Plot: As he visits the widow of his old commanding officer, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) also meets the woman’s granddaughter, a tightly wound, impulsive teen named Julie (Hilary Swank). She is filled with anger and resentment over the death of her parents, which has led to erratic behavior and numerous incidents at school. Her one solace is an injured hawk she cares for in secret, but otherwise she feels like an outsider and struggles with where her life stands. When he discovers that Julie has some martial arts experience, he begins to work with her and hopes the discipline from karate can help her get her life back under control. Julie also finds a new friend in Eric (Chris Conrad), but continues to run into trouble with the school’s clique of bullies, who are overseen by the cruel Dugan (Michael Ironside), a sadistic instructor. Can Julie overcome her obstacles and find the inner peace she so badly needs?
Entertainment Value: This fourth installment in The Karate Kid franchise is often dismissed, but I think it has a lot of fun moments and has immense appeal as an offbeat b movie style experience. The narrative is in line with the series, as a troubled teen is offered the Miyagi treatment, so it feels at home as a sequel, but it also piles on fresh, often odd elements as well. Hilary Swank is a fun replacement as the new Daniel, as she delivers a melodramatic whirwind performance that is welcome after three movies of dull of dishwater Ralph Macchio’s role. I like the other Karate Kid movies, especially the original, but Daniel was an oblivious jerk, so at least our new lead is aware of what a total mess she is. The core narrative might be familiar, but the movie peppers in these strange side threads, from Julie’s hawk to her teen railyard supervisor boyfriend to Michael Ironside as an abusive leader who makes John Kreese look like a total creampuff by comparison. That’s not even looking at the shaolin monks as comedic relief or how chill Miyagi is this time around, so The Next Karate Kid has ample b movie vibes for those who appreciate that. I can see why some would dislike this one if they wanted a more straight forward Karate Kid ride, but I think this movie is a lot of fun and stands out as the most oddball entry in the series.
The reviews haven’t been kind for Hilary Swank’s run as Julie, especially when the movie was first released, but I think it is a wild and hilarious performance. She brings a manic, after school special type presence to the role and goes for broke at times, dialing up the melodrama to atmospheric levels. I love how reactionary she is with everyone, jumping all over anyone who speaks her to, though of course as the movie rolls on, she learns to rein in that temper. I love the outburst she unleashes at her grandmother early in the movie and she just keeps the hits coming, an over the top, melodramatic, and totally fun to watch performance. This was also Pat Morita’s final turn as Miyagi and it is a fun one, as he seems more relaxed and the tone of the movie lets his humor shine, an underrated part of the character’s charm. He might not seem as mystically wise this time around, but his performance is a lot of fun. The cast also includes Michael Ironside, Chris Conrad, Constance Towers, and Walton Goggins.
The Disc: Mill Creek released this movie on Blu-ray as part of a Karate Kid double feature and while the visuals might not rock your eyeballs, I think it is a slight improvement over the DVD version I’ve watched. The image’s main concern is the presenc eof digital artifacts, which can distract the eye and dampen the fine detail more than a little. The print also looks a little worn, but colors are bright and effective, while contrast is passable. This is one that could use a new scan for sure, but Mill Creek has priced this as a value title, so the cost benefit is there, even for the minor uptick over the DVD.