Even within the martial arts genre, there are subcategories of familiar plots: the revenge story, the tournament drama and the master-student relationship story. It is the latter that has been revisited in the new film “The Martial Arts Kid,” starring two warhorses of the martial arts film world, Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.
Mr. Wilson and Miss Rothrock star as Glen and Cindy, who take in nephew Robbie (Jansen Panettiere, brother of Hayden). In a twist on a plot — and a title — likely to be rather familiar, Glen trains Robbie in the martial arts to help him deal with bullies.
Mr. Wilson, a former world kickboxing champion and star of dozens of martial arts films, feels grateful to making the transition to mentor characters such as Glen — roles he calls “acting for hire” based on his name recognition.
“Instead of me being the star and it being a Don Wilson film … I just show up on the set, do my scenes, and then leave the project like other actors do,” Mr. Wilson, 62, said of the new turn in his decades-long action career. “And the odd thing is that I get paid more now to do that than when I used to star in my own movies,” he added with a knowing chuckle.
The new film, produced by Mr. Wilson’s brother, James E. Wilson, follows a well-trod formula, which Mr. Wilson said has worked well since the days of the first “Karate Kid” in 1984.
Mr. Wilson got his start in the 1980s at the behest of fellow former fighting champ Chuck Norris. After seeing Mr. Wilson’s suavity in the kickboxing ring, Mr. Norris suggested Mr. Wilson move from his native Florida out west to try his hand at an acting career.
“Then I found out really quick that they were not looking for six-foot-tall Asians with Southern accents,” Mr. Wilson said in his typically good-natured way, adding that he was often cast in such ignominious bit parts as “Chinese waiter.”
However, uberproducer Roger Corman, the patron saint of schlocky B-cinema, did take notice. Mr. Corman’s legendary, on-the-cheap style has unleashed over 400 “genre pictures” upon cinema to date, and his production companies became proving grounds for such later-mainstream filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme.
“I came home one day and I pushed the button for my [answering machine], and it said, ‘Hello, my name is Roger Corman. I’d like you to come in and read for my film “Bloodfist,”’” Mr. Wilson recalls. “That was my first starring role.”
“Bloodfist,” released to little fanfare and extremely modest box office in 1989, nonetheless touched a nerve with martial arts film fans thanks to its combination of murder mystery, the tried-and-true tournament motif and its exotic setting in the Philippines. Mr. Wilson would go on to star in seven loose sequels — he played the same character, Jake Raye, only in “Bloodfist II — and it launched his career as both a name and a brand.
In the process, he has starred in more of Mr. Corman’s movies than any other single actor.
Co-starring with Mr. Wilson in “The Martial Arts Kid” is Miss Rothrock, known the world over as the Queen of Martial Arts Films. A former ladies champion in her own right, Miss Rothrock broke into action films in the mid-‘80s and has worked steadily since.
“I’ve always wanted to do a family action picture,” Miss Rothrock, 59, said of “Martial Arts Kid,” which is significantly less violent than many other films in the action/martial arts genre.
Unlike other tournament films, young Robbie learns enough in “The Martial Arts Kid” to defend himself from bullies but not so much that he is able to win a climactic championship. Miss Rothrock added that she was excited at the opportunity to play a mother — in real life, the star has a teenage daughter of her own — and to reunite with Mr. Wilson, with whom she has acted before.
“Don has been one of my longest friends out of all the martial arts people, because we were going to events before we were doing films,” she said. “You just look forward to every day [on the set] because we’re such good friends.”
Like Mr. Wilson, Miss Rothrock also faced uphill difficulties in the ‘80s when trying to break into martial arts flicks. The genre was already largely spurned by mainstream Hollywood, and for a woman to star in an action pic was, as she put it, “totally unheard of.”
“It was the same thing in Hollywood: ‘Oh, women action stars don’t sell,’” Miss Rothrock recalls of anxious studio heads roadblocking her early career moves.
However, she proved the doubters wrong, soon stepping away from thankless “girlfriend” roles and graduating to films in the U.S. and in Hong Kong. One of her early successes was the “China O’Brien” series, in which Miss Rothrock got to kick butt at center stage. She has starred in dozens of films since.
“It’s still male-dominated,” Miss Rothrock said bluntly of the entertainment business. “Like when Stallone did ‘The Expendables,’ I was like, ‘Where was I?’ I was the only female doing action at that time. And then in the second one, he had a girl who wasn’t even doing martial arts.
“I think it’s still like that. The males still dominate” the industry, she said. “It’s a little bit better [now], but it’s still not” achieving gender parity, she said.
(Mr. Wilson relates that on the previous film he made with Miss Rothrock, “Redemption,” the producers didn’t want to pay her going rate, so her character was killed off only days into filming. However, now they both have the same agent, so the two often come as a package deal.)
For his part, Mr. Wilson too has been passed over for a spot in the three “Expendables” films, which feature a veritable who’s who of 1980s action stars from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Dolph Lundgren appearing alongside Mr. Stallone. Mr. Wilson knows Mr. Stallone socially, and has continually put the bug in his ear.
