Ten years after the first “Karate Kid” and five years after the Daniel LaRusso trilogy wrapped, the studio tries to wring some more blood from the stone with “The Next Karate Kid” (1994). Thanks to the legendary Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi and future acting star Hilary Swank as the titular Julie, it turns out to be a passable kids’ movie.
But screenwriter Mark Lee and director Christopher Cain have nothing fresh to add to the saga. When Miyagi accidentally enters Julie’s room while she’s changing, he apologizes profusely and then mutters that it’s going to be harder to teach a girl. But “The Next Karate Kid” goes on to say nothing about the difference between teaching a boy or a girl, because there really is no significant difference. Julie is sullen whereas Daniel was headstrong, but once she becomes enthusiastic about Miyagi teaching her karate so she can stand up to her school bullies, we get the familiar training sequences and tidbits of Eastern wisdom.
Those school bullies are something else, though. Ned (Michael Cavalieri) has to be the rapiest high school villain ever captured on screen, and the actor isn’t merely older than school age; he has clearly lived a substantial life. (His age is not listed on IMDB, but I’d guess he’s about 40 at the time of this movie.) Ned is the top student of Dugan (Michael Ironside, who deserves a big paycheck for this embarrassing role). Dugan leads an outright evil version of the ROTC at this Boston school, and he obviously has his tendrils in the administration and the local police because he gets away with everything, although the how and the why is never explained.
Julie has a cute budding romance with Eric (Chris Conrad, who also is too mature-looking to play a high school student). But the highlight is her relationship with Miyagi, who gradually becomes a father figure. Morita and Swank have natural teacher-student chemistry, but there’s no compelling conflict between Miyagi and Julie; she’s morose at first, but ultimately much less of a loose cannon than Daniel.
“NKK” misses a lot of chances at laughs. The closest is when Miyagi shops for a prom dress for Julie and is describing his student to the saleswoman. A scene of monks dancing to Julie’s Cranberries album could’ve been great, but the film doesn’t bother to hire a choreographer to go wild with it. I do like how Julie learns how to dance based on karate moves, though.
This is a schizophrenic movie. The training scenes are serene, taking place in a monastery that Miyagi somehow has a connection to even though it’s in New England and he’s lived his whole life in Okinawa and Southern California. The villains are incredibly vicious, but so removed from anything in the real world that a viewer can’t take them seriously.
The karate choreography is mediocre and spare, and the script pulls its punches in the final battle at the docks when Dugan’s boys become timid about the instruction to flat-out kill Eric and Julie. “NKK” might as well have made them experienced murderers, based on their portrayals to that point.
Still, it can’t be dismissed that we get one more movie with Mr. Miyagi. We already know who he is, but it’s still a pleasure to see him do his thing, and it’s remarkable how Morita lends dignity and slight humor to middling material. For all its faults, “NKK” knows who its star is, and the focus never drifts too far from him.