I would have thought that The Next Karate Kid (1994) was Hilary Swank’s first film. The International Movie Database (IMDb) proved me wrong. Anyway, it is the earliest example of her on the big screen of which I am aware. I am also guessing they wanted another trilogy to be launched from this one, given all the millions of dollars they made from the first three. I am equally sure there are articles out there that discuss why Ralph Macchio was not brought back to reprise his role as Daniel LaRusso from the original trilogy. I have not looked at them because it is more fun to wildly speculate. You also have to care enough to have these answers, and it is difficult to do so for this film. I actually recall seeing it in the theater as a teenager, but it did not raise my interest then as now. That is saying a lot because the teenage me got into things with more passion that the more reserved adult me. Still, at least we were not forced to sit through another recap of previous movies, or silly dialog. Instead, we get dudes that are clearly well past their high school years and strange living arrangements. Fun!
As mentioned a moment ago, The Next Karate Kid does not put us through a rehashing of previous films that takes up at least ten minutes of run-time. Instead, we get Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) being invited to a ceremony in what seems like Washington D.C. to honor the all-Japanese regiment he served with in World War II. The wife of his deceased former commanding officer, Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers), invites him to Boston to visit for a few days after the festivities. On his first night, Louisa’s angsty teenage granddaughter Julie (Hilary Swank) barges in without saying hello to their guest. The source of her attitude is the fact that her parents died a few years previously in a car crash, and she has a lot of bitterness still. Mr. Miyagi believes he can help her, and tells Louisa to go to California while he stays with Julie in order to straighten her out, you know, like any one of us would do. . . . Julie’s problems, though, are not limited to her deceased parents. At school, there is a Hitler youth, er, I mean, group of karate students that are being taught by somebody going by Colonel Paul Dugan (Michael Ironside). He does not appear to be a teacher, but he exercises a great deal of influence over the school. His star pupil, Ned Randall (Michael Cavalieri), takes what I can only describe as a rapey interest in Julie. When she sensibly rebuffs his advances, he uses his influence to get her in trouble. Meanwhile, Mr. Miyagi is not having much success in getting through to Julie. What changes matters is when he witnesses her nearly get hit by a car, the result of her storming out of the house. Her leap at the last moment to avoid serious injury demonstrates to him some training on her part in karate. Him talking to her about the subject of karate is the beginning of a bond between them, and since he had been the one to teach her grandfather, who taught her father, she wants him to show her more. He agrees in exchange for her catching up with the homework she had been neglecting as part of her rebellion. What temporarily derails this is her getting expelled from school, the result Colonel Dugan’s thugs calling the police on her for sneaking into the school to nurse an injured hawk she found on campus. To pass the time, Mr. Miyagi takes Julie to a nearby Zen Buddhist monastery. It is there that her karate training begins in earnest. Her time away gives her the right perspective. When she returns to school, she is asked to the prom by her crush, Eric McGowen (Chris Conrad), who had once been part of Colonel Dugan’s club. She and Mr. Miyagi are also visited by the monks from the monastery. During the dance, with Eric and Julie swaying along on the floor, their bliss is interrupted by a couple of Dugan dudes, led by Ned, bungie jumping from the gymnasium ceiling, you know, as you do. . . . For whatever reason, this means the dance is over. All over for everyone, that is, except for Ned. He decides to follow Eric and Julie back to Julie’s house, and proceeds to smash the windows of Eric’s car with a baseball bat. Having had enough of Colonel Dugan and his minions, Eric agrees to meet Ned and company at the docks to fight. He goes alone, but Julie soon follows with Mr. Miyagi. They arrive after Eric has taken a beating and has had his car blown up. Seeing her crush in such a state, she decides to challenge Ned, and Mr. Miyagi accepts. Unlike previous films, she pretty easily handles her opponent, much to Colonel Dugan’s ire. When he begins beating his students for their failure, Mr. Miyagi steps in and brings our mustache twirling villain to his knees. With all things set right, the film concludes.
There is plenty of hokeyness in The Next Karate Kid. Still, I liked it slightly more than the original trilogy. I cannot emphasize the word “slight” enough, and there were plenty of times I laughed at it for the wrong reasons. What I appreciated most, and this jives somewhat with the previous films, is the Mr. Miyagi philosophies. Granted, they are often fortune cookie-ish, but they are nonetheless instructive. I particularly like how he tells Julie to repeat the phrase “Sun is warm, grass is green,” whenever she is feeling particularly stressed. When life’s cares begin to make you feel out of whack, it is good to get back to the basics. The Faith life is simpatico to this, and I like to think of going to Confession as a sort of reset button. It is also a nice feeling to simply know that the Church is present. Us Catholics can participate in the very bedrock of our Faith, the Mass, on a daily basis. The scenes in the Zen monastery also spoke to me as a Catholic. Yes, we are talking about two different Faiths, Catholicism and Buddhism. At the same time, both have a monastic tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Oh, and by the way, Buddhist monks live a life of celibacy, too, though I never hear anyone calling for them to get married. That is another story. Getting back to similarities between the two, they even dress roughly alike, follow comparable schedules of work and prayer, and there are some Catholic orders that abstain from eating meat like their Buddhist counterparts. What I particularly enjoyed was seeing the emphasis on the Zen monks’ desire to protect all life. That is a key tenet of Catholicism, and that includes the unborn.
One of the reasons I was keen to re-watch The Next Karate Kid was to be able to speculate on what character from the movies they are going to next bring into the next season of the Cobra Kai (2018-present) show. I am guessing Julie will be that character, though I do not see it listed on Hilary Swank’s IMDb page. Hence, if you are one of those that must see a preceding movie for context with such things, then you could do worse than this one. I do not necessarily recommend it, but I do not hate it, either.