REVIEW: Karate Wars (1991)

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Two rival martial arts schools go head to head for the price of honor in this American B-movie.

All his life, high school student Jason felt he never amounted to anything or given it his all. This affects his relationship with Tracy, his girlfriend. Deciding to do something about it, he signs up to take up karate under local sensei Oyama. Oyama trains his students and while they take their training seriously, Oyama doesn’t seem to take his training seriously anymore. It is because a few years ago, in a tournament known as Karate Wars, Oyama accidentally killed his opponent.

Jason soon learns that Oyama’s training isn’t helping and he relegates to causing trouble on the streets. When Oyama confronts Jason, the two soon realize they are actually not that different and this revelation helps Jason become a better student and Oyama an even better teacher as they learn from each other while training for the next Karate Wars training. The opponents are led by Nakaso, who holds a personal grudge against Oyama, and seeks to up the ante. However, when it is revealed that the fight promoters are under investigation for corruption, the Karate Wars has been cancelled, at least in the public’s eye. The two decide to duke it out in a private gym in a winner-takes-all challenge for the ultimate prize: honor.

As the martial arts genre was making waves in the United States, many independent film producers would make low-quality martial arts film just for the sake of entertaining the fans of this genre. This film would be made and originally released during the reign of the 80’s-90’s home video market in the U.S. and it is clear why this film is ultimately a mixed bag.

The film’s lead actor is a newcomer, Christopher Wolf, who is actually not bad when he is fighting. However, his acting isn’t exactly up to par but give him credit as this was his first film. Having a combination of someone one would see in Saved by the Bell and mixing it up with The Karate Kid, Wolf plays Jason as someone who feels he never lived up to his potential. Despite his karate training, he still finds trouble but eventually cools down and seriously takes his training while also becoming a motivational factor for his own karate instructor.

Two martial arts legends, Richard Rabago and Gerald Okamura, play the rival teachers in the film, with Rabago getting more screen time as Oyama. Oyama is a teacher who at first seems to teach out of spite but has a dark past that hinders the seriousness of his being an instructor. He clearly has not let go of his past and it affects his students, notably Jason. As for Okamura, he plays Nakaso as the man responsible for ruining Oyama due to a personal grudge that is quite obvious and in addition, has won the Karate Wars tournament for the past three years.

Rabago served as the chief fight choreographer of the film and for a production of this quality, it’s a mixed bag. Some of the action is not too bad and what is expected of American martial arts during this era. However, it is clear that some of the fights needed some tighter editing at times. Nevertheless, some props go into an interesting use of the handheld camera during the fight between Oyama and Nakaso as get a bit of a point of view shot from one of the combatants from their shoulder after a roll is executed.

Karate Wars has a decent story enough to make the film watchable. Some tightening in the editing of the action could have been done, but give the producers credit. While it’s not like the films of today, it is a valiant effort on the part of the cast and crew.

WFG RATING: C-

A Cine Excel Production. Director: David Huey. Producers: L.J. Yong and David Huey. Writer: David Huey. Cinematography: Carlos Oscar Morales. Editing: Andy Anders.

Cast: Christopher Wolf, Richard Rabago, Gerald Okamura, Elise Jay, Tad Mathes, Mark Bruner, Lelagi “Butch” Togisala, Ernie Santiago, Gabe Reynaga.


This title is currently out of print, but was available on VHS from York Home Video.

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