When a wonderful family film is released it should be a cause for celebration. The difficulty of producing a film that is truly charming and sweet is a task that many cannot hope to begin, let alone succeed in creating. Bullying others has been an unfortunate part of the fabric of society ever since such cloth was woven. It is the subject of a new film called The Martial Arts Kid that is being released in different parts of the United States accompanied by many of the actors and creators that were instrumental in the making of the film. This byteclay.com columnist was invited to be part of the premiere in San Francisco which was organized by martial arts instructor and businessman, Rick St. Clair at the scenic Mercy High School.
The screening of The Martial Arts Kid was accompanied by director Michael Baumgarten, producer James Wilson and one of the stars of the film-T.J. Storm. The three of these key players in the making of the film were on hand to sign autographs, conduct a question and answer session and be part of photo opportunities with those in attendance to see the film. They silently entered the screening as the film was beginning to play which was probably an intelligent decision since their presence might have been a distraction if the audience has seen them before they had a chance to see the movie.
The Martial Arts Kid tells the story of one Robbie Oakes(Jansen Panattiere) who is established in the first few minutes of the film as a very troubled teenager who can no longer be kept in line by his grandmother in Cleveland, Ohio. One incident too many forces Oakes’ grandmother to send him to Cocoa Beach, Florida to live with his Aunt Cindy(Cynthia Rothrock) and Uncle Glen(Don Wilson) and their daughter. The troubled Robbie soon takes an interest in the girlfriend of a fellow student at his new high school named Bo Whitlaw who decides to make his life miserable by physically assaulting him for his interest. Robbie discovers that his aunt is well versed in martial arts and that his uncle is also the owner of a martial arts dojo called Space Coast Dojo. Robbie pleads with his Uncle Glen to teach him martial arts and learns the value of family, friends and human nature throughout the rest of the film.
The martial arts film genre ignited the collective world imagination in the early 70’s with such high profile film actors such as the late Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and many others. The genre evolved through the 80’s as actors such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Jackie Chan would continue to draw audiences to these films. The 90’s and through to this current era have incorporated the martial arts as an integrated element of many action films to the point where film-goers have become accustomed to seeing actors fight using different disciplines of the martial arts. This must have presented an interesting challenge to the filmmakers of The Martial Arts Kid because of the familiarity that audiences have with the genre and how does one go about creating a fresh take on it all. During the question and answer session after the film, producer James Wilson and director Michael Baumgarten stated that their were inspired somewhat by The Karate Kid, but wished to add a realistic twist to their film. It should also be noted that they wished to directly address the issue of bullying which is a universal one in a manner that would shed light on this very serious issue.
Upon viewing the film it is immediately evident that it is a family film that does share the absurdly contrived emotions that most films of this genre are afflicted with. How many of us at any age have viewed movies that attempt to unskillfully lecture us much like a vampire hunter pounds a stake through the heart of his antagonist! The Martial Arts Kid has a message to convey but does so in a subtle and entertaining manner that is a tribute to writer and director Michael Baumgarten. Baumgarten populates his film with authentic fighters from all disciplines of martial arts and the film shines greatly due to this fact. These individuals are fighters whom also happen to be actors. The fighters enhance his story and especially shine during the classic clash of the two schools that are led by Don Wilson’s Uncle Glen and T.J. Storm’s Laurent Kaine. Audience expect visually exciting fight sequences in these films and Bamgarten’s film delivers the goods in droves. All fight sequences were choreographed by the famed James Lew who is also a skilled practitioner of the martial arts and whose current assignment is the Netflix television series, Daredevil.
