Movie franchise sequels that send their characters to Japan have a long, honorable history going all the way back to the immortal classic, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978). Primary reason being that obviously, Japan is a timeless go-to source for sinister, evil villains who are martial arts experts.
Actually, I don’t think this was the case at all with The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, but there you have the exception that proves the rule. The point is, this week welcomes a new addition to the genre in the form of The Wolverine, the latest installment in the X-Men spin-off franchise featuring the eponymous Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the most bad-ass and bad-haired of all the lovable mutants, last seen front and center in the lamentable X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).
Will this excursion to the Land of the Rising Sun get this struggling series back on its paws? How better to prognosticate than to examine against The Karate Kid, Part II (1986), the first of two sequels (and one reboot) to the enormous 1984 hit that was loosely adapted from Charles Atlas magazine ads and that inspired a whole legion of eager high schoolers to start sanding wooden porches and waxing their dads’ cars?
We find Logan, aka Wolverine — who, for the uninitiated, is a fairly indestructible human mutant, played by the typically buff and brooding Hugh Jackman -– living off the grid, doing the bearded-hermit-with-retractable-adamantium-claws thing, kept company mainly by visions of Jean Grey (the ageless and still absurdly hot Famke Janssen). Grey was a former X-Woman and X-lover of Logan, who killed her after she turned villainous in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) for reasons I don’t recall because it was directed by Brett Ratner, and thus too crappy to stay in memory.
Anyhoo, eventually Logan crosses paths with Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a pink-haired ninja chick and Manga-lover’s wet dream, who whisks him off to Japan for a rematch with that team the Bad News Bears played all those years ago. No, okay, she brings him there to visit the dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a soldier Logan knew when he was a WWII POW (how the indestructible Logan could have been captured by Japanese soldiers is one of many things left unclear to us non-X-Men geeks), and whose life Logan saved when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Logan’s Japanese adventure soon becomes quite a busy one, highlighted by a fight atop a speeding bullet train, a romance with Yashida’s bland but beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and being afflicted with mortality by Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a sexy but evil mutant who can, among other talents, shed her skin, which accomplishes nothing but is kind of cool-looking, I guess. Oh, and a reunion with Yashida himself, who has grown very sinister in his old age.
Karate Kid, Part II (note the Roman numeral and formality, like The Godfather, Part II, which it closely resembles, in that, duh, they’re both Part II) begins right where its predecessor left off. Teenage Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and his wise, quirky mentor Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) are departing from Daniel’s big tournament triumph over the bullying, cheating, black-robed dojo run by Kreese (Martin Kove, making an ultra-brief cameo). What’s just a tad odd about this is that they’re leaving without Ali (Elisabeth Shue), Daniel’s girlfriend in the first film, as in, the one he was doing it all for. Apparently she gave her boyfriend a big victory kiss and immediately headed off to follow her dream of being a Las Vegas prostitute.
But that aside, six months later, Miyagi receives a letter imploring him to return to his hometown in Okinawa to visit his dying father. Miyagi, clearly with some baggage waiting for him back home, reluctantly agrees to make the trek, and Daniel insists on tagging along, mainly because the movie isn’t called The Karate Old Dude (though truth be told, it might as well be; it’s really Miyagi’s movie).
So off they go, and sure enough, they are immediately accosted and threatened by the growling, sinister, land baron Sato (Danny Kamekona), an old rival of Miyagi’s who seriously knows how to hold a grudge, and Chozen (yes, really), Sato’s nephew, who has no grudge to hold but takes an instant dislike to Daniel and is basically just an all-around dickwad, and whose karate skills make the bad guys in the first movie look like the Teletubbies. Daniel also lands a sweet, chaste romance with the bland but beautiful Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), which helps take his mind off what’s-her-name that he learned all that karate for in the first place. Also, fair warning, this is the movie that spawned “The Glory of Love” by Chicago.
What is it with these sequels that all but completely dispense with all the reasons that made their originals successful enough to create the demand for their existence? How do they happen? How do they clear so many hurdles of development and production without anyone pointing out that they’ve ditched the very reasons people want to see them? The all-time champion offender of this phenomenon would have to be Crocodile Dundee 2 (1988), a sequel to a charming fish-out-of-water romantic comedy that threw away the charm, the romance, the comedy, and put the fish back in the water. But the paths these two take aren’t much wiser.
The first Karate Kid was far from a masterpiece, and in fact was a rigidly Hollywood-formulaic Rocky retread (even bringing back that film’s erratic John G. Avildsen to direct), but what it lacked in originality, it more than made up for in sheer charm and offbeat humor. It had the wonderful, gradually developed friendship of the affable Daniel and the instantly lovable Miyagi (a career-changing, Oscar-nominated role for veteran character actor Morita); it had the memorably offbeat training sequences (does anyone alive not know what “Wax on, wax off” refers to?); and it managed to make Daniel’s evolution from a no-talent into a champion genuinely rousing, even if not entirely believable.
Part II has exactly none of that. It declines to develop its characters or their relationships any further; it offers the laziest, most cartoonish villains imaginable; and save for the obligatory climactic showdown, it’s not even particularly interested in karate anymore. All the wit of the original is gone as well. Miyagi is no longer the reliable supplier of comic relief; he’s just an old mope, dourly dealing with his past mistakes and present enemies.
And speaking of mopey and dour, is it comic-book sacrilege to say that Wolverine, for all his strength and power, can’t hold up a movie on his own? The fun of the X-Men movies for me was in the wide array of characters and their powers, the variety of relationships and rivalries to be found in this motley assortment of mutants. They combine to populate something akin to an insanely expensive soap opera. So spinning off a single character from this into his own franchise seems inadvisable from the get-go, but specifically, Wolverine? The grouchiest, most taciturn, most internally combusting of the lot? What’s his appeal without the others to play off of? Jackman can’t be blamed; physically, he remains a testament to the virtues of rigorous training. His character is essentially Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name with claws instead of guns, but he’s marched through a confusing, murky plot that never grabs our interest; script is credited to the promising combination of Mark (Live Free or Die Hard) Bomback and Scott (Out of Sight) Frank, but they never manage to make it feel like more than a clothesline on which to hang a few action sequences.
Admittedly, the action sequences, unlike KK2, are something Wolverine does get right, with the genuinely hair-raising bullet train fight and several other martial arts battles deftly directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line), whose previous foray into action, Knight and Day, lasted about that long in theaters.
Both films fall equally short on the romance front, but it’s a more egregious failure on the part of KK2, where a romantic subplot is far more crucial to its formula than in Wolverine, where it’s meant mainly as filler. Which is kind of a shame, because it actually does have a potentially compelling love interest in Yukio, far sexier and cooler than sweetie-pie Mariko, but apparently, everyone was too focused on the action and Jackman’s swollen pecs to even notice.
So here we have two sequels that whisk their characters off to Japan and leave behind practically all the fun. They’re both humorless, soulless, instantly forgettable experiences with one-dimensional villains, dull romances and a nearly complete lack of the respective assets of what they’re sequels to. But Wolverine is at the very least, a handsome, slick, well made production that delivers the action goods here and there and a lead who, while needing a more interesting story and characters surrounding him, retains a strong, action-hero presence. Karate Kid, Part II fails to deliver even the most basic goods expected of it; it fails on the fight front, the friendship front, the romance front, the humor front, and even the soundtrack front. And on top of all that, it spawned an even crappier sequel. So Wolverine wins this match fair and square. No sweeping the leg necessary.