The Power Within

Director: Art Camacho
Ted Jan Roberts, Karen Valentine, Keith Coogan

I think that it goes without saying that even though my writings on this web site might get a little immature and childish at times, I am indeed an adult, and have been one for quite some time. (But not a long long time!) Outside of this web site and into my private life, I certainly like to do adult things. Even doing my taxes every year I enjoy doing because it tells me I am doing a responsible thing - though my ease at doing taxes may be because I just hand my tax slips and other forms to H & R Block. Anyway, while I have been doing adult things as an adult for some years now, I recently realized that it's been some time since I've thought like a child and done things as a child. Realizing that, I decided to test myself by trying to recall how I was as a child. It wasn't easy. Maybe it's because of all the years have passed, or maybe it's because I've blocked out many childhood memories because I would be embarrassed recalling many of them. So I decided to allow myself clues from more recent observations of children around me, and adjusted the question to a more general one: What do kids like? Well, after thinking about this new question with the new source of clues, I came up with a few answers. Certainly, kids love candy. At the store where I used to work, I came across many kids crying to their parents for some of the candy we sold. And kids also like toys. At the store where I worked, I came across many kids crying to their parents for some of the toys we sold. From both these observations, I have come up with a third conclusion: Kids like to cry.

Drifting away from the obvious, I decided to next think about what kids like when it comes to other kinds of entertainment, namely movies and television shows. Thinking about those specific subjects, I came up with some interesting observations. First, kids like repetition. With kids begging their parents to read the same bedtime stories over and over, it should come as no surprise that they like seeing the exact same movies and television episodes over and over as well. Another thing that they like seeing in movies and television shows are people their age or a little older in positions of power. For example, kids for a large part really loved seeing Home Alone (and still do) because it had a child protagonist who faced a number of dangerous situations and managed to come out on top at the very end. With this knowledge that kids like to see people their age in positions of power, one may conclude that there is a certain kind of family movie that kids would be demanding, being the martial art family movie. However, one will quickly see that although some such movies have been made over the years, there haven't been a great deal made. Why is this? I decided to think about this for a while, and I came up with a few possible theories. One theory is that while adults versed in martial arts can perform safely in front of the camera and maybe withstand a little pain if something goes wrong, it is more dangerous for kids. Filmmakers may be reluctant to have kids risk getting hurt. Another reason may be that the idea of selling a kiddie martial arts movie to parents - who buy movie tickets for their kids - may be a tougher sell; parents may not relish the thought of kids getting the idea that the way to conquer a problem is to beat the living daylights out of an opponent.

A third reason may be with casting. Only a small percentage of kids train in the martial arts, and finding a kid who is not only well skilled in martial arts but can also act may be a challenge. But there is a fourth reason why I think not many kiddie martial arts movies have been made: They are The Power Withinalmost always terrible movies. I've seen over the years a good deal of the few kiddie martial arts movies, and I have generally found them to be of very low quality. Read my old review of Little Ninjas for an example. Having stated my opinion of kiddie martial arts movies, you have probably concluded that The Power Within is another such movie, and you are probably questioning why I would then review it. Well, there was a glimmer of hope with this movie, since it was made by the B movie studio PM Entertainment, which made a number of high quality direct to video movies around the time this particular effort was made. It's about the adventures of a teenager named Stan (Roberts, Masked Rider), who lives with his single mother Clyda (Valentine, Room 222). Stan is a youth with no self esteem or confidence, which among other things gets him bullied and makes him balk from approaching a girl he likes (Tracy Melchior, The Bold And The Beautiful). One day, Stan stumbles across an old man (Gerald Okamura, Big Trouble In Little China) who is being attacked by a mysterious man. After Stan somehow finds the courage to save the old man, the old man soon after dies, but not before handing Stan a ring. It turns out that the ring is far from ordinary - when Stan puts it on his finger, he finds that he not only has great martial arts powers, but the confidence that he was seeking for so long. Naturally, Stan starts using his new powers and confidence to improve his life, and soon things start looking great for him. But Stan doesn't know that the mysterious attacker, a man by the name of Raymond Vonn (William Zabka, The Karate Kid), has been looking for the same ring. Vonn happens to have the twin of the ring in his possession, so he has a lot of confidence and martial art skills, and he won't hesitate to use his powers to get that second ring from Stan.

The idea of B movie studio PM Entertainment making a change from their usual R-rated action product and making a family movie shouldn't sound too unusual to long time readers of this web site - besides Two Bits & Pepper, there was also, among other efforts I haven't (yet) covered, Earth Minus Zero. But those two movies weren't action-oriented, and The Power Within is. The movie got a PG-13 rating ("For martial arts violence"), which suggests things aren't too graphic. But does the action in the movie manage to be satisfying, and for that matter, does the movie remain safe for family audiences? Well, I'll start with that second question first. If your child regularly watches modern day PG-13 major studio movies, then I don't think you'll object to the level of martial arts violence in The Power Within. In fact, you might wonder why the movie got a PG-13 rating; the martial action here comes across as pretty tame stuff compared to what's found in those major studio movies. And with that statement, you can probably guess how I found most of the martial arts action in this movie - not terribly exciting. For one thing, it suffers from the same problem found in the R-rated PM martial arts movie Guardian Angel, that problem being that the fights are constructed so that we get one or two martial arts moves, an immediate edit to another angle, one or two martial arts moves, an immediate edit to another angle etc. etc. - which doesn't make the fighters look exceptionally skilled, which lessens the excitement. In fairness to the fights, I will admit that the martial art moves and bouts that are displayed do generally come across as more realistic than with those found in a number of other martial arts movies. It is possible that some kids in the audience will observe these believable bouts, and be encouraged to train in martial arts themselves since these less elaborate moves look easier to train towards than what's displayed in a typical Hong Kong martial arts movie.

Interestingly, Ted Jan Roberts, the sixteen year-old lead of the movie, is also listed in the credits as contributing to the movie's martial arts choreography. Indeed, he seems to know what he's doing when he's fighting, even doing a few risky stunt sequences himself. But how is he when he's not fighting? Well, not fabulous, but also not terrible as well. There are some scenes when he's a little stiff, such as expressing great emotion. But he does bring to the role a lot of likeability, so when his character is trying to build up the nerve to talk to a girl he wants to ask to the prom, or struggles at school, he manages to get the audience's sympathy. When his character gets the ring and his life starts to improve considerably, Roberts manages to find the right balance of expressing happiness while not acting in a stuck-up manner. As for the adversary his character inevitably has to deal with, actor William Zabka finds the right note for his character as well. Initially, I noticed the obvious fact that Zabka was laying on the ham somewhat with his evil character. But surprisingly, I soon realized that this was the right note to play this particular villain for this particular movie. The Power Within is a family movie that's also a fantasy, and having a real mean and vicious villain would clash badly with the movie's often whimsical mood. Younger kids won't be scared or traumatized by this guy, though they will all the same see him as a villain that needs to be stopped. Some of the supporting players in the movie also manage to make a mark. Keith Coogan (Hiding Out) manages to deliver a few chuckles as the hero's somewhat goofy friend, and Tracy Melchior comes across as the kind of girl any shy boy would have a crush on, being down to earth while being very attractive.

There is also a short cameo appearance by a famous B movie star (who plays himself) who shows up to give some good advice to our young hero about what made him a success. This is not the only message portion of the movie. The theme that keeps coming up in The Power Within is in the title of the movie itself, that we all have the ability to succeed if we not only work hard at it, but put in some thinking as well, and magic rings are not needed. A worthy and commendable message, but the movie goes a bit too far illustrating this. That's because viewers young and old will be waiting for the inevitable showdown between the youthful hero and the villain, but instead of the movie displaying an epic scrap between the two, the movie instead cops out after a few blows have been landed and has the hero using his intelligence to immediately halt the fight. I am sure many viewers will feel cheated by this lack of spectacle here. But this sequence and the somewhat lacking other fight sequences are not the only big problems to be found in The Power Within. The biggest problems with the movie are that it feels extremely padded and drawn out, even though it only runs ninety-seven minutes. For example, when the hero finally gets the ring that gives him special powers, over a third of the movie has passed. Before that point (and for that matter, after that point) there are a lot of scenes that either run too long or are not the least bit necessary. Viewers, especially the younger members of the audience, will inevitably be telling the movie to just get on with it a number of times. But I think that some viewers - kids, to be exact - may be able to forgive the movie for its flaws and find it enjoyable. Kids will like the charming youthful protagonist, so they will stick with him throughout the movie even during the clunkier parts. Adults, on the other hand, will likely think otherwise. But if these adults focus on the movie's positive features and remember the struggles they faced as youths, seeing the youthful hero overcome his challenges may touch their inner childs and make the movie go down a lot easier.

(Posted September 26, 2017)

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See also: Earth Minus Zero, Little Ninjas, Star Kid