Control Nathan Rabin: Sidekicks (1992)
As a movie-mad, desperately lonely, deeply depressed child, I held folks like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme in high regard. Yet for some reason Chuck Norris never really did it for me. Even at the age when I was most liable to be overly impressed by some glowering alpha-male side-kicking or machine-gunning bad guys, Norris was curiously unappealing.
Having watched four Chuck Norris movies in a two week period, for Cannontober (which today officially changes into Cannonvember), and for Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I give the living saints who donate to this site’s Patreon a choice between one of two terrible-looking movies I must see, and then write about, I now know why I never connected with Norris: he’s fucking terrible.
We live in a world where people become action heroes less because they’re excellent at fighting, like Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal and more because they’re insanely jacked caricatures of big, muscle-bound brutes. Compared to the likes of Jason Statham, Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, Chuck Norris isn’t just less physically intimidating: he’s practically leprechaun-sized compared to the man-monsters who would usurp him.
Norris isn’t just lilliputian in contrast to the Incredible Hulk-sized action heroes of today: he’s also deeply, almost perversely boring. Norris is amazing at growing facial hair and damn near Jay Leno-like in his flair for denim ensembles. He’s also good at kicking people in the head and shooting them with machine guns and/or rocket launchers, but he lacks certain qualities superior action heroes possess, things like, “magnetism”, “charisma”, “presence”, “a sense of humor” and “personality.”
Norris’ best vehicles, like Invasion USA, Delta Force and Missing In Action, ask him only to kick and shoot lots of bad guys and not to do anything that falls, even loosely, under the category of “acting.” Sidekicks makes things even easier for Norris.
Sidekicks was advertised to children as a Karate Kid vehicle staring Chuck Norris. Norris was obviously a little old for the Ralph Macchio role so I assumed that he’d be taking on the Pat Morita part of the wise, experienced mentor who counsels his young protege in the mystical way of Eastern martial arts.
That conception of Sidekicks wouldn’t necessarily be good, or original. In fact it’d almost assuredly be both bad and screamingly unoriginal. But at least it would not represent an unconscionable bait and switch: Norris would be the name and the face on the poster, and while he wouldn’t have the starring role, he’d at least have the most important supporting role.
That, alas, is not the case. Sidekicks is such an unforgivable Karate Kid knock off that I’m genuinely a little surprised the lead character isn’t called Daniel-San and instructed to wax on, wax off, as part of their training, but the wise, Mr. Miyagi-like mentor isn’t played by hirsute mullet-enthusiast Chuck Norris but rather legendary character actor Mako, who was actually up for the role of Mr. Miyagi.
So what does Chuck Norris do in this ostensible Chuck Norris vehicle? Well, he plays Chuck Norris, stiffly and unconvincingly, for about ten minutes or so, then literally vanishes into thin air, like a ghost who’s really good at kicking people in the face.
The real focus of Sidekicks is Barry Gabrewski (Jonathan Brandis), an asthmatic day-dreamer obsessed with the films of Chuck Norris. This is a little curious, because Sidekicks is probably the first Chuck Norris movie it would be appropriate for a boy his age to see.
Barry’s real life is sad and small but his fantasy life is big and brawling, and populated with both his hero Chuck Norris and figures from his real life in alternate forms. For example, early in the film Barry goes to a dojo to learn martial arts, only to be bullied by owner Stone (Joe Piscopo). This earns Stone a starring role in many of Barry’s fantasies, including a daydream ostensibly based on Missing in Action (the iconic shot of Norris busting out of a body of water in slow-motion, machine gun in hand, is even lovingly referenced) where Piscopo assumes the role of a Vietnamese bad guy in yellow face make-up.
Yes, yellow face. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from Sidekicks but I was hoping that at least it had the goddamned decency to realize that yellow face is offensive and gross, even with a thespian as nuanced and masterful as Joe Piscopo.
Before Sidekicks, Piscopo hadn’t been in a film since the 1988 zombie cop cult movie Dead Heat. It may not have been much, but it was a starring role. Four years later, the best a man who at one point was as big as Eddie Murphy could muster was a bug-eyed, flailing, cartoon bad guy in a lesser Chuck Norris vehicle, one that mainly called upon his to scream at small children and get climactically kicked in the face. This isn’t a comeback. This is the kind of movie and role you need to apologize for, and come back from.
Piscopo isn’t the only name in the cast. Poor Barry doesn’t have anything going for him, except that the most beautiful, smart girl in school (Danica Mckellar, for Chrissakes) is clearly in love with him, but he blows her off because he’s concerned she’s only interested in him out of pity because his mom is dead or something.
If I were Barry in 1992, I wouldn’t care if a woman who looked and acted like Danica Mckellar was only interested in me because she knew I only had a few days left to live. I’d be bummed about my imminent death, but I’d nevertheless I’d be all, holy shit! That girl is into me! Should really enliven my final moments!
But no, Barry only has eyes for Chuck, who he co-stars alongside in fantasy sequences that are supposed to exaggerate the cartoonish violence of Norris’ he-man cinema to comic effect, but suffer from a fatal lack of understanding of comedy. The only problem with having Norris lampoon his image in a family-friendly romp a la Kindergarten Cop is that Norris has no apparent sense of humor, about himself or anything else. And the problem with parodying Norris Cannon movies is that they’re already such exquisite, total self-parody.
Having now watched four Chuck Norris vehicles in the space of two weeks, I can vouch that having a character whip out a rocket launcher to blow away a single, solitary bad guy, as Barry does here in one of the film’s fantasy sequences, is less an over-the-top spoof of the kind of testosterone-poisoned nonsense you’ll find in Norris’ uber-violent blood ballets than exactly the kind of detail you found over and over again in his blood-splattered oeuvre.
Norris has no sense of humor. Neither does his brother and director Aaron (who, in a crazy bit of luck, snagged action superstar Chuck Norris for pretty much all of his movies, despite no discernible talent for filmmaking) so the movie defers to the “experts”, who all agree that the key to comedy is screaming loudly while bugging out your eyes and flailing wildly.
Those are the cornerstones of Piscopo’s performance, which at one point involves dressing like an extra from The Apple and playing a sort of demented Santa Claus who puts razors in candy and dynamite in pinatas before Norris and his sidekick bring him down. Piscopo isn’t big or goofy enough, however, because deep into the film, they introduce Richard Moll, Night Court’s gargantuan bailiff Bull as a secondary villain (heaven knows you need those), a bullying gym coach who also does double duty as a heavy in fantasy sequences. If the movie lasted twenty more minutes, they would have had to rope in James Bond villain Jaws (or, if they could not get him, the actor Richard Kiel) to play an even bigger, even goofier bad guy, a jerky janitor or something. Even Mako giddily devours scenery in an outsized knock-off of a performance that was already fairly huge.
Mako trains Bradley so well his low self-esteem and asthma both seem to melt away in healing baths of righteous sweat and exertion before the main teen bully challenges Bradley to compete in a martial arts competition, not unlike the one found in the climax of The Karate Kid. Alas, Bradley only has himself, the eccentric guru played by Mako and Mako’s middle-aged daughter as his teammates and he needs another fighter to compete.
Thankfully, Piscopo’s bully taunts Norris unnecessarily, so when Noreen Chan manages to pull Norris aside and ask him a bit of a crazy question about returning to fighting to help the self-esteem of an asthmatic stranger, he’s an easy target. If you’re wondering what kind of verbal magic Noreen Chan worked to convince Chuck Norris, a multi-millionaire international celebrity who has more or less retired from competitive martial arts to come out of retirement to fight alongside an asthmatic American teenager, an eccentric old Chinese cook and a middle-aged women, none of whom he knew previously, you’re out of luck.
Sidekicks skips directly from Noreen making her somewhat unusual request to Norris happily informing our hero that he’s on his team. Why wouldn’t he participate? After all, in Sidekicks, martial arts are all about discipline, self-control and conducting yourself with honor and dignity, so of course Norris would return to competitive competition for the opportunity to kick some asshole in the face for being a douchebag.
Besides, returning to organized competition affords Norris an opportunity to live out everyone’s dream and kick Joe Piscopo very hard in the face. I only hope they filmed the scene where he’s demolished by Norris in a skirmish over and over and over again.
Norris defeats Piscopo, of course, but that inexplicably isn’t the final contest. No, the final contest involves Barry Gabrewski breaking rocks with his hands. It’s fitting that Sidekicks features one of Cannon’s signature stars, because breaking rocks with a closed fist could very well be the only form of martial arts less cinematic or audience-friendly than the arm-wrestling that figures prominently in the poorly received Sylvester Stallone vehicle Over the Top, which, now that I think about it, would have been as good, and as appropriate, a name for the big Cannon documentary as Electric Boogaloo.
Sidekicks ends with Barry thanking Chuck Norris for helping him. But when he turns back to look at Norris, Norris has vanished. Was Norris a fantasy figure even in the climax, where he sure seemed to be playing himself, in a version of real life that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the world as we actually know it? Fuck if I know.
The movie ends on a weirdly ambiguous note, with Norris disappearing, that is, if he was ever there in the first place, man. Then a magazine with Norris’ furry face on it is discovered by a new young person no doubt in need of Chuck’s inspiration. Only this time the little white boy is in a wheelchair. Though I would never, in a million years, want to see a goddamned sequel to Sidekicks, a movie with no reason to exist in the first place, I kind of feel robbed that we were robbed a follow-up where Norris, possibly in connection with Mako, inspire a wheelchair-bound boy to get up out of his seat and start kicking a whole lot of ass.
That alone would redeem this whole sorry affair but now it seems like we’re going to have to wait for the inevitable Sidekicks reboot (I’m thinking John Cena in the Norris role) for that to happen.
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