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Hipster Holy Grail: The Power Within (1995)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Since I'm still reeling from last week's movie, The Power Within may only seem like a fun movie by comparison.  But let's pretend my reaction is genuine and not relative.  It's dumb, corny fun about a nerd with magic karate who fights William Zabka.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5 (Novice Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Maybe it's because I hadn't been that annoyed by a movie in awhile, or maybe it's simply because I just don't have much else to talk about, but lately I haven't been able to stop talking shit about Tiger Heart.  The main character really got under my skin, you know?

And whenever I get that caustic about a fictional character, I feel like I need to take a step back and remind myself that the actors are probably fine folks.  Ted Jan Roberts was only 17 when he made Tiger Heart, for Christ's sake.  He probably was just psyched to be on camera at all and didn't even think about the dumb shit he was being made to say.

So this week, I decided I should give Ted Jan Roberts another try.  Turns out that was a great idea - this week's movie is almost like an inverse Tiger Heart.  It's like time travelers from PM Entertainment came to 2016 from 1996, saw my review, and then went back in time to 1995 to release a different, better movie called The Power Within.  Now, why did they move ahead with releasing Tiger Heart after that?  I don't know.  They're not smart time travelers.

Anyway, The Power Within.  This time, Roberts stars as Stan Dryer, a scrawny little dork from the suburbs who works part time at the Universal Studios theme park in California.  He's failing his classes in high school and is relentlessly bullied by his class mates.  So, even before I get into the plot, I like him better than the kid from Tiger Heart.  Like, I haven't even talked about the conflict yet and Stan is basically ten million times a more sympathetic character.

Stan and his best pal Eric (Keith Coogan) hang out and talk about girls a lot, but neither one of them is brave enough to ask anybody out on a date.  Stan lately has been pining for Sandy (Tracy Melchior), another part-time employee at the amusement park.  Sandy has a psychotic ex-boyfriend who thinks of her as his property, and even though Stan never actually works up the nerve to ask Sandy out, her ex still beats the shit out of Stan at school in a jealous rage.

Shortly before he gets pummeled, though, Stan notices Yung, an ominous Asian dude (popular character actor Gerald Okamura, who last showed up on this blog in Ninja Academy), hanging out in the background.  Yung does a weird eyebrow twitch move and Stan is briefly and suddenly awesome at martial arts.  So for like two seconds, he's able to hold his own and fend off the bullies.  Then Yung disappears and Stan is knocked on his ass.

This understandably confuses him and leads him to want to know more about the magical Japanese guy.  But before we pick up with that, we should talk about William Zabka, who is also in this movie.

Zabka plays Raymond Vonn, a super-thief / martial artist who was recently hired by some nebulous gangster types to steal an invaluable ring.  Vonn wears John Lennon glasses and dresses sorta like Matthew Lillard in Hackers, and after a brief info-dump about how the ring is magical and can be paired with another magic ring to unlock Even More Magic, he beats the shit out of all the gangsters and leaves.

So, cut back to Stan.  He's driving near a nifty tower of some sort - which I think is an art museum, but I'll need a native Californian to advise me - and sees Yung walking up some stairs.  Desperate for answers, Stan parks and runs up the stairs after him.  There's a goofy "chase" scene here where Stan keeps getting shocked and surprised by random other people who walk across his path as he tries to get closer to Yung.

He is almost going to ask Yung some questions - for example, "Are you stalking me, bro?" - when Vonn shows up out of nowhere with a dozen thugs to back him up.  Turns out Yung has the second magic ring.  Vonn threatens him a bit, then sics all his goons on him.  Stan freaks out and runs to his car, but he doesn't immediately leave - he kinda wants to watch Yung fight, so he lingers a bit.

Yung gets the better of most of the baddies, but then Vonn throws a sword into his back.  Stan reverses his car and runs down Vonn, then invites Yung to hop in.  They drive away before Vonn can get back on his feet.  Why did Stan suddenly have a change of heart and risk his life to save the spooky Asian stalker?  Hell if I know.

Anyway, so now there's a magic spell, and Yung teleports Stan's car to a beach.  Then he transports himself to the top of a nearby cliff, and Stan has to climb up to the top to get any answers about what just happened - except he doesn't get answers, because as soon as he's up there, Yung latches onto Stan's hands and forces the ring onto his fingers, then babbles a bit and dies.

You know, this sounds a lot dumber and creepier when I write it out.  I guess I was willing to go with the movie by this point.

So, Stan has a magic ring now, just like the one Vonn stole.  Probably you've figured out already that it will turn Stan's life upside-down, but Stan doesn't totally get it.  Cue about 15 minutes of "whoa, what's happening to me?" scenes, starting with Stan beating the shit out of a bunch of hoodlums on the beach who are loitering by his car.

Later Stan shows off more of his newfound powers by besting some fellow students in his karate class and impressing his history teacher with a thorough understanding of US-Soviet political strife.  Then he gets a bunch of confidence and asks Sandy out to the prom in front of her ex.  Cue the next fight scene, which culminates with Stan leaping off a picnic table and jump-kicking Sandy's ex in the face.  It's pretty good.

Sandy goes to Stan's hot dog stand at the theme park the next day (or later that same day, possibly) to close out that conversation.  She says she'd love to go to the prom with him, and then they basically just ditch their jobs to go have a date right now.  I'm sure this scene is supposed to be whimsical and fun, but the old man bastard in me was so cranky that these fuckers weren't doing their jobs.

Anyway, their date ends eventually and Sandy leaves.  Then Stan is accosted by Vonn's goons again. They fight briefly before Hin-See (Karen Kim) shows up, and now the movie really goes off the rails.

The next twenty minutes feel sort of like a fever dream.  I remember the general concepts, but getting them to mix together logically is a stretch.  Let me try to plow right through this the best I can without thinking too much about what I'm actually writing.

So, Hin-See is Yung's daughter, who knew through some kind of psychic, Force-like sense that Stan was possibly in trouble, and she came to the theme park to get him in her car and drive off to a temple-like building that's not too far off from Universal Studios where Stan can hone his skills further.  Once there, he meets a chimp who may or may not be the reincarnation of Yung, except not really, because Stan also keep seeing Yung hanging out, but it might just be Yung's ghost.  Hin-See tells a story about how the ring Stan has was made, and how it can be paired with the other ring Vonn has to get even more power, but the power will be too much and will end in disaster.

And while all that's going on, Stan's mom has filed a missing person's report with the police, because I guess he's been gone for possibly more than a day at this point?

Then Stan realizes he's late for the prom, and somehow he gets ready for his date with Sandy without going back home because his mother never sees him during all this time.  Stan picks Sandy up from her house, they fawn over her dress, and then they go dance and have a good time.  Then Vonn shows up with some more goons and Stan beats all of them up.  Then they all get arrested.

And then Stan's mom realizes he's okay, and that plot thread is wrapped up neatly before it even bothered to become a conflict.  Whew!  Glad to hear there was no tension.

There's some stuff here about how the previous owner of Vonn's ring is being called in to inspect Stan's ring, but that doesn't really come to much of anything when Stan's spidey sense starts tingling.  He gets visions of Vonn holding Sandy hostage and realizes he needs to escape immediately.  How does he do it?  By launching himself through a plate glass window and running, obviously.

Unfortunately, that plate glass crash is kind of like an exclamation point to wrap up the crazier parts of the movie.  The last ten minutes or so are kind of anemic.

It boils down to a showdown with Vonn on a bridge.  And while the set design is kinda nifty - it's got a sort of post-apocalyptic street gang aesthetic going on, replete with barrels full of fire - not much actually happens.  Stan effortlessly beats up all of Vonn's lesser goons, then barely fights Vonn at all before he loses and is subdued.  Vonn gets both rings and uses them to show off some crazy new powers, but only for about ten seconds before Stan does a sort of downward-kicking move and somehow crushes the rings to dust.

...and then the movie kinda just ends.  Vonn is revealed to be powerless and cowardly without the ring, so Stan brushes past him to rescue Sandy.  The end.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

It's a mixed bag this week.  Let me put it like this: Tiger Heart was the awful first draft, full of terrible characters, misguided cliches, wretched acting, and disturbing social politics. The Power Within is the second draft, which fixes all the major problems and works as a serviceable story.  But it sure ain't a final draft.

I'll give this movie props for actually functioning.  Damning with faint praise?  Maybe, but story structure is harder than it sounds when you're trying to crank out as many movies a week as humanly possible the way PM Entertainment did.  The Power Within is heads and shoulders above most of their catalog simply because it is watchable.

And I'm happy to have seen something else with Ted Jan Roberts.  If Tiger Heart was the only one of his I'd ever seen, I'd just forget his name entirely.  Instead, I can recognize that he had some legitimate talent.  Definitely flawed - his acting is a bit rough in spots and his "edgy" smile just looks like he's being obnoxious.  Still, he holds his own and carries the story.  He can fight well, too.  Not quite the same level as other PM Entertainment luminaries like Don Wilson (who makes a completely arbitrary cameo as himself, by the way), but Roberts has some moves on him.  His action scenes look good.

I hate to keep going back to the Tiger Heart comparison well, but this seriously feels like they just tried to remake it.  There's a perfect one-to-one relationship between the characters from Tiger Heart to the cast in The Power Within, and every single one of them is a trade up.  Ditching the fake Andrew McCarthy for Keith Coogan?  Untrained and barely tolerable Jennifer Lyons to Tracy Melchior?  The random karate teacher with almost no dialogue to Gerald Okamura?  It's like taking your dented Pinto to the dealer and driving away with an Audi.  (Well, maybe not that classy.  This cast is more like a Taurus.  Still, that's a deal.)

The one trade that's arguably worse is going from Christopher Kriesa as the main villain to William Zabka.  Don't get me wrong - I love me some Zabka.  He just takes a completely different approach.  Kriesa actually tried to be menacing and had gravitas.  Zabka, on the other hand, probably came to the set, sized things up, and went, "Oh, it's one of these.  Got it."  His performance isn't good, but it is appropriate, if that makes sense.  He delivers the right kind of cheese that The Power Within needed.

The cheesiness - that right there is the draw.  The Power Within is goofy as hell and chock full of action movie / kid movie tropes.  The rest of the movie is competent enough not to get in the way, so you end up with a breezy, dumb little flick.  It's the exact kind of silly movie you're thinking when you hear the phrase "mid-'90s surfer karate."  Nothing better, nothing worse.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Lightning round: 30 points for obscurity (about 250 ratings on IMDb), 15 points for half a recommendation bonus, and 10 points for pedigree, since it's a PM Entertainment Group movie.

I'll give it another 15 points for the ensemble cast of hipster icons and bit players.  And what the hell, let's go with 5 points for magic martial arts.

That comes to a very respectable total of 75 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

The Power Within was released on DVD, so there's no trouble finding it.  I rented a copy from Netflix, and it looks like at least one copy is up on Youtube, albeit in ten parts.