During the opening credits of Larry Ludman’s (aka Fabrizio De Angelis) Karate Rock (aka Il Ragazzo delle Mani D’Acciaio aka The Kid with Iron Hands), a car passes by a Burger King, and the first thing that popped into my head was how appropriate that is. When I was a boy, fast food was something you got once in a blue moon. It was a “treat,” not the go-to for every meal of the day. Fast food was considered trash food. I suppose it still is, but it’s much more readily accepted as a meal option now. The same holds true for trash cinema. It’s probably not “good for you” (yes, I know that sounds snotty), but damn it all, it sure does taste good. The acceptance of trash cinema has certainly grown over the years from a rather small cult following into a veritable legion or people who devote the entirety of their moviegoing lives to it. I have no grudge against trash cinema nor against the people who live and breathe it (I would consider myself at least partially in this category). But I do find myself, from time to time, trying to figure out the “why?” of it’s appeal. This is something which can be especially confounding when you’re a devotee as well as an observer.
I’m sure the answer is likely far more complex than any of the films which fall under the trash purview (and definitely more in-depth than I have room for here), but I keep coming back to fast food as the appropriate analogy. Trash films, even when they drag, when the camerawork is horrible, when the action is less than thrilling, almost always give you at least one moment you won’t see in any other film (or, lacking a specific moment, an attitude). Just like you can’t get a Burger King burger at McDonald’s and vice versa, you can’t confuse something like 1990: Bronx Warriors with 2019: After the Fall of New York, no matter how hard you try. In fact, the individual flaws may be the things that make them stand out. These are films totally concerned with trying to be entertaining. They don’t care about expanding the vocabulary of filmmaking. They don’t care about making any cogent statements about the human condition (though, I would argue, they sometimes do despite their best efforts). They don’t want to suggest anything. They want to be as plain as the nose on your face (and 99.999% of the time, they are). Like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, et al, they all want to sell you a hamburger, fast and cheap, and, most importantly, from one of their franchises. So, Karate Rock is perhaps the most bonkers ripoff of The Karate Kid ever made, yet it still partly works in spite of itself, but not because of any inherent virtues. That said, the distinct lack of Elisabeth Shue is truly, truly tragic.
Kevin Foster (Antonio Sabato, Jr) is moved from his Savannah, Georgia home to the small town of Bend because he got into too much trouble for his policeman father John (David Warbeck) to take. Rooming with the happy-go-lucky Billy (Robert Chan), Kevin runs afoul of local jerkoff Jeff Hunter (Andrew J Parker) and his gang of thugs. From there on out, it’s nothing but dancing at the local slushie bar and karate-ing (-ish).
As previously stated, the clear and obvious “inspiration” for Karate Rock is 1984’s The Karate Kid. There is the new kid transplanted to a town where he is all alone and outcast for his background. There is the young love angle. There is the karate angle, replete with the old, retired (and retiring) Asian mentor. There is the gang of young toughs who dominate the protagonist’s life and make it infinitely more difficult. The thing of it is, Karate Rock has none of the heart of the John G Avildsen film, and it completely misses the whole point of its progenitor. For the first part, there are still all the setups we expect from this story, and they all turn out exactly as one can predict. Nonetheless, there is no connective tissue to get us there. There is no development of the characters, from the top down, to make us care about anything that happens to any of them. Kevin is practically a doorstop who keeps getting in Jeff’s face just to make himself feel bigger and salve his own pride. Billy offers no wisdom or insight into how Kevin can better himself until he decides to train him (he does get a half-assed back story, however). Conny (Dorian D Field), the girl next door, never shares a heartfelt moment with Kevin, and she pathetically keeps trying to change herself to match Jeff’s hotty girlfriend Kim (Natalie J Hendrix) rather than showing Kevin (and the audience) anything unique she has to offer. John behaves more like Kevin’s parole officer than his father, and there is no depth to their relationship for a reconciliation to mean anything. These are warm bodies occupying spaces until it’s time for them to do something.
For the second part, this film has nothing to do with self-discovery or conquering one’s fears. This is because it is entirely shot through a thick, oily filter of pure Italian machismo. Kevin wants Kim because she’s beautiful, and, according to various moments between her and Jeff, she puts out. Conny flings herself at Kevin because he’s hot, not because he is in any way distinctive. And Kevin frankly couldn’t give a shit about Conny until he needs her, anyway. The impetus for Kevin’s martial arts training has nothing to do with improving himself. He’s doing it just to get revenge on Jeff for publicly kicking his ass multiple times (and never mind that Kevin names Kim as the prize for the winner of their climactic showdown, something she protests not in the least). Billy’s decision to teach Kevin has nothing to do with anything other than that he’s an old Asian guy who knows karate (and the training montage is not only substandard in its techniques [read: no “wax on, wax off” stuff] but also mindboggling in its intercutting with shots of Jeff dancing at the slushie bar), and there is no thought given to the ideals and philosophy of martial arts. It’s strictly used here to beat the shit out of people. Finally, just to keep the viewer even more off-balance, the whole inner turmoil that Kevin has completely not been struggling with for the entire movie is his desire to be accepted by his old man, which he does by beating up a couple of kids (wasn’t that part of the reason he was taken away from his home in the first place?). The whole film is like getting Chinese noodles and putting pesto sauce on them. Yes, it’s still noodles and sauce, and it tastes fine, but it is not in any way what you expect. And that’s without even getting into all of the disco dancing that takes place to music I could have whipped up at twelve-years-old on my Casio SK-1.
MVT: The pure wrongheadedness of De Angelis’ approach and the bizarre view that the Italian filmmakers had of American life.
Make or Break: The “rock dance” competition. It’s one for the ages in so many ways.