The Karate Kid franchise seemingly died in 1989 but former stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka have resurrected it with a very big bang
When I was a little boy in the 1980s, I had a tendency to fake being sick because I was one of those kids whose hatred for school made him a complete and utter hypochondriac. I had nothing better to do so I watched movies on cable constantly. The Karate Kid and its two sequels were three of those films. My beloved grandfather was a huge Rocky fan being a former middleweight boxer as well as a Philadelphia Italian, and I grew to appreciate those films as well years later but the adventures of Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi were more to the taste of a child like me being from Rocky director John Avildsen. And while the sequels weren't anywhere near as good as the first—although, to be fair, at least the second film had an original plot and an awesome bad guy in Yuji Okumoto's Chozen Toguchi—they were fun to watch and still endearing to this day.
I was a bit apprehensive, however, when I heard that Ralph Macchio and William Zabka were reprising their roles as Daniel LaRusso and his old high school bully Johnny Lawrence in the new YouTube Red series Cobra Kai. First of all, they tried rehashing The Karate Kid eight years ago with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan and it didn't work—they don't even teach karate in China for Heaven's sakes. Secondly, we had been led to believe Johnny and Daniel were okay after the first film ended. Third, the third and fourth (that one I never watched) films ruined the franchise enough all those years ago. So how could this new show work?
Well, surprisingly, it does. There has been a longstanding Internet theory that Daniel LaRusso is the actual bully of the film and Johnny Lawrence is the real Karate Kid. While the show doesn't actually go down that particular road, it humanizes the bully (Johnny, yes, Internet, I'm saying Johnny was the bully) and tells his side of the story. Johnny Lawrence is still kind of a jerk but he is a jerk with somewhat of a conscience and we are shown exactly what made him so aggressive, how he hooked up with Cobra Kai and Sensei John Kreese (the real actual bully of the series), why he was so hostile towards Daniel, and even that the two men are not as different as they may have appeared to be.
In the show, Johnny is no longer the arrogant, obnoxious rich kid we had been led to believe he was but a down-on-his-luck handyman who decides to reopen his old dojo Cobra Kai after a chance encounter with his old rival Daniel LaRusso, who by contrast owns a thriving chain of luxury car dealerships and has a nice home and family. Resenting this and seeing LaRusso as the jerk Daniel