A troubled kid, a new school, an unrequited romance and a bully who can’t keep his hands to himself. Most of us have either found ourselves in this situation or known of someone who has been – martial arts gives us here the perfect tool to navigate the murky, sometimes downright intimidating waters of adolescence, teenage romance, and bullying. “The Martial Arts Kid”, a contemporary ode to “The Karate Kid”, knows this well, and works as a great coming-of-age story for both kids currently facing the challenges of being low man on the social totem pole, and adults looking back on this very experience, (including yours truly!) looking for insights on how to handle it.
Jansen Panettiere portrays Robbie Oaks, the titular martial arts kid who finds himself at the mercy of a new school and a vicious bully after moving in with his Uncle Glen and Aunt Cindy, played by Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock. Matthew Ziff plays Robbie’s tormentor, Bo, while Kathryn Newton steps into the role of his girlfriend Rina, with whom our hero develops a friendship despite her relationship with Bo. Rounding out the cast is T.J. Storm in the role of Laurent Kaine, a former associate of Glen’s who has gone on to become a terrible influence on Bo and many other aspiring fighters with his “take no prisoners” attitude.
After rebellious teenager Robbie Oaks gets into trouble one time too many, his grandmother ships him off to live with his Uncle Glen and Aunt Cindy in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Naturally, Robbie doesn’t adjust well to the change until he meets a girl at his new school named Rina. Unfortunately Rina’s boyfriend, Bo, just happens to be the school bully with Robbie now finding himself his newest target, and Bo’s father holds too much influence in the community for anyone to dare discipline him.
However, Robbie soon learns that Glen and Cindy run a martial arts school, something his grandmother had kept from him. With a little pleading on Robbie’s part to Glen (who isn’t too sure given his nephew’s rambunctiousness) he ultimately agrees to take on Robbie as his newest student.
“The Martial Arts Kid” devotes more of its running time to training than it does fighting, but that’s wholly appropriate (and welcome!) given its premise. In one fell swoop, the film manages to do a pretty solid encapsulation of both the difficulties of adolescence and the experience of being a total novice to martial arts.
Jansen Panneteire is spot on in his performance as Robbie, and manages to be believable as a troubled non-conformist without turning into an annoying jerk responsible for his own misery, a trap that has felled so many films told from a kid’s perspective, and even some seen through the eyes of an adult. Seeing him rise through the ranks of martial arts is sure to take a lot of viewers back in time. He even gets a little luckier than most of us did with guests like Pete “Sugarfoot” Cunningham dropping into Glen’s dojo, as well as having a little fireball like Jesse Jane McParland as one of his classmates doesn’t hurt either!
This is a family-oriented movie (which means that you’re not exactly going to see the “SPL 2” style action with people getting torn apart and terminally smashed to a pulp!) and “The Martial Arts Kid” still gets the job done of delivering exciting action within the plot parameters.
Robbie gets to see both Cindy and Glen do their stuff in two separate action scenes, and both Cynthia “Lady Dragon” Rothrock and Don “The Dragon” Wilson have definitely kept up. Cindy never spends more than what feels like a nano-second on her enemy, while Glen clearly relishes a good fight and has a little fun with putting an opponent in his place.
Legendary stunt performer James Lew steps in as fight choreographer, and does a solid job with each action scene, especially the finale, in which Robbie marshals his fellow students against Bo and his training partners. Meanwhile, Glen takes on the vicious headmaster of the gym, Kaine, a former friend of his who would rival the “No Mercy” philosophy of Sensei John Kreese from “The Karate Kid” (played by Martin Kove).
While the ending might seem a tad on the abrupt side, it’s clearly setting up Robbie’s next adventure and you’ll be hard pressed not to want to tag along.
“The Martial Arts Kid” captures the experiences of adolescence, bullying, and starting out in the martial arts and does all of them splendidly. Any movie with this much heart is definitely something you ought to check out, and everyone is bound to find at least one display of physical prowess in the film that will inspire them to remain true to and continue to improve their own martial arts training and practice.
Quick show of hands for how many of us can not only do a full split, but do one with a leg running up the side of a pole? Well Master Cynthia Rothrock can!
- Jansen Panneteire is a practitioner of Krav Maga, and Matthew Ziff is a student of Taekwondo, Hapkido, and Kendo.
- T.J. Storm and Matthew Ziff will both also appear in the upcoming “Kickboxer: Vengeance”.
- Producer James E. Wilson is Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s brother, and crafted the film as a modernization of “The Karate Kid”. Among the changes Wilson incorporated were paying more attention to Robbie’s actual training and placing him in the care of his aunt and uncle. He felt that Mr. Miyagi’s eccentricities would make it improbable that any parent would entrust their child to his care.
- Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s character in the film is named Glen. In reality, Glen is his actual middle name, and he also grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida!