The overt message of any "Karate Kid" movie: Don't fight unless you absolutely have to. The implicit message: You'll always have to. Let the smitings begin!
The transparent philosophy continues in "The Next Karate Kid," wherein another petulant teen--Hilary Swank's comely Julie (replacing gray belt Ralph Macchio)--has to learn a few life lessons and the joy of Zen car washing before being granted license to knock the solar plexuses out of her tormentors.
"Julie-san right. Now is time," announces Noriyuki (Pat) Morita's Mr. Miyagi (never one to use articles), waiting till just before the climax to say the words every kid is waiting to hear.
Julie's not just the cutest lass in her class, but could make dust out of your windpipe even before she meets up with Mr. Miyagi, an old war buddy of her late grandpa. Julie doesn't need martial-arts tips so much as quiet guidance to get past bitterness over the death of her parents. This she gets not only from her adoptive sage, but from sweet new boyfriend Eric (Chris Conrad), a rival of nasty Ned (Michael Cavalieri).
Both boys are members of an unlikely paramilitary group sanctioned by their Boston high school and led by Col. Dugan (poor Michael Ironside, the embodiment of evil again ). These deadly hall monitors are contrasted with Mr. Miyagi's pacifist monk pals, who get peeved when Julie tries to kill a cockroach but are hep enough to boogie to the Cranberries and bowl.
If this installment is just slightly less laborious than "Karate Kid II" or "III," it's not from Mark Lee's surprise-free script or Christopher Cain's placid direction, but because young Swank really might be a find. Early on, she's such a convincingly testy teen that parents may flinch, but she does seem to blossom before your eyes. And doing her moves, she looks, well, sass-y .
* MPAA-rated PG. Times guidelines: Mild action menace, but very much kid-oriented.
'The Next Karate Kid'
Noriyuki (Pat) Morita: Mr. Miyagi
Hilary Swank: Julie Pierce
Michael Ironside: Col. Dugan
Chris Conrad: Eric
A Columbia Pictures presentation. Director Christopher Cain. Producer Jerry Weintraub. Screenplay by Mark Lee. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Editor Ronald Roose. Music Bill Conti. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.