A fair amount of action films lack decent acting and action film junkies will not dwell on that fact because they primarily wish to see action. The Martial Arts Kid can boast to have excellent performances from all of the roles that are in the film. The film has a fine cast that includes notable veterans and fresh faces alike. The younger cast members must be discussed first and foremost because it is their shoulders that the film rests upon and indeed succeeds because of their ability to make their characters believable. The starring role of Robbie belongs to Jansen Panettiere who channels classic leading actors featured in past Disney films such as Kurt Russell. Panettiere’s Robbie is established as an inept juvenile delinquent who is basically a classic insecure teenager and Panettiere sells the role completely with his subtle portrayal that hints on a possible trauma that the character may have suffered. Audiences are rooting for him because they can see themselves in what he goes through in the film and what happens when he begins to take control of his own life. Robbie’s main antagonist in the film is Bo Whitlaw who is portrayed by Matthew Ziff. In what is probably the film’s most complicated role, Ziff makes the role his own. Ziff’s Bo is not a typical one dimensional high school thug as Matthew imbues the character with ambition at the cost of others. There is a subtle nod in Ziff’s performance that implies that his character behaves in a brusque because he is hoping for approval from an nontraditional instructor and his girlfriend, Rina. Ziff is not known for villainous roles, but he has walked down a new avenue in The Martial Arts Kid and there can be no doubt that he will now be considered for future roles that calls for the actor to explore the dark side of human beings once again. Caught in the middle of a budding conflict between her boyfriend, Bo and Robbie the new kid in town is Rina as protrayed by Kathryn Newton. Newton’s Rina is the classic all-American girl with her slightly Nordic appearance that is highlighted by long flowing blonde hair that frames an face that is will draw most with her incredibly sweet smile. She is not an innocent bystander in the ensuing drama, but she holds her own as a teenager who begins to see that the boys she dates needn’t be spun off from a mold of Bo Whitlaw. Newton’s Rina is the catalyst that transforms Robbie from a confused and rather bungling juvenile delinquent to a compassionate and heroic figure that had the audience that this reviewer sat with cheering enthusiastically.
The Martial Arts Kid counterpoints the fresh faced talent with more seasoned talent as represented by another trio that form a fascinating mirror to aforementioned actors. Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson receives top billing as Robbie’s Uncle Glen. The legendary actor and martial artist has and is known for his long career that began in the 80’s. Wilson’s in top form in this motion picture as he portrays a wise father figure to Robbie by not only teaching him about the value of martial arts, but of personal responsibility and bravery. It is refreshing to see the actor in a film that is actually more a drama than an action film. Don Wilson truly demonstrates that he is able to carry a role that does not truly rely on his exceptional skills as a martial artist. In the role of Robbie’s Aunt Cindy is another very well known actress and action star by the name of Cynthia Rothrock whose celebrated career also began in the 80’s. Rothrock also takes advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate her thespian skills with her dramatic turn as Aunt Cindy. She is a woman of action but tempered with a common sense approach to her surroundings and it is her decision that allows Robbie to stay with the family after he is kicked out by his grandmother. Rounding out the primary veteran talent in the film is another actor and action star of note by the name of T.J. Storm. Storm essays the role of Coach Laurent Kaine who teaches an aggressive form of martial arts and who shares a complicated history with Robbie’s Uncle Glen. T.J. Storm is the other major villainous character in the film, but Storm portrays the character with the righteous zeal of an individual who feels that he is the right. Storm’s Kaine is an instructor who trains his students to be winners but in a manner that does not honor either themselves or the martial art that they practice. It is another performance that is a standout in a film whose riches include superb and dynamic acting.
The Martial Arts Kid succeeds in being both an action drama and a dais that demonstrates that self reliance, honor and compassion can truly overcome the aggressive tendencies of individuals who wish to dominate and control the agenda through bullying. The motion picture never lapses into the territory of mind numbing preaching but truly utilizes the plot and the action to pass the aforementioned statement in a manner that engages. The raison d’etre for the motion picture industry is to produce product that entertain. It is a rare film that not only accomplishes that goal, but also throws in an important message that audiences need to know. The Martial Arts Kid takes a dramatic stand against bullying and does so in the best possible way through the engagement of the audience intellect and the need to be entertained. What more could you ask for from a motion picture?