Monday, September 13, 2010

The Little Dragons (aka Karate Kids USA) (1979)


Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile), co-written by Alan Ormsby (Cat People, Children Shouldn`t Play With Dead Things), and featuring performances from the legendary Ann Sothern and Joe Spinell (Maniac), there was a possibility going in that The Little Dragons might be a fun, breezy kid's movie. Unfortunately, even as kiddie entertainment it leaves plenty to be desired as while the combination of youngsters and martial arts would hit big a few years later (which i'm sure explains the re-title here), and the idea of inserting a bit of Bad News Bears attitude into things could have been enjoyable, we're left with a flat, slow-moving bore that plays (and looks) like something made-for-TV.

Zack and Woody are precocious (and foul-mouthed) karate students who travel to a campground with their grandfather J.J. (character actor Charles Lane) for a karate exhibition. Also travelling to the camp is the young Carol and her bickering parents, who get some help from "hill people" Carl and Yancey (John Davis Chandler and Joe Spinnel) after getting lost in their top-of-the-line RV. While they eventually reach the camp,  Carl and Yancey (along with their mama, played by Ann Sothern) hatch a plan to steal the R.V.,a plan that quickly goes awry when they find Carol inside and make the quick decision to kidnap her.

Zack, who bonded with Carol during a camp hootenanny, follows the hillbillies to their mine-shaft hideout, while Carol's parents, J.J. and Woody have to deal with dumb-shit sheriff and his son. Thankfully, once the ransom note arrives things are passed over to the (slightly more competent) F.B.I., though it's eventually up to the KARATE KIDS (along with their karate classmates, and with the help of some friendly bikers) to take down the rednecks in a display of their martial arts skills. If you're guessing that Joe Spinnel ends up down the hole of an outhouse, then you're obviously way ahead of me.


Look, i'll admit that I haven't been a kid for a long time, and even when I was I tended to reject crap like 3 Ninjas (and its various sequels) as predictable and inoffensive crap. In fact, I think making entertaining, original and challenging children's films might be one of the most difficult things for filmmakers to get right - which is why what Pixar has been doing this decade has been so amazing. But even 12 year old me wouldn't have gotten much out of The Little Dragons, which has almost no action to speak of until the final ten minutes and humor that even ten year old me would have found immature.

Here's an example of the film's humor. J.J., unimpressed by Woody's use of the word "shit", tells the boys that their father used to make up his own curse words as a child. When prompted by the kids, J.J. says that one of his favorites was calling people "soufflé". Ok, now that's dumb, but fairly inoffensive. Except, the film decides that it would be hilarious to keep calling back to this joke: Woody gets in trouble for calling a biker gang leader a souffléJ.J. calls the idiot sheriff a soufflé. It sounds like something out of a particularly awful sitcom, but the film is full of hacky moments like this, though still required four (FOUR!) credited writers to churn out this pablum.


In any other context Joe Spinell's ridiculous man-child overacting as Yancey would be irritating, but his performance is actually a relief when compared with the sedentary pace and sleepwalking performances by most of the cast. In fact, the hillbillies are really the only interesting characters in the film, though their motivations (go to Las Vegas and see Wayne Newton) are a bit suspect, and their wish to kill the two kids at the end seems needlessly mean-spirited. The other supporting players are all ok, and most have had long careers in television and movies, but it's all so bland and dull that any spark if interest tends to stand out. The kids actually do a fine job, though Woody smart-aleck comments sort of reminded me why smart-alecky kids are annoying.

Curtis Hanson is a fine director, but I imagine he leaves this one off of his resume as it features little of the rapid pacing and polished dialogue of his more successful efforts. Cinematographer Stephen M. Katz did both The Kentucky Fried Movie (Bong Soo Han, who played Dr. Klahn in the legendary A Fistful of Yen makes a brief appearance here) and The Blues Brothers, but he also went on to be the Director of Photography on Baby Geniuses so I guess nobody's perfect. All the other technical specs are perfectly average, vanilla and forgettable.


The Little Dragons is part of the Millcreek 50 film Martial Arts collection, and is presented fullscreen in a print that looks like its had a bit of a rough time. There's minor damage throughout, and a scratch that runs through the opening credits. Colors are washed out and faded, though consistent throughout. Music is by TV veteran Ken Lauber, and it's fine though - like the rest of the production - ultimately forgettable.

There are no special features except a few randomly placed chapter selections. At least it's something.


Lifeless and dull, The Little Dragons has a fine pedigree but suffers from writing that seems straight out of a Scooby Doo cartoon. The villains seem to be having fun, but everyone else is sleepwalking through their roles and while the precocious kids do a good job, they are never given much interesting to do. Many of the people involved either did, or would do, much better work, but The Little Dragons is definitely a film worth forgetting.

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