HOUSTON -- Imagine a cross between "The Karate Kid" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," and you'll know what to expect from "Sidekicks," an offbeat family-audience opus from, of all people, action star Chuck Norris. Medium-budget indie pic, shot and largely financed in Houston and now entering regional release, has a chance to attract the pre-teen crowd that flocked to Disney's sleeper hit "Three Ninjas," and might also get some teen ticketbuyers as well. Vid prospects areeven brighter.

HOUSTON — Imagine a cross between “The Karate Kid” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and you’ll know what to expect from “Sidekicks,” an offbeat family-audience opus from, of all people, action star Chuck Norris. Medium-budget indie pic, shot and largely financed in Houston and now entering regional release, has a chance to attract the pre-teen crowd that flocked to Disney’s sleeper hit “Three Ninjas,” and might also get some teen ticketbuyers as well. Vid prospects areeven brighter.

Norris’ presence dominates pic, but the lead character is a daydreaming teen played by Jonathan Brandis (“Neverending Story II”). Brandis is an asthmatic outsider who’s mocked by many of his peers, harassed by most of his teachers, and ignored by his computer-programmer dad (Beau Bridges). So the boy seeks refuge in heroic fantasies where he is the brave and resourceful sidekick of his favorite action movie hero, Norris.

Film is peppered with moderately clever daydream sequences modeled after (and featuring brief excerpts from) such Norris movies as “Missing in Action,””Lone Wolf McQuade” and “The Hit Man.” There are one or two more of these bits than is absolutely necessary, but Norris proves to be a good sport about kidding his own taciturn, tough-guy image.

To be sure, some parents might question whether an impressionable youngster should be allowed by his dad to watch so many of Norris’ R-rated, hard-action movies. “Sidekicks” might have been a more interesting and socially responsible (albeit much darker) pic had it raised questions about the cumulative effect of a youngster’s exposure to so much movie mayhem.

But that is not the picture that director Aaron Norris (the star’s brother) and screenwriters Don Thompson and Lou Illar chose to make. In their lightweight but diverting effort, the fantasy violence is bloodless and nonlethal, played for cartoonish laughs rather than high-adrenaline thrills. Brandis’ obsession with Norris’ movies is depicted as altogether harmless.

No less fanciful are the plot manipulations that give Brandis the chance to turn his dreams into reality. Coached by the sage uncle (Mako) of his only compassionate teacher (Julia Nickson-Soul), Brandis quickly picks up enough martial arts skill to compete in a karate tournament against his school’s worst bully (a punkish John Buchanan).

The bad guy’s mentor is an even worse fellow, a big blow-hard (zestfully overplayed by Joe Piscopo) who claims he can “whip Chuck Norris’ ass.” So, of course, the real Norris just happens to be a guest at the karate tournament, and agrees to join Brandis’ team, just for the sake of settling Piscopo’s hash.

The real action (as opposed to the fantasy action) in “Sidekicks” is deliberately tame, restricted to brief tussles at school and the climactic karate tournament. Surprisingly, there isn’t a final dust-up between Brandis and Buchanan — their competition consists of each boy trying to bare-handedly smash more bricks than the other. This may please parents more than kids, but it offers a welcome change from some of the unseemly mayhem that has popped up in several other recent PG-rated, allegedly family-oriented features.

Piscopo and Richard Moll (as a ferocious gym teacher) behave like bigger- (and funnier-) than-life caricatures throughout. In sharp contrast, Bridges and Nickson-Soul take a more engaging and naturalistic approach to their roles, and their hinted-at budding romance avoids any kissy stuff that might upset pre-teen audiences.

Brandis is appealing and persuasively intense. Danica McKellar (“The Wonder Years”) is passably sweet as a cute classmate who feels sorry for, then falls for, Brandis.

Fantasy fights scenes might have been improved with some snazzier editing. Other tech credits are fine. Alan Silvestri’s overblown score hits just the right note of parody in the fantasy sequences.

For the record: “Sidekicks” was completed before Columbia’s upcoming summer release, the similar-themed, bigger-budgeted “The Last Action Hero,” went into production.

Sidekicks

(Action comedy -- Color)

Production

A Triumph Releasing Corp. release (intl. sales: Vision Intl.) of a Gallery Films presentation. Produced by Don Carmody. Executive producers: Chuck Norris, Jim McIngvale, Linda McIngvale. Directed by Aaron Norris. Screenplay, Don Thompson, Lou Illar, based on a story by Illar.

Crew

Camera (color), Joao Fernandes; editors, David Rawlins, Bernard Weiser; music, Alan Silvestri; production design , Reuben Freed; sound (Dolby), James Troutman; associate producers, Jordan Yospe , Illar; casting, Annette Benson, Penny Perry Davis. Reviewed at Cineplex-Odeon Sharpstown Center Theatre, Houston, April 8, 1993. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 100 minutes.

With

Chuck Norris ... Chuck Norris Jerry Gabrewski ... Beau Bridges Barry Gabrewski ... Jonathan Brandis Mr. Lee ... Mako Noreen Chen ... Julia Nickson-Soul Stone ... Joe Piscopo Lauren ... Danica McKellar Randy Cellini ... John Buchanan Horn ... Richard Moll
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