Beating us Beautifully with Moral Ambiguity.
Well, what a surprise COBRA KAI is! One of the best series reboots of a campy 80s movie franchise, proving old rivalries never die, they just get and sexier and dorkier.
The original 1984 KARATE KID was just ROCKY with an Italian Ferret (both movies directed by John G. Avildsen). In that movie, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) was the new kid in high school, taking regular beatings from school bullies led by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who trained in karate at the violent Cobra Kai dojo, led by sadist sensei Kreese (Martin Kove). In self-defense, Daniel took up karate under an unlikely sensei, his gentle handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita). Keeping all the testosterone raging, glorious Elisabeth Shue was Ali With An I, the girl behind all the man-slapping. All these actors reprise their characters in COBRA KAI SEASON ONE, the two not returning: Pat Morita (sadly, because he’s dead) and Elisabeth Shue (sadly, because she’s hot).
COBRA KAI opens with the finale of THE KARATE KID, re-edited like a modern ROCKY movie – the deciding fight in the All-Valley Karate Championship, between faltering Johnny and injured Daniel, with Kreese ordering Johnny to perform the most lethal move in karate, “Sweep the leg!” Johnny – hesitates. From that hesitation – this series was constructed, like a monument to character development, fan service and urgent screenwriting.
If you were a fan of THE KARATE KID movies in the 80s (or even if you thought the movies were saccharine, clichéd, formulaic trash [raise my hand], COBRA KAI is a revelation of empathetic screenwriting, injecting heart and layers into what were originally one-dimensional tropes, pulling an outstanding performance from the leading man, William Zabka, who startles us with his introspection, subtle humor and hero’s journey.
In the 10 half-hour episodes of Season One – led by showrunners Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald – COBRA KAI reveals itself as a magnificent study of a man with a fatherless childhood, Johnny (Zabka, then 19, now 53, looking 45) caught in a surrogate father’s indoctrination, and coming to realize that indoctrination was more damaging than constructive.
It’s no coincidence the series is titled COBRA KAI – it’s about the leg-SWEEPER, not the leg-sweepee! And though Macchio was the ostensible star of the 80s movies, his face still lacks the ability to go to Expression No. 3, so his Daniel here is just a device to drive Johnny’s motivations. Both Macchio and Zabka are executive producers, but Macchio is well aware he can’t hold up this series as the leading man. Though he’s smart enough to know Zabka can.
The first episode is all Johnny, as we catch up with his piss-poor existence. He’s a handyman, trapped in the past, taste-wise, socially, psychologically. He drives a decades-old Firebird, loves 80’s rock and that shitty IRON EAGLE movie; he’s still good-looking – aged like Sean Connery or Clint Eastwood – and has no filter, which is what this world needs right now actually – someone to tell youngsters to shut up and get real, instead of whining about micro-aggressions. He’s a Luddite and a sexist – which makes for some funny fish-out-of-water moments with his PC and his pc – and he has a penchant for passing out on the floor of his almost-furnished apartment amongst boxes of pizza and beer.
It haunts Johnny that he lost to Daniel in that 1984 Karate Championship. His arc to acceptance in that movie is ignored here; so a PTSD cloud can hang over him; in his recounting, everything from the 80s is unforgiven.
Contrast that to the idyllic life of his karate rival. Episode 2 opens with Daniel LaRusso (Macchio, then 23, now 57, looking 28); he’s the same old dork, but with a successful car dealership, a mansion, and two kids – the young boy just a prop, while his daughter is part of Daniel’s journey (Mary Mouser as Samantha). And a beautiful inshape wife (of course – he’s rich – Courtney Henggeler as Amanda, who is also the pragmatic voice of the series – beauty AND brains – and I love the way her shirts stretch across the–). Since HIS golden days, Daniel is now using karate not honorably or for edification but as a cheap gimmick to sell cars on the weak premise that he was once All-Valley champ. The community takes his ads with an ounce of cheese, and many just outright laugh at him, like his snarky auto dealer competitor. In other words, Johnny is haunted by his LOSS, Daniel is haunted by his WIN. As Daniel’s wife chides them both at some point, while wearing something tight: “All this bad blood is from a 34-year-old karate beef?” Both of them need to find their way past their past.
Johnny meets the current school punching bag Miguel (Xolo Maridueña – basically Taylor Lautner without muscles) in a scene echoing THE KARATE KID (as Daniel went looking for maintenance, meeting his sensei, Miguel asks Johnny about maintenance, meeting his sensei). Johnny inadvertently saves Miguel in an adrenalized scene where he takes on 4 bullies, and comes to two discoveries: 1) that even though he’s got the muscle memory for high kicks, it hurts his groin after all this downtime – a great little detail – and 2) that there’s a path to redemption in training young Miguel not to become Ralph Macchio.
Johnny re-opens the Cobra Kai dojo, not least to raise himself from rock bottom, and preaches power and ruthlessness to Miguel (and all Miguel’s schoolmates who join up after they see Miguel beat the bullies with his newfound skills) but Johnny gradually realizes that the extremism of the dojo’s old slogan – “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy” – should be tempered with a whole range of other attributes, to truly become a fully-rounded middle-aged sex symbol. As Zabka tells us in interviews, Johnny is basically given a full 5-hour movie chopped into ten parts, to draw us into his world view sympathetically; proven by Zabka’s every nuanced move! Who woulda thunk the prettyboy lunkhead was such an exemplary actor? Zabka is a revelation. He does such a magnificent job here, I’m surprised he didn’t carve more of a leading man movie career, with those blonde locks and inshape frame. Bad agents are everywhere, kids!
Living in the same San Fernando Valley, after many years out of touch with each other, Johnny’s and Daniel’s paths intertwine in the most intriguing and amusing conundrums.
When Daniel sees his old rival re-opening Cobra Kai, thinking Johnny will spawn a quiver of bullies, Daniel opens his own karate school called Miyagi-do, which takes him on his own arc to rediscover the real reasons behind karate – balance. His first student – is Johnny’s estranged son from a broken marriage, Robby (Tanner Buchanan, who looks like a dreamboat cross between Jeff Fahey and a Chippendale’s dancer), although Robby, rudderless and sunken to a life of petty crime, doesn’t tell Daniel he is Johnny’s son. He’s only joining Daniel’s dojo as a middle finger to his dad – like Mark Wahlberg in THE OTHER GUYS learning ballet sarcastically, “just to show the other guys how queer they were” – but he never gets to actually tell his dad he’s with Daniel. His dad would find out in a most damaging way. Let’s put a pin in that – it’s all gonna come ‘round in a minute.
There are many flashbacks to glory days, adding weight to the series, drawing on the three films Macchio made with Morita, who died in 2005. Zabka would only appear in the first two. And the showrunners completely ignore Morita’s NEXT KARATE KID in 1994, meaning we miss out on the bountiful back-kicks of Hilary Swank.
Zabka is doing all his own stunts; both he and Macchio are in good shape still, although Ralph can’t do a roundhouse kick without bending his knee, while Johnny’s kicks are legit. (He actually did attain a green belt outside of the movies.) And the karate from the kids – believable. They’re doing a lot of their own kicks and Spock Chops – but they’re kids – so they don’t have to be as good as Tony Jaa or Donnie Yen. Still, I’m not buying the way these beginners stick to their disciplines when a karate fight breaks out – by that I mean, no one ever resorts to parking lot flailing, which you would in real life; you’re not gonna stick to these moves you just learned if you’re getting your arse kicked.
The original KARATE KID was purely for teens, with its young heroes, basic plot and exaggerated acting. While COBRA KAI – is based a little more in adult space while still appealing to that teenie demo – loaded with cutiepies on all sides: Joe Seo, Hannah Kepple, Annalisa Cochrane, a special mention to Jacob Bertrand who convinces us he transforms from a wimp to a pimp; and of course – Mouser, Mariduena and Buchanan, with more than enough puppy-love-triangle to fuel 10 slumber parties, with the screenwriting artfully shifting our sympathies between dorks who turn into killers and badboys who turn into heartthrobs.
AND – these kids probably realize they have this legacy to return to decades hence. Because COBRA KAI never dies. And Xolo can rightfully claim that the series is held up by HIS excellent performance, definitely carrying most of the kids on his narrow non-TWILIGHT shoulders. Behind Johnny – this is Miguel’s story.
In the original movie, Johnny’s car gave him status over Daniel. And here, in an ironic twist, Daniel owns a car dealership while Johnny is still driving the same battered Pontiac Firebird, which is now a sign of how stuck in the past he is. Ultimately, the car would draw Johnny inadvertently to Daniel, as Daniel’s daughter Samantha first crashes into it, then later, an overzealous employee of Daniel’s arsons the Firebird, leaving it up to Daniel to fix the mess. Daniel tries to coax Johnny toward an age-appropriate vehicle, but Johnny sets his sights on another musclecar – a Dodge Challenger.
When they test-drive the car, turn on the stereo, they both start bobbing their heads to REO Speedwagon – ALL their bonding moments are so funny, because they are so resistant to it. But we can smell the bro-tosterone a mile away. They make a pitstop at Daniel’s old apartment. Just fan service, really. Then they go have a drink! To continue the bonding/not bonding.
The bromance continues as Johnny opens up about his bullying stepdad, (played by a cantankerous Ed Asner), who drove him to Cobra Kai and Kreese, “The guy was more than a sensei to me. He was basically a father.” And Daniel reveals what we all know: They’re about to kiss – but they’re MEN, so the only way they can touch each other is to fight – so they agree to do the ending of ROCKY III – to see who will be the bottom… but when they walk into Daniel’s dojo and Johnny’s son Robby is there – it’s Hitler invading Poland all over again! Daniel taking something from Johnny again that was once his. Whether Daniel knew Robby was Johnny’s son or not, the rage Johnny feels – probably at himself – is because Daniel could make a safe space for Robby that HE couldn’t. Again regret. Again loss. Again, no man-touching. Any wonder he is so guarded. Any wonder he wants to retreat to those golden days when he was king of 1985.
– – – – – SPOILERS – – – – –
By the time the finale rolls around in Episode 10 – of course, at the All-Valley Karate Tournament – it’s not even about karate any more. Johnny is more concerned about reconciling with his son – who is on the other team, and also making sure his students don’t turn into douchebags for which he is responsible by feeding them extremist philosophies. He’s looking for balance – and it’s just out of reach.
Johnny Lawrence has his own Johnny Lawrence in the form of Miguel, who by this stage has turned into a Cobra Kai bully; and Robby ends up represented by Daniel’s Miyagi-do. As Daniel employed the infamous crane in KARATE KID, here, to annoy Daniel, Johnny instructs Miguel’s very first move to be – the crane, in one kick laying out his first opponent. When Miguel meets Robby in the final, Johnny orders Miguel to do exactly the opposite of what Kreese ordered him to do decades ago – Fight fair! Instead, Miguel pulls on Robby’s already-injured arm echoing KARATE KID (Robbie’s arm got injured by Hawk. Again, World Wrestling Federation rules when it suits the plot. And why is Robby allowed to fight with an injured arm? Who are the safety organizers on these gigs anyway?). Also: Pull The Arm – the most lethal move in karate— No? Not as cool as Sweep the Leg?… ok…
And Robby is not fighting to win the trophy, but against his father’s ethos. And we can see the warring emotions on Johnny’s face. He wants his son to win, yet he doesn’t want his Cobra Kai team to lose. And in a glutting blanket of irony – Johnny’s surrogate son Miguel beats his real son Robby to win the trophy – and by then, this thing that Johnny thought was his goal, his sacred mission, what Johnny thought would be his affirmation of life itself – by the time he wins it, he is so distraught over his son, that he realizes it means nothing. That it ALWAYS meant nothing.
Which means though it’s a loss – it’s a win. It means Johnny has come out the other side, he’s grown to realize what it takes to find balance – but he is thwarted from achieving it. And WE’VE grown to realize that Johnny was not the villain of the KARATE KID films. By the end of this series we’ve grown to love Johnny so much the filmmakers needed another villain – the real villain standing behind Johnny Lawrence. Enter sensei Kreese!
It’s easy to see why COBRA KAI is so beloved, with its empathetic writing, performances and production, but why are the KARATE KID films being viewed in retrospect as anything more than trashy B-movies? There are even rumors of Daniel being the actual bully in KARATE KID; that there were deeper levels. NOOO! It was just the basic story of boy-meets-bully’s-girl, boy gets bitchslapped by bully, boy-GETS-bully’s-girl. Those films being bad or good is irrelevant (they were bad!) – we anchor our emotions to the ERA they were released – when WE were the young audience, with a different set of dreams and aspirations. They take us back… And now, we love COBRA KAI because after living our lives of regret and loss, we see in Johnny’s redemption some million to one chance that we can also be redeemed in our autumn years. We are ALL Jim Carrey in DUMB AND DUMBER. “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?!”…
Because COBRA KAI never dies— HEEIIIIiiioooo…aaaaouch…