“He’s put other martial arts people I know in the films,” Mr. Wilson said of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jet Li appearing in the series. “He knows I do action, and of course if they call” he will jump at the chance to be in the film.
“It’s not about money,” Mr. Wilson asserts.
Miss Rothrock adds that “Expendables” producers have sought to only cast so-called A-list talent, which has left both she and Mr. Wilson out in the cold.
“I’m pretty good at action, I think I look OK, and I think my acting has gotten a little better,” she said with an amiable laugh.
While mainstream Hollywood hasn’t exactly beckoned, both “Martial Arts Kid” stars have been surprised at the high-wattage admirers their films have earned. No less than James Cameron once approached Miss Rothrock to offer his praise.
“‘You know my work?’” Miss Rothrock responded to the director of “The Terminator” and “Avatar.” “It really makes me feel good when someone knows me. I was floored.”
Likewise, Mr. Wilson once ran into Quentin Tarantino at the Cannes Film Festival, where the quixotic director was chairing the annual cinema bonanza’s jury.
“Tarantino looks at me and says, ‘Don “The Dragon” Wilson, I’m a big fan of your movies!’” Mr. Wilson said of the impromptu meeting. “I didn’t understand how much of a fan he was of marital arts movies, but then I should have realized he was a Blockbuster manager at the time my movies were big on video, so of course he [saw] them.”
Indeed, the imprint of martial arts films is imprinted into the DNA of much of Mr. Tarantino’s work, particularly “Kill Bill,” which even featured Sonny Chiba, the Hong Kong star of many ‘70s karate flicks Mr. Tarantino grew up on.
During his early years in Hollywood, Mr. Wilson roomed with actor Chris Penn, the brother of Sean Penn, who was in Mr. Tarantino’s first film, “Reservoir Dogs.” Phone records confirm that Mr. Wilson was the last person to speak to Penn before a heart issue ended his life at in 2005 at age 40.
“The bad part of life is having your friends and family members pass before you,” Mr. Wilson said of his late friend.
Although he has been married to makeup artist Kathleen Karridene for 20 years, Mr. Wilson isn’t shy about saying he took a hands-on approach to casting his female leads in his early films, hoping to foster chemistry onscreen, but also to appeal to his fans.
“I try to find female leads that are attractive because I have a male audience,” Mr. Wilson said. “It’s not because I’m going to be dating them afterwards, although that kind of stuff does happen in Hollywood.”
While the actor maintains that since he has been married, his love scenes are “just business,” back in the early days, “we were very friendly,” he said with a self-knowing laugh.
Perhaps Mr. Wilson’s most “legitimate” film to date was as a gang leader in 1995’s “Batman Forever,” a part he says he got because director Joel Schumacher admired his work in “Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight.”
Mr. Wilson often fields questions from fans about theoretical match-ups between himself and the likes of Mr. Van Damme. If he feels the inquirer is “knowledgable enough to handle the truth,” he will say that he would handily defeat the “Time Cop” star.
“If I were to fight Van Damme, it would be like Tyson in his prime fighting Sylvester Stallone,” Mr. Wilson estimates of his chances.
He rates the odds based on the fact that Mr. Van Damme, while an accomplished martial artist, never fought professionally, adding that the marketing campaign for Mr. Van Damme’s first starring film, “Bloodsport,” boasted a bogus claim the Belgian actor was an international kickboxing champ.
“He is undefeated because he never had one fight,” Mr. Wilson said. “He was what was called a ‘points fighter’ — as similar to NFL football as flag football, where you don’t actually hit each other.”
Despite the impugned distance between Mr. Van Damme’s fight record versus reality, Mr. Wilson says he greatly admires his fellow action star’s recent work, adding he feels Mr. Van Damme appears “a lot tougher [on screen] as he’s aged.”
While neither Mr. Wilson or Miss Rothrock has yet gotten the call from the Italian Stallion, Mr. Wilson intimates that there may yet be a forthcoming “B version” of “The Expendables,” featuring the two of them and such other stalwarts of the martial arts genre as Richard Roundtree, Billy Blanks, Michael Dudikoff and the rest of the action stars who haven’t quite broken into mainstream cinema.
“This is going to be our version, the B-list version of the A-list guys,” Mr. Wilson said. “Save your DVD rental movie and you see everybody” at once, he said.
In the meantime, Mr. Wilson also has a workout DVD called “The Dragon Way,” which his fans can watch to imitate his training, diet and lifestyle in their own daily lives. (The actor says he feels better now than he did at 45.)
“I teach seminars all over the world, and if you can’t get to one, you get ‘The Dragon Way’ DVD, and you kind of get a condensed version of one of my seminars,” he said.
Miss Rothrock maintains that she loves to act, and will continue to do so as long as her fans keep coming back for more.
“I’m still pushing away trying to get that A-listed project somewhere,” she added with a laugh.
“The Martial Arts Kid” is available for digital download Tuesday.
Entertainment Editor Eric Althoff is a third-degree black belt in Isshinryu Karate.