Very rarely do martial arts films have a message or have a sense of emotion that complements the action. This film is clearly aimed towards families with a message that conveys the dangers and prevention of an epidemic known as bullying.
Robbie Oakes is a young man who has been dealing with his mother’s death by acting out and having run-ins with the law. After his grandmother has had it with his last arrest, Robbie is given a chance to move to Cocoa Beach, Florida, and live with his uncle Glen and aunt Cindy. At first, Robbie finds the experience with some clear tension as Glen even worries that it might not have been the best idea, despite Cindy’s optimism. However, Robbie is about to face a bigger issue.
Sneaking out one night, he goes to the Gas n’ Go to buy snacks and meets Rina. He also meets Rina’s boyfriend, Bo Whitlaw, who is clearly a bully as he punches Robbie in the eye. On Robbie’s first day of school, he finds both Rina and Bo are in the same English literature class, with Bo now making things harder for Robbie. However, when Robbie goes to Cindy’s cafe, where she hands him a cellphone, he is confronted by another bully, causing Cindy to intervene and fending the bully off using martial arts. When Robbie learns that his uncle runs a local dojo, he asks Glen to teach him martial arts. As Robbie begins training, he goes through a change of his own, until an incident forces him to learn the meaning of martial arts and to put an end to the bullying that plagues him.
Co-written and directed by Michael Baumgarten, who originally hails from Florida himself, this is truly what can be said to be a “personal project” as it took three years from development to release. The message of bullying is quite a serious matter. While in today’s society, we have cyber bullies, there are actual bullies as well who like to pick on people for who knows what. This film, while it covers martial arts as a way to stop bullying, is also about influence and how it can make one a bully or have one face a bully in the eyes and do what is necessary.
The film also keeps in mind that there are those who have a generalization of what martial arts are about. In a scene where Glen reveals why he never told Robbie about his martial arts background, it is because Robbie’s grandmother has that generalization. However, while the central focus in terms of rivalry is that between Robbie and Bo, it is also about the difference in point of views when it comes to martial arts between Glen and his former friend Kaine, who just happens to be Bo’s teacher. Glen sees martial arts as a way of self-discipline, protecting oneself and others, while Kaine’s view of martial arts are summed up in three words: assert, assess, and dismantle.
Two veterans of the martial arts film industry and legend of the arts themselves, Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock, are rightfully cast as Glen and Cindy, who become the mentors of out titular Martial Arts Kid. As one would say, the teacher also learns from the student as we see Glen first as a sort of domineering and worrywart when it comes to Robbie’s arrival. However, as he teaches Robbie, he truly sees how martial arts have made Robbie a better person and clearly changes his tune about his nephew while Cindy is truly the optimist of the couple, having faith and succeeds in seeing how much her nephew does want to change his life.
There are truly not one, but two breakout stars of the film. One is Jansen Panettiere, who truly brings something fresh in the character of Robbie. He is just an ordinary kid with problems and in an industry where one may stereotypically bring a “pretty boy” in the role, Jansen channels Robbie to a tee as an ordinary teen who finds martial arts not just for self defense, but truly conveys the self discipline one can achieve with the art. It was quite a surprise to learn that Jansen is not just a gymnast but had trained in the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga prior to filming and he does a good job. And for those who may recognize the last name, he is in fact, the younger brother of Heroes and Nashville actress Hayden Panettiere.
The other breakout star truly is Matthew Ziff, who underwent a transformation by bulking up a bit and changing his look to play the bully Bo Whitlaw. Ziff, who is a martial artist himself, uses more force than technical skills but it is clear with this role, he is one to look out for. From his introduction scene and hitting Robbie in the face to the way he tends to treat his girlfriend Rina, played well by Kathryn Newton, Bo is just bad news from the start. It is clear that he truly wants to make Robbie squirm as much as possible, but seems to be shocked when at one point, he confronts Robbie and Robbie does nothing but stares him down. This perhaps shows that Robbie, having underwent his training, doesn’t necessarily have to use his fists to stand up to Bo, but is forced to follow the “protect others” rule when Rina, who leaves Bo for Robbie, is threatened by the bully.
If you are expecting a full-blooded martial arts fight fest like one may be used to with Wilson and Rothrock, it’s best to just turn and walk away. While the martial arts action is seen in the film, they are done more as a way to promote martial arts as a way to defend yourself when bullied. James Lew, a Hollywood veteran, doesn’t need to rely on fancy tricks or martial arts tricking as seen in some of today’s martial arts action films. He truly follows the meaning of martial arts and has Wilson, Rothrock, and Panettiere use their skills when only confronted. The training scenes are quite a hoot, especially with Cindy teaching Robbie how to stretch. The film has a two-part climactic sequence: a dojo rumble pitting Glen’s Space Coast Dojo against Kaine’s Dojo Extreme, with Bo and Robbie settling the score in a cage, all culminating in a fight between Wilson and T.J. Storm (who hams it up at times as Kaine) inside of a batting cage, filled with baseballs flying at them and using bats as weapons.
It must be noted that some of the martial arts greats and legends appear in the film as themselves. They include Christine Bannon-Rodriguez, Olando Rivera, Dewey Cooper, Glenn C. Wilson, Jeff Smith, Gerry Blanck, Dr. Robert Goldman (who serves as an executive producer), and Peter Cunningham. The cast is virtually comprised of martial arts champions, young and veteran. Two youngsters to look out for are Jesse-Jane McParland and Nassim Lahrizi, known respectively as “Golden Dragon” and “Young Dragon”, as two of Glen’s students.
The Martial Arts Kid is truly an emotional film that truly lives up to what it hopes for: a message about bullying. Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock are perfectly cast in mentor roles yet still can kick some butt while Jansen Panettiere and Matthew Ziff truly breakout in their roles of the titular role and his nemesis. If you are looking for something more than just fights when it comes to a martial arts film, then you have found it in this film.
WFG RATING: A
A Traditionz Entertainment production. Director: Michael Baumgarten. Producers: James Wilson and Cheryl Wheeler-Duncan. Writers: Michael Baumgarten and Adam W. Marsh. Cinematography: Robert Hayes. Editing: Phil Norden.
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Jansen Panettiere, Kathryn Newton, Matthew Ziff, T.J. Storm, Brandon Tyler Russell, Kayley Stallings, Lorraine Ziff, Natasha Blasick, Gerry Blanck, Dewey Cooper, Olando Rivera, Christine Bannon-Rodrigues, R. Marcos Taylor, Billy R. Smith, Jody Nolan.
I attended a screening of the film in Orlando, Florida tonight. At the screening were writer-director Michael Baumgarten and Grandmaster Glenn C. Wilson, who has a cameo in the film as himself. While a lot of kids asked if they can be in the sequel (which Baumgarten confirmed that it is development but still in the very early stages), he did answer some questions about the bullying aspect and I had asked about the fight scenes, which James Lew choreographed himself with his team. In the midst of it, had learned that one of Baumgarten’s first jobs in his film career was a production assistant on Don Wilson’s film Red Sun Rising, where he met James Lew and knew when it was time for this film, knew Lew would be the man for the job as the fight choreographer. Overall, it was a great experience and an excellent film with a lot of heart.