Movie Stars: Swank, Hillary–Hollywood Entrance, Next Karate Kid

Columbia’s The Next Karate Kid, the fourth installment in the successful Karate Kid film series, has grossed over $300 million worldwide.

Although this film is the fourth in the series, it marks a departure for the highly popular saga: Its star is a teenage girl. The charming character of Miyagi, played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in l984, is the one constant in all four movies.

Christopher Cain, who won acclaim for directing The Stony Boy, Where the River Runs Black, and Young Guns, says: “It’s been over ten years since the first film was completed, and the ‘kid’ is now a young girl. We wanted to explore new territory by concentrating on the concerns unique to a young woman as she struggles to grow up.”

Indeed, centering on a rebellious girl who needs to be tamed, The Next Karate Kid successfully combines two movie genres: the coming-of-age and the karate movies. Using elements of The Taming of the Shrew and Rebel Without a Cause, this sequel will continue to appeal to the series’ old fans but it will also allure new, female audiences.

The film tells a story with an international appeal. Ever since the tragic death of her parents, Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank), an aggressive, ill-mannered teenager, has directed her anger at just about anybody around her, particularly her grandmother (Constance Powers), who can no longer control or raise her. At school, Julie is constantly harassed by a violent all-male “posse,” which just adds pain to her struggle to become a sensitive woman.

Enter Mr. Miyagi, the veteran charismatic karate teacher who, of course, is the first to detect Julie’s real potential and true personality. To repay a debt to her grandfather, who saved his life in WWII, Miyagi takes Julie on an odyssey of self-discovery that allows her to reclaim her strength, defeat her foes and reach emotional maturity.
As could be expected, at first their relationship is adversarial, with Julie resenting Miyagi’s increasing interference in her life. But gradually, he goes on to assume the roles of a surrogate father, grandfather, mentor–above all friend.
Audiences will be able to recognize the screen types that the boys at Hilary’s school represent from other youth movies. The sleazy Ned (Michael Cavalieri), who perceives Julie simply as a challenge to conquer, is contrasted with the sensitive Eric (Chris Conrad), who from the beginning sees Julie’s inner beauty and soul.
The new karate kid is played by newcomer Hilary Swank, the latest discovery of Jerry Weintraub, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished producers, who’s responsible for such diverse films as Robert Altman’s classic Nashville; Oh, God, with veteran star George Burns; and the Karate Kid series.
Weintraub, the originator of the series and the proud father of three daughters, was delighted that he finally got his long-time wish to do a father-daughter story. “The relationship between Miyagi and Daniel (played by Ralph Macchio) was taken as far as it could go over three times,” says Weintraub. “The two had wonderful chemistry, but I had no story to make another film.”
“The problems of teenage girls are so much different from those of teenage boys,” Weintraub explains, “and I’ve had both. It’s a new experience for Miyagi, who in a way adopts Julie, though it’s a much more difficult relationship initially.”
“Their relationships starts as adversarial,” says director Cain, “she sees him as another authority figure, somebody telling her where to be, what to do, how to behave. Then he becomes her father, her grandfather–all of those people she has lost in her life. And she touches him in a similar way, because he’s not had a daughter.”
“In the beginning, Julie wants nobody,” says actor Morita. “Maybe she doesn’t want herself in her own life, which is very sad. It’s a tragic place for any human being to be.” Miyagi then takes her to a Buddhist monastery, which to her is literally another planet. There, she get further education by encountering some flamboyant priests.
Morita says he always loved his character’s wonderful way of saying things–“Miyagisms” he calls them. His way takes people out of their present realm and makes them feel better about themselves, or give them another perspective on life in general. Miyagi’s witticism, for example, is expressed in such sound advice as “learn to get over anger,” or “true strength comes from what is in your heart.” As a result of this friendship, Julie becomes more decisive about her life, and we witness her very passage into womanhood.
To find the young woman to play the crucial role of Hilary, the filmmakers auditioned 500 girls from all over the country. Of this group, they screen-tested seven finalists. “When we decided on Hilary,” says Cain, “it was because she had that magic Jerry and I were looking for; what ‘it’ specifically is, I can’t tell you. Hilary subsequently proved herself to be a terrific actress and certainly made us feel more secure in our decision.”
In her screen debut, Hilary Swank shows strong physical presence and a nice figure too. “It makes me really happy to play a character who can be a role model for kids,” says the young, ambitious actress. “It’s really nice for a young girl to go to a movie theater and see me protecting myself and taking care of myself like you see guys do all the time.”
The challenge for Hilary was that, in the course of the film, Julie must confront the different expectations of the boys in her life, who are becoming men. Eric is interested in her as a person, while Ned merely sees her as a potentially exciting sexual conquest.

The martial arts choreography was staged by former karate champion and internationally renowned martial arts Pat Johnson, who began his Hollywood career in the movie Enter the Dragon, and also worked on the Karate Kid and Ninja Turtle pictures.

Swank says that even though she has had a lifelong interest in physical fitness, she still had to train intensively to learn the karate for her role in the movie. The new star would like to believe that other girls will follow her, which is in line with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

For Swank, “engaging in regular physical activity, like karate, is important for health and fitness benefits, but it’s also a good deal of fun.” Same could be said about The Next Karate Kid as a movie: it’s educational, instructive and fun.