Rating: (3 out of 5) Friday, 10/17/2008, 5:00 PM Feature presentation, $0 at Lincoln Theatre
IF YOU EVER wondered what would happen if you crossed The Karate Kid with the ’80s made-for-television AIDS movie An Early Frost, then The Sensei has your answer.
Life is rough for high-school senior McClain Evans (Michael O’Laskey). The entire population of his small Colorado hometown knows he’s gay and treats him as a pariah. Bullied from all sides, he wants to take karate lessons, but the owners of the local dojo keep ”losing” his application. Defenseless and defeated, McClain becomes the victim of a brutal attack that puts him in the hospital.
Desperate to help her son, McClain’s mother reaches out to Karen O’Neil (Diana Lee Inosanto), the prodigal daughter of the family that runs the dojo. Denied a blackbelt by the dojo because of her gender, she becomes a Ms. Miyagi, training McClain to, she says, ”defend yourself against hatred.”
It sounds pretty simple and straightforward as it builds to a couple of big, cathartic fight scenes. But just about when you expect a final title fight, The Sensei abruptly switches gears and, with a big plot twist, becomes an AIDS melodrama.
Inosanto, a long-time Hollywood stuntwoman and daughter of a famed martial arts family, also wrote and directed The Sensei, and proves earnest and capable yet susceptible to some odd choices. Figuring out the structure of Karen’s appealing multi-ethnic family — Japanese grandfather, Filipino grandmother, and a died-offscreen white father — takes too long. McClain’s best and only friend dutifully appears to advance some key plot points, then just as dutifully disappears.
And while the lead performances are strong across the board, Inosanto undercuts a key emotional moment at the end by jumping away from actual character interaction to a special-effects laden sequence that looks like someone got a little crazy with the iMovie.
But, as a hybrid martial arts/AIDS melodrama, The Sensei pulls a lot of heartstrings along the way. If you’re nostalgic for the days of ”wax on, wax off,” or ever wished the Karate Kid had been gay, you’ll find what you’re looking for here.
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