The 90s on Netflix: The Next Karate Kid (1994)
Mark Harrison | On 30, Dec 2022
Director: Christopher Cain
Cast: Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Hilary Swank, Michael Ironside, Chris Conrad, Michael Cavalieri
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. Every month, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
“Ambition without knowledge is like a boat on dry land.” Around this time of year, Cobra Kai fans usually expect to get their latest fix of the continuing teenage martial-arts rivalry from the Karate Kid trilogy. But with Season 5 dropping in September 2022, there are no new episodes on the horizon. Instead, Netflix UK has 1994’s The Next Karate Kid to offer.
Spinning off the great Noriyuki “Pat” Morita from the original films, this 1990s outing sees Mr Miyagi travel from LA to Boston for a commendation for Japanese-American World War II veterans. There he takes on a new student: teenage tearaway Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank), the granddaughter of his late commanding officer. Karate not only helps Julie manage her anger and grief but also fend off her high-school’s full-on security fraternity, the Alpha Elite, and their deranged sensei, Colonel Paul Dugan (Michael Ironside).
Beyond Morita and composer Bill Conti, there’s not much crossover from the first three films. Ralph Macchio wasn’t invited back, and trilogy screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen and director John G. Avildsen were both put off by how The Karate Kid III had turned out – think of it as the Spider-Man 3 of the series – and so declined to return. They were replaced by writer Mark Lee and Young Guns director Christopher Cain.
But, up to a point, you can see how building a new Karate Kid movie around Morita alone would be enough. Oscar-nominated on his first time of playing the part, he had made Mr Miyagi one of the most iconic sports-movie characters of all time. Here, he’s as wise and witty and watchable as ever, right up to the banger of a final line, but he’s also the only thing the film really has going for it.
To her credit, Hilary Swank puts some hard work into the proceedings, doing all her own karate and putting across a winsome performance with not very much on the page. She’s only a putative franchise lead here but, if nothing else, it’s all good practice for a decade later, when she later won her Oscar playing another fighter with an elderly trainer in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.
Besides, most everyone else seems wildly miscast. Beyond the unspoken gulf in optics between teen bullies chasing Daniel-san through a deserted school and a gang of men chasing Julie, the other students all come out of that 1990s vortex of casting much older-looking actors as teenagers – say hello to Walton Goggins in his film debut!) opposite a considerably more youthful lead.
Ironside could do the barking-mad antagonist role in his sleep and, unfortunately, he mostly does just that. His overwrought antagonist overbalances the film, especially when all that energy is being directed into generic Cobra Kai-lite material. These movies are always melodramatic, but not militaristic – the school’s private teen army twangs our suspension of disbelief so hard it feels as though the film has pulled a muscle.
Cramps aside, there’s a half-decent continuation of the series’ promotion of balance over anger, at once an outlet and curative for teenage existential woes. It’s inevitably given a 1990s makeover in the process, complete with a contemporary soundtrack and an incongruous detour to a Buddhist monastery for most of Julie’s training. Then again, the monks get a welcome punchline in a comedy bowling scene that’s both wackier than the norm and much more entertaining than anything else this one has to offer.
And, granted, it’s some way ahead of its time in soft-rebooting the franchise with a female lead, but in that respect only. When they say you couldn’t make an older film nowadays, they don’t usually mean the way that Julie’s apparent natural talent for martial arts would make a certain type of vocal, very online man turn apoplectic with rage.
In any case, the film was a box-office bomb, opening far below Forrest Gump in its fifth week at the US box office and instantly sweeping the leg from under any further Karate Kid adventures until 2010’s in-name-only remake and the Cobra Kai TV series.
Morita sadly passed away in 2005, but the series has done a fine job of keeping Mr Miyagi and that unforgettable performance at the forefront. Heck, as it’s gone from strength to strength, the show has even revisited and rehabilitated a lot of the story and characters from Part III, but, as of Season 5, it’s yet to touch this 1990s spin-off, and it’s not especially hard to see why (Swank is at least more likely to turn up in Season 6 than Jaden Smith).
Less fondly remembered than the other films, The Next Karate Kid is a belated and ill-advised spin-off with the better parts waxed off. But if you’re a fan of the films or the sequel series and you’ve never seen this, Morita alone is reason enough to give it a go.
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“You’d better think of something to name him cos when I come home and he’s destroyed my house, I wanna know what to call him.”