Director: Michael Baumgarten
Producer: James Wilson, Cheryl Wheeler-Duncan
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Jansen Panettiere, Kathryn Newton, Matthew Ziff, T.J. Storm, Brandon Tyler Russell, R. Marcos Taylor, Chuck Zito, Nassim Faras Lahrizi, Kayley Stallings, Robert Peters
Running Time: 103 min.
By Jeff Bona
Don “The Dragon” Wilson (Bloodfist) and Cynthia Rothrock (Shanghai Express) are back to doing what they do best in The Martial Arts Kid, a coming of age, martial arts-themed tale directed by Michael Baumgarten (The Guest House).
The Martial Arts Kid follows a rebellious teenager named Robbie (Jansen Panettiere) who, under the recommendation of his grandmother, moves to Florida to “clean up his life” by living with his Aunt (Rothrock) and Uncle (Wilson). Once there, Robbie immediately finds himself in more trouble when he stumbles upon a beautiful girl named Rina (Kathryn Newton of Paranormal Activity 4), whose boyfriend, Bo (Matthew Ziff of Kickboxer: Vengeance), decides to make Robbie’s life a living hell. But with the strong mentorship of his Aunt and Uncle, Robbie overcomes his problems by discovering martial arts, which leads to self discipline, a stronger spirit and a greater consciousness of himself – oh, and to finally defend himself and kick the living sh*t out of Bo as well.
If you want to get the most out of The Martial Arts Kid, know this before diving in: It’s a PG-rated teen drama fused with martial arts action and has the words “family” and “message” written all over it. That’s not to say there isn’t a good amount of ass kicking – there definitely is – but if you’re wishing for puddles of blood, dismemberments and high body counts, you’ll be left disappointed. I mean, come on… it’s called The Martial Arts Kid.
Before it was even completed, The Martial Arts Kid was being criticized for ripping off movies like The Karate Kid and to a lesser extent, No Retreat, No Surrender. Without doubt, it’s very similar to the aforementioned films, but it stands on its own for having a much deeper focus on the true meaning martial arts, which is something you wouldn’t find in a mainstream flick starring Ralph Macchio or Jaden Smith. Besides, if you’re looking for pure originality, you’re living in the wrong era.
The inclusion of both Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock are obviously the film’s main attraction. Wilson, the 11-time World Kickboxing Champion – mostly known to the general public for his Bloodfist and Ring of Fire films that dominated video shelves in the late 80s/early 90s – feels very “at home” as the Mr. Mayagi-type teacher who leads Robbie in the right direction. Unlike Mayagi (portrayed by the late Pat Morita in The Karate Kid franchise), Wilson applies more of a real-life, father figure approach without all the philosophical mumbo jumbo (at one point Wilson says to his student: “You can wash on, wash off all you want, but you’re not going to be driving any of our cars.”) Wilson’s prior films aren’t exactly masterpieces, but for what it’s worth, he’s certainly at his best in The Martial Arts Kid, both in his non-action and action scenes (courtesy of James Lew, who is currently coordinating fight scenes for Netflix/Marvel original series, Luke Cage).
5-time World Champion in forms and weapons, Cynthia Rothrock – who has also had a successful career in B-movie favorites and Hong Kong action classics – gives the audience exactly what they’d expect from her. She gets to strut her physical ability in a series of injected fight scenes throughout the film. She’ll never be compared to Meryl Streep in the acting department, but Rothrock proves that she hasn’t missed a beat from her China O’Brien days almost 30 years ago.
Although Wilson and Rothrock both get some heavy screen time, the main face of The Martial Arts Kid is Jansen Panettiere, who plays Robbie. The producers couldn’t have picked a better lead. Panettiere is a natural. He’s humble, charismatic and charming. He has a tendency to overact at times, but regardless, the camera loves him. He has that “misfit” look, yet he still manages to capture the whole idol thing without coming across like a pretentious little douche. And he’s not too shabby during his fight sequences either.
The Martial Arts Kid is far from perfect. With some tighter editing, its overall pacing could have been a lot more stable. There’s a few instances that are out-of-place and cringe-worthy, but in the context of being a low-ley project that doesn’t have the big budget backing of a major studio, The Martial Arts Kid delivers what it promises: A family-oriented action movie with a strong, positive message.
The Martial Arts Kid also stars T.J. Storm (Kickboxer: Vengeance), Nassim Faras “Young Dragon” Lahrizi, R. Marcos Taylor (Straight Outta Compton), a cameo by Chuck Zito (Homefront), as well as special appearances from martial arts masters Robert Goldman, Christine Rodriguez, Jeff W. Smith, Olando Rivera and Glenn C. Wilson.
Bullies beware: A Martial Arts Kid sequel is currently in the works and I’m 100% for it.
Jeff Bona’s Rating: 7/10