for a bit of respite and he house-sits in Boston and minds the kid for a while?
Mr. Miyagi promptly learns it's trickier mentoring a girl than a boy. You can hear him later mutter, "Boys easier." Whereas Daniel-san was this whiny kid, Julie is just plain foul-tempered and recalcitrant. I snickered at how Miyagi tried to impose his "wax-on, wax-off" philosophy/con job on Julie, and she just smirks him off.
The movie shines best when it's developing the relationship between Julie and Miyagi. These two actors playing them click nicely. Miyagi does what he does best, which is instill in his protégé certain life lessons thru the prism of karate and a heap of inscrutable Oriental platitudes. I guess it's true that even the most nonsensical phrase can sound like the most profound thing ever as long as a wizened old Asian person says them. "Grief trapped in heart become big anger." "Sun is warm; grass is green." Oooh, that's deep, I guess...
It's funny to me how these movies' message always is: Don't fight unless you have to... but you'll always have to. Thing is, we come to these movies to see the fight scenes, and The Next Karate Kid only has a bare bones dosage of them. What we get is a heap of angst and moments that drag and the overwhelming sense that it's a very thin plot bloated with filler scenes. There are some highlight moments such as when Miyagi teaches Julie how to dance under the guise of teaching her martial arts moves. But touching moments like that are few and far between. And what does Mr. Miyagi do when he's not making any headway with Julie and then she gets suspended from school for two weeks? Yep, he takes her to a Zen Buddhist monastery. There, Julie learns discipline and serenity and how to respect all life... even a cockroach's life. She also learns a boss praying mantis-type move.
That's not even the most ridiculous bit. The most eyebrow-raising thing are the bad guys. For some weird reason, Julie's school had hired this sadistic colonel (Michael Ironside) to run some sort of harsh ROTC-type operation. He calls his bunch of kids the Alpha-Elite and gives them the run of the school as these evil hall monitors. The colonel's head kid (Michael Cavalieri) is so creepy and menacing you can't help but cringe in discomfort as he puts the moves on Julie, and by "puts the moves," I mean he threatens and bullies her and frames her. But, seriously, what sort of non-neo-Nazi academy would ever okay a vicious security fraternity like the Alpha-Elite?
Lest you forget about the level of prestige that used to be associated with this franchise, Pat Morita snagged an Oscar nomination for the first Karate Kid movie ten years before. Despite this fourth movie scraping the bottom, Morita was still solid in this one. He hadn't lost his warmth and sneaky sense of humor. And Hilary Swank was a find and was athletic and graceful enough that she looked credible as a fledgling martial artist. And the monks were pretty cool, whether they were dancing - badly - to the Cranberries or taking over the local bowling alley with their Zen bowling. Everything else was bad. The cartoony ridiculousness of the Alpha Elite. The deadly, sluggish pace of the movie that never allows the viewer to work up enough gusto or engrossment for the plot. Julie's love interest - a fellow student - who looks like he's in his mid- to late-twenties. The lack of action. And there's Julie's caring for an injured hawk that I think is supposed to be a deep metaphor for something, except who gives a sh--? I'll say this, though. The colonel's Alpha-Elite are so mean and nasty it's worth it to stay 'til the end just to see them get what's coming to them.