The martial arts may be great for teaching kids self-respect and discipline, but the movies they inspire sure provide lousy role models. Karate-kid fistfests such as Sidekicks all pull a moral bait-and-switch. They talk the same high-toned bull — Asian master teaches 90-pound teen weakling the dojo moves so he’ll become healthy in mind and body — but basically they’re about beating the crap out of people you don’t like. They’re kiddie vigilante flicks gussied up with trophies, tournaments, and fortune-cookie wisdom.
Sidekicks offers a weird wrinkle: It’s The Karate Kid meets The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Barry (Jonathan Brandis) is a pasty-faced, asthmatic runt who escapes from taunting classmates into baroque action fantasies of his favorite movie star, Chuck Norris. Barry’s pop (Beau Bridges) is no help — he’s a computer programmer, which I guess is movie shorthand for ”ineffectual boob” — but Barry’s concerned teacher (Julia Nickson-Soul) urges the kid to start martial-arts training with her eccentric uncle Lee (Mako, grumbling through the Pat Morita role). Will Barry get up the guts and stamina to make it to the Texas Open Team Karate Championships? Will he win the love of drippy cheerleader Lauren (Danica McKellar)? Will he get to meet Chuck Norris in person?
This movie is for you only if you cannot answer all three of those questions.
At first, Sidekicks shows promise. Brandis is an appealingly sharp young actor — in fact, he has more charisma than Norris does. And Barry’s fantasies goof on the clichés of action movies (Norris’ in particular) in amusing ways; the opening scene has the kid and his mentor dusting off 50 ninjas with tongue-in-cheek ease. But the scenes set in the ”real world” are a poorly filmed mess, especially the ones featuring an embarrassingly bad Joe Piscopo, who’s back from has-been land playing a bellowing bad-guy karate master.
What really grates about Sidekicks is its hypocritical message. As in all karate-kid movies, Master Lee instructs Barry in pseudo-Zen hogwash (”You must respect the wood,” yada-yada). But the fantasy sequences are chock-full of guns and vengeance — that they’re bloodless makes them no less violent — and when Barry finally fights back against a bully, it’s not his courage that makes the other teens cheer him on. It’s their hopes of seeing a broken bone or two: schoolyard bloodlust, presented as one of life’s little pleasures.
Barry, you want my advice? Pick a different role model. One who won’t turn you into a knucklehead. Kramer, for instance. D+