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Growing up as a kid who loved action films (and still does), I was of course into the big guns of action; Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. I branched out to Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris. But I couldn’t get enough action, so I would catch some awesome lesser known stuff (at least to the pre-internet age), such as the Golden Harvest and Shaw Bros. films, Hong Kong action and then that led to seeing certain actors in those films and other low budget films, especially from companies like PM Entertainment and Cannon Films. Two such actors were Cynthia Rothrock and Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson. Every time I would see a box at the video store and they graced it, I knew I had to rent it. And for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.
So why am I yammering on about the past when it comes to a brand new film? Well, it just so happens that Wilson and Rothrock are not only in the film The Martial Arts Kid, but they play husband and wife in an anti-bully take on the tried and true ‘fish out of water’ film, with The Karate Kid being its biggest influence. And to be honest, I had a blast with the film. I know it wasn’t necessarily made with my intention (or did it? It also co-stars T.J. Smith who plays a rival trainer at an ‘extreme’ dojo, which is right up my alley), but it wears its heart right on its sleeve, and doesn’t shy away from its message.
The film stars Jansen Panettiere (the brother of Hayden, before you ask) as Robbie, a kid who is a bit of a bad boy where he’s from. So much so that his grandmother has to say goodbye to him after another stupid crime and arrest. Which takes us to Florida, where he’s sent with his aunt and uncle (played by Rothrock and Wilson), where he possibly can turn his life around. Of course on his first day there, he gets into a one way fight with the town bully Bo (Matthew Ziff) after striking a conversation with his girlfriend Rina (Kathryn Newton). Almost feeling he’s back to where he was before, his uncle takes a chance with him and starts to train him in martial arts and how to be a better person for not only himself, but the world around him.
I must be getting more soft with my old age, because in the past a film with such a positive message and always going for the sincerest high ground would make me cringe. This film, written and directed by Michael Baumgarten, just has that feel good spirit throughout, which never manages to waver and I’m thankful for that. Especially with a cynical world that we all live in, this film just made me feel happy and when it was over, I threw it back on with the commentary right away (which is a fun jovial commentary with Wilson, Rothrock, Baumgarten and others just going over the film, their love of Florida, the actors that they loved working with and the anti-bullying message).
Jansen Panettiere has that same charisma that his sister always exhibits, and I hope to see him in more stuff after this film. He definitely holds his own in the fight scenes, and as they joke in the commentary, he runs really fast. He just shows that he has the chops to be an action star, which might sound crazy in a film like this, but with some of the fights and scenes of romance, I can definitely see him making a career in that line of cinema. Kathryn Newton as Rina, is that cute girl next door, who is in a bad relationship but wants what’s best for her. She’s a charmer and her scenes with Panettiere are actually believable, where you can see them falling for one another after an awful first encounter. Matthew Ziff as Bo, the bully, is a despicable guy and he plays the role well. You want him to get his comeuppance, and throughout the film, you hope Reggie gets the skills to finally show Bo he isn’t the toughest one out there.
And onto the action stars that power this film. Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson is still the man. There’s something about Wilson I’ve always liked, and it must be his positive attitude he’s always exuded throughout the years. I’ve always thought his Bloodfist series was a blast (which I think I’ve only seen 4 of them. There’s actually 8 of them, which means I need to catch up pronto!). A lot of people always looked at him as kind of wooden, but I thought he always had that stoic badass persona perfected. Cynthia Rothrock seriously doesn’t age, and can still move and kick ass like she always has. Being one of the first female action stars I gravitated toward (in films like Undefeatable, China O’Brien, Rage and Honor and many more), I’ve always respected her as someone who had to show that she could not only handle herself in a boy’s club, but also dominate and star in many successful films herself, in Hong Kong and here. T.J. Storm is another guy who I always love when I see him, and it’s almost like he’s in a completely different film within The Martial Arts Kid, but he just doesn’t realize it. He’s an intense dynamo, someone who is the extreme polar opposite of Wilson’s sensei. They have a history in the film, Storm being his former student who didn’t agree with Wilson’s positive message. There’s an epic battle between the two later in the film which is worth watching the film alone.
I really dug this film and some might think an anti-bully film shouldn’t have any violence in it at all, but I think it’s probably the closest to reality I’ve seen. It shows martial arts and the training as being a positive influence and centering oneself to being a better person. Ultimately if there is opposition, you can go the high ground, but sometimes you don’t have a choice in the matter, which is when you have to fight back. The Martial Arts Kid has just enough nostalgia in it for the old school action heads, action for the young crowd, and plenty of heart to make the most Scrooge like people out there crack a smile. Definitely check it out as soon as you can.