The Hollywood Medical Reporter – The Martial Arts Kid

The Martial Arts Kid began as a Kickstarter campaign announced in 2014. After learning that two of the most iconic martial artists in the industry—11 time World Kickboxing Champion Don “The Dragon” Wilson and the “Queen of Marital Arts Films”, Cynthia Rothrock—would be teaming up, over 430 people pledged $173,486 to help bring this project to life.

Such action demonstrates to what extent this project was made by the people for the people. However, rather than spit out the expected, standard computer-generated action scenes, producers James Wilson and Cheryl Wheeler chose a different path, one with a sense of social consciousness. It’s an approach that makes The Martial Arts Kid an original film in its own right.

“We don’t tolerate bullies here.”

Cynthia Rothrock delivers this keynote line, which truly serves as the underlying message of this out-of-the-box, anti-bullying martial arts film.

Co-writer and director Michael Baumgarten’s film has powerful, albeit untraditional, scenes that reveal the film’s true purpose. After attending the sold-out premiere at the Burbank International Festival on September 12th The Martial Arts Kid is a clarion call to shine light on the epidemic of bullying.

Red Carpet Burbank Film Festival Premiere

This coming of age movie follows teenager Robbie Oakes (Jansen Panettiere). Abandoned by his father when he was born and having witnessed his mother die while trying to crossing the street, he lives with his grandmother in Cleveland, Ohio.

The film opens with Robbie in an intense chase-down with the police. As the cops handcuff him, Robbie pleads with his grandmother, promising her things will be different. However, this was the final straw. Robbie’s past has clearly helped brew a troubled young boy with deep-seated feelings of aggression that his grandmother can no longer control. As such, he is forced to move to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to live with his Aunt Cindy (Rothrock) and Uncle Glen (Wilson).

No sooner does he unpack his bags than he meets a cute girl, Rina (Kathryn Newton), and her a hot-tempered boyfriend, Bo Whitlaw (Matthew Ziff).

Matthew bullying face off 3 in film

Bo quickly makes it his mission to make Robbie’s life as brutal as possible: basic teasing, getting pushed into the girls’ bathroom, whispered promises of upcoming beatings while sitting behind Robbie in class, followed by the aforementioned beatings, and so on.

Bo behind Robbie in Class

Robbie learns that his uncle is a martial arts instructor and his aunt is one of his finest students and fellow instructors. At first, Uncle Glen won’t consider taking Robbie on as a student because at that point Robbie only demonstrates a selfish, lazy and uncontrolled anger. Glen explains that this is a dangerous trait in a martial artist trainee: revenge and anger are not what martial arts are about. However, after one too many run-ins with Bo, Robbie finally begins to demonstrate the caring and dedication his uncle needed to see. Uncle Glen explains to Robbie:

“Street fighters fight to force their will on others, but martial artists fight for only two reasons: to defend themselves or to defend others.”

Matthew Ziff, the runaway star of the film, who won Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Sunscreen Film Festival, summed up the point of martial arts as well as the film:

“It’s about respect and self-respect and not revenge.”

Matt Ziff Winning Best Supporting Actor at Screen

Ziff has trained in various forms of martial arts since he was 3 years old and believed strongly in the project, even before he was granted the part. In fact, despite his expansive athletic abilities and knowledge, Ziff understood that he had to assume a character, and that character looked nothing like he once did.

Matthew Ziff Before and After

Just like his physical transformation, Ziff takes on an entirely different persona, and truly becomes Bo Whitlaw. Sure, assuming a role and becoming a character is, by definition, the job of all actors. However, in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, viewers often see the actor just as much, if not more than they see the character the actor is playing in a given movie.

“Bullying” is no new dynamic. For decades, bullying behavior has plagued American schools. Traditional methods of dealing with bullying at schools, including detention, suspension and at times expulsion, have proved fairly ineffective.

In a 2008 study, psychologists of varying specialties evaluated the Gentle Warrior Program, a traditional martial arts-based intervention to reduce aggression in children. This specific study consisted of 254 children in grades 3, 4 and 5 as part of a larger school violence intervention. Some groups attempted to get the guardians and adults in the school to be more aware of the bullying problem in the hopes they may become more active in tending to and even preventing such behavior.

This study examined the effectiveness of martial arts training as one method of intervention that is well suited for changing behaviors and actions of children and young adults. Martial arts is characterized by a substantial emphasis on the psychological and spiritual, and has a goal towards non-aggressive behavior.

The Gentle Warrior Program attempts to, at least contribute to a shift in the overall social climate that has led and is currently still producing these aggressors in schools. Attempting to affect the overall consciousness of America (and the world at large) has the amazing possibility of shifting children’s understanding of how to deal with their emotions and subsequent actions. It offers students instruction in peace-promoting philosophy (non-aggressive attitudes, respect for self and others), self-protective techniques and problem-solving skills related to common bully-victim-bystander scenarios.

The results of the 2008 study revealed that boys who participated in more Gentle Warrior sessions reported a lower frequency of aggression and greater frequency of helpful by standing (i.e. proving helpful towards victims of bullying) over time, compared to boys with less frequent participation.

It is not a far reach to claim that The Martial Arts Kid movie is attempting the same basic goal. Both the Gentle Warrior program and the film preach non-violence, respect and empathy in an effort to change society. In other words, they attempt to spread the real philosophy of martial arts. Don Wilson said:

“We are very reluctant to get into behavioral problems as a society. We don’t because we think “oh it’s someone else’s responsibility”. But I think its everybody’s responsibility. An epidemic that’s widespread as this, we should as a group, and as our movie speaks to it, and addresses it, so we can realize that the problem exists and then we can realize ways as a society to fix it.”

The film’s title may make you think that The Martial Arts Kid is a rip-off of the 1984 classic. That would be a mistake.

The Martial Arts Kid is filled with legends and newbies, but nearly all share a common trait: they are all actually trained martial artists. This was particularly palpable in the rising star that is Matthew Ziff. Having begun modeling and acting from the age of three while holding a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, using the word rookie to describe anything about Ziff simply feels wrong. Unfortunately, experience and talent not yet noticed counts for nothing in Hollywood. That said, it was inspirational watching this up-and-comer on screen, literally going punch for punch with world-renowned grand masters and successfully holding his own with great poise.

That adds to the authenticity of the action for sure, but, more to the heart of this film, it assures a sincerity of purpose. Matthew Ziff explains:

“We’re not trying to throw a crane kick, we’re trying to show how someone would actually defend themselves in a real situation… we’re not trying to glorify martial arts, we’re trying to show it for what it is showing them we don’t have to take being bullied.”

The authenticity shines through and the truth about this amazing weapon against bullying, and the social responsibility inherent within this film is what makes this film truly so unique.

One example of how this film has already exceeded its own goals is the following story Cynthia told me:

“I got a message from a boy, that he saw the trailer and he can’t wait to see the movie because he’s been bullied and it gave him hope. After, I immediately sent an email to the producer saying this is what we want.”

Traditionz Entertainment debuted the independent film The Martial Arts Kid in select theaters and times from September 18th in Los Angeles and New York. It is expected to gain a wider distribution by other top markets including Chicago, Texas, Florida and Washington, DC.


Twemlow, S., Biggs, B., Nelson, T., Vernberg, E., Fonagy, P., & Twemlow, S. (2008). Effects of participation in a martial arts-based antibullying program in elementary schools Psychology in the Schools, 45 (10), 947-959 DOI: 10.1002/pits.20344

Daliah Leslie

Daliah Leslie is a professional writer, media and brand strategist, specializing in the film and television industry. Before moving to Los Angeles, Daliah worked in project development for Oscar winners Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye at Unique Features. Her interdisciplinary background includes collaborating with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph J. Ellis (on a screen treatment for his award-winning book) and has shared her know-how on initiatives such as The Fox Writers Intensive and various other screenwriting competitions and festivals. Daliah's work on an innovative, original TV medical pilot is what led her to meet Brain Blogger founder, Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and begin their many collaborative endeavors. She now lends her expansive knowledge of the art and business of the film and television industry as a freelance journalist and has come to be known as "The Hollywood Medical Reporter," for her precision and passion for ethically accurate entertainment.
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