Movie review: ‘Sidekicks’

As I wend my way through some research for my reviews on this blog, I often come across a film I haven’t thought about in some time. Today I’m looking at “Sidekicks” with martial arts star Chuck Norris. It’s the story of a boy who daydreams about being Norris’ sidekick. It’s not a great movie; it’s not a good movie; and it would have to take a step up to be an OK movie … but it is watchable and is available free on YouTube.com. “Sidekicks” is amusing and you’ll actually enjoy seeing Joe Piscopo take on Norris (the comedian studied the martial arts and was buff in the 1980s). You’ll also get to see the ever-underappreciated Mako – not, not a shark; the simply terrific actor from Japan. “Sidekicks” is easy to find – just think of it as an overgrown TV movie.

‘Sidekicks’
(1993; 101 minutes; rated PG; directed by Aaron Norris and starring Chuck Norris, Beau Bridges, Julia Nickson-Soul and Mako)

A DAYDREAMER’S DREAM COMES TRUE

(NOTE: I reorganized this review with additional trivia, some more opinion and updated the links on July 11, 2017.)

With all the movie channels, networks, etc., available via cable, dish or the internet today (not to mention DVDs and films in the Cloud), it’s almost difficult to remember a time when you pretty much had to go to a theater to see a film, unless it was a long-time ago retread in an umpteenth time re-run that you probably didn’t want to see anyway. Therefore, it’s difficult to remember that we paid good money to see middle-of-the-road stuff that we would only watch today if it came past as we flipped through out digital viewing guide.

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Sidekicks” is one of those the films and its short run in theaters in 1993 showed it to be pretty much a poor person’s “The Karate Kid.” Still, you actually went to see it in the theater and it DID star Chuck Norris, who had come off a string of popular martial arts-themed films of the late 1970s and early 1980s (say “Good Guys Wear Black” or “The Octagon”) that segued him into a series of cop roles (take “Lone Wolf McQuade” with David Carradine) and even military themed ones (“Missing in Action” and “The Delta Force”).

However, in “Sidekicks,” which actually has a nice premise, the film fell flat not just with audiences, but even with those of us who will accept an inferior film if it has certain good elements. The only good element here is Mako, who plays “Mr. Lee,” and he manages not just to survive his stereotyped character but elevates it with an affable, fun-to-watch ease that is nice to experience but difficult to achieve.

In “Sidekicks,” Jonathan Brandis is “Barry Gabrewski” – he’s an asthmatic (although this is kind of overplayed by everyone babying him up to a nauseating point), weak and nerdish type kid. He’s also loyal and smart … at least when he’s paying attention in school and not daydreaming that he’s fighting at the side of his martial arts hero Chuck Norris. He spends a LOT of time doing that – of course it couldn’t be a PG movie if it showed the dreams of every high school boy.

Of course his teachers, other students and his family figure into his daydreams and he’s just kind of muddling through life – at least that’s how all the adults see it. Yet, he’s got his eye on a girl and when he’s rejected by a cruel, tough-minded and over-confident karate teacher (comedian Joe Piscopo as “Kelly Stone”), he becomes the student of the quirky uncle of one of his teachers. Of course he becomes good at karate (after the stereotypical stumbles at first – such as hitting himself in the groin with Nunchaku, or better known as nunchuks); impresses the girl he’s always liked; battled well with his bully; and lets it all comes down to the big karate tournament at the end (ever hear that one before … say, “The Karate Kid?”), where he meets Norris in person (apparently they forgot to do this twist in “The Karate Kid”).

Here’s my look at some of the principal cast:

  • Although he’s the headliner here, Norris’ screen time is limited as compared to one of his usual films. He appears in Brandis’ fantasies and then as himself at the end at the karate tournament (where he joins the boy’s team – of course!). All in all, it’s a somewhat milquetoast effort for Norris and the best you can say he is smooth in his delivery and, another of course, his martial arts skills are impressive. He’s most recently been in “The Expendables 2” and if you go way back you’ll find him in the truly awful CB radio-inspired film “Breaker! Breaker!
  • Brandis is the film’s focus and he’s constantly on camera. He’s bright, energetic and eager, but it doesn’t translate into a great performance. However, I’d say it’s difficult for all young actors and unless they give an Oscar-worthy performance, it doesn’t grade out well. Brandis had had enough experience (“Sidekicks” was his 32nd acting credit, mostly on TV, even though he was only 16 when it was released), but he just wasn’t the kid actor to fill the role. Brandis was much better in the soccer film “Ladybugs” with Rodney Dangerfield the same year as “Sidekicks” and tragically he took his own life in 2003 at the age of 27, according to IMDb.com.
  • As I wrote earlier, Oscar nominee (not for this one) Mako is very good here (I won’t write “terrific” because of the general banality of the film) and the few times I’ve seen his films I have been impressed. He does the take on the wise teacher well here and this is a good example of an actor’s talent salvaging an entire film. It isn’t that some of the stereotypes had to have been embarrassing for him (he owned a restaurant and the karate team was called the “Frying Dragon”), but he gave his all and it shows. He was also in the ever more little-remembered “Battle Creek Brawl” as Jackie Chan’s martial arts teacher (click here for my review) and was nominated for an Oscar for his outstanding turn as “Po-han” in “The Sand Pebbles” with Steve McQueen (his was one of eight nominations for that great film). A different generation will remember him as “The Wizard” and narrator of the iconic Schwarzenegger vehicle “Conan the Barbarian.”
  • Julia Nickson-Soul, who did the “Noble House” mini-series in 1988 (click here for my review), plays “Noreen Chan” and is the teacher who becomes Brandis’ father’s love interest – although why such a woman would fall for such a schlump is beyond me. Nickson-Soul is bland here and she doesn’t use her talent to elevate her character. “Sidekicks” isn’t a terrific career building film for her. You might not remember it, but she was also in “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” On the matrimonial and name side, she was married to TV’s David Soul but divorced the year of “Sidekicks” and now she’s dropped the “-Soul” from her name and is Julia Nickson (I used her name at the time for this review).
  • Two-time Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Beau Bridges plays father “Jerry Gabrewski” and he’s pretty much a pudgy, stumbling wimp – but he does love, encourage and support his son. Again, here’s a role ripe for elevation, but Bridges doesn’t do anything with it – and the overall badness of the film is why I’m not too critical of him. Bridges has also been in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and one of his Globe wins was TV’s “Without Warning: The James Brady Story” (he’s definitely the body-type for that one) and the other for TV’s “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.” He also has two other Globe nominations.

The most unexpected casting comes with Piscopo. You wouldn’t initially believe he’d be right in the role. However, think back … Remember the controversy when the comedian started working out and displayed his ripped body (he was rumored to have taken steroids – and he vehemently denied; even making PSAs against them)? He shows his muscles here, too, and he’s almost mocking the genre as he does the over-the-top karate instructor. His expressions are high school play-esque, but you’re amused when you watch him. He was most famously on TV’s “Saturday Night Live” as well as films such as “Johnny Dangerously.”

Finally, you’ll recognize Danica McKellar (no, she doesn’t race cars) from her TV role as “Winnie Cooper” on “The Wonder Years.” She’s Brandis’ love interest and has an effort even shallower than as “Winnie.” It’s not much, unless you’re a really big fan. McKellar had a long way to go to equal Elisabeth Shue in “The Karate Kid” and she still hasn’t caught up. She was also in “Hack” and voiced “Young Justice.”

Sidekicks” was the 84th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1993 with $17.1 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. Although not much of a performer, “Sidekicks” was ahead of such dreck as “Weekend at Bernie’s II” (94th with $12.2 million). The No. 1 film of the year was the simply terrific blockbuster “Jurassic Park” with $357 million. Films from that year that I’ve reviewed are:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Richard Moll, who at 6-foot-8 towers over all the cast, plays PE teacher “Horn.” Moll is the rough, hard-nosed gym teacher who actually has a heart. However, this effort belongs on TV (as Moll once was on “Night Court”). He was also in “Jingle All the Way” with Arnold Schwarzenegger (click here for my review). Yes, he was in “Jingle” as was Martin Mull – I didn’t do a typo.
  • Brandis obviously didn’t win the part, but he auditioned for the role of “Anakin Skywalker” in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”
  • The director of “Sidekicks,” Aaron Norris, is the star’s youngest brother and has directed him in both film and TV roles.
  • Directly from  IMDb.com (and only because I couldn’t find any interesting facts about the actual film): “The white building seen in the background where Barry is training with the nunchuks is the former Blue Ribbon rice silo – the silo stood vacant for several years and was demolished in 1996; the former rice silo is the current location of the Memorial Heights subdivision, which is a townhouse community in close proximity to Downtown Houston.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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