Wednesday, April 13, 2016

What the Chuck?! Sidekicks

Chuck Norris' cinematic prime came a bit before my youth. For me it was Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies while Norris I recognized from Missing in Action and The Delta Force reruns on TBS and his hit show Walker, Texas Ranger on CBS. But as a martial arts training youth reading Black Belt magazine, Norris was never far from my eyes. I recall seeing 1992's Sidekicks at the local discount theater and enjoying it. The gold boxed VHS is part of my collection and once when my brother asked for my iPhone upgrade, I said he could have it if he brought Sidekicks to California from our Ohio home. He did. Jim from Cinematic Void screened a trailer for the flick with Silent Rage which of course gave me a hankering to watch the film again. We meet lovable, asthmatic dreamer Barry (Jonathan Brandis, View in Peace) at school, day dreaming during class that he's Chuck Norris' high kicking sidekick in recreations of Missing In Action, a ninja flick, a western, movies I don't think Norris actually ever starred in, The Hitman and more. Barry's computer programmer from Pittsburgh dad Jerry (Beau Bridges) is struggling to stay close to his son after the death of his wife. Local teacher and supporter Noreen (Julia Nickson) thinks she can help, enlisting newly arrived uncle Mr. Lee (Mako) to teach Barry martial arts.

Mako isn't quite as hard a task master as say Bloodsport's Shidoshi Tanaka or sadistic as The Karate Kid's Kreese and puts Barry through paces like running, chins, nunchaku drills and breaking bricks. Soon Barry doesn't even need his inhaler, catches the eye of dreamy classmate Lauren (Danica McKellar) and stands up to karate trained bully Randy (John Buchanan). By the end of the film at a giant karate tournament, Barry meets his hero Chuck Norris in real life as they compete on the same team in an inspiring if wholly unbelievable scenario. But that's the point of Sidekicks, dreams do come true if you believe in them enough and never give up. Directed by Chuck's brother Aaron with a script from Lou Illar and Galen Thompson, Sidekicks is a fun and more or less harmless piece of martial arts action comedy. Known for his R rated fare, Sidekicks opens up Norris' audience to kids and employs some very juvenile yuks as bad guys get blown up with bubble gum and there's lots of kicks, flips, gunfire and throwing stars but no blood or death. There's also a really fake looking yet educational rope climbing scene where Barry seemingly talks to himself in front of the entire class as imaginary Chuck shows him how to use his legs and tells us he hates the word "can't".

Produced via Mark Damon's Vision PDG, Sidekicks like fellow studio project Dark Angel/I Come In Peace before it was shot in and around Houston with Lamar High School standing in for itself along with the convention center and several nice looking parks, one with a waterfall. The film still holds up with solid production values that cover half a dozen day dream sequences, entertaining action and hands down Norris' best supporting cast ever that includes Beau Bridges, Jonathan Brandis, Mako, Julia Nickson, Joe Piscopo (buff and sporting a mullet), McKellar, Richard Moll and Gerrit Graham. Alan Silvestri provides a memorably playful guitar and drum heavy score. Norris carries the story but not directly, mainly popping up in action sequences then dropping a few bits of knowledge and encouragement on Brandis' Barry. For the most part it's an adopted family affair meets coming of age with light romance and a few training scenes with Brandis, Mako, Bridges, Nickson and McKellar.

By the early 90's, Norris had burst into the cinematic scene with low budget karate hits like Breaker! Breaker!, Good Guys Wear Black and A Force of One. Cannon Films backed the bearded badass with healthy budgets and paydays for Missing in Action, Invasion U.S.A. and Hero and the Terror to diminishing box office returns. Sidekicks was partially funded by local Houston mattress icon Jim McIngvale who invested $9 million for production and a further $7 million for advertising. Sidekicks would open in limited release on April 9th with a grassroots wide release following on April 30th. Taking a page from future President Bill Clinton, the producers booked Norris on a trail of personal appearances at theaters and on local news, meeting fans and signing autographs. The gambit paid off as Sidekicks grossed a respectable $17 million at the U.S. box office, his highest take since 1986's The Delta Force. Norris' theatrical days were numbered as 1994's Hellbound and '96's Top Dog would close out his starring vehicle days. On the small screen however, Norris would appear on 196 episodes of Walker between 1993 and 2001.

Director Aaron Norris would stick close to brother Chuck, mainly working on Walker and popping up as a stuntman in last year's Ant-Man. Sidekicks is co-writer Illar's only credit while Thompson would work with Norris on several projects before his death in 2011. Familiar face Mako starred opposite the likes of Steve McQueen, Arnold and Sean Connery in his 160 acting credits before passing in 2006. Working as an actor since he was 5, Jonathan Brandis became a teen magazine cover staple after appearances in It, Lady Bugs, The Never Ending Story II and Starquest: DSV. But transitioning from an androgynous teen heart throb to leading man proved more difficult. As work dried up, Brandis was said to have become depressed and at only 27, committed suicide in his Hollywood apartment building. Nunchuk in Peace, Brandis, I always enjoyed your work.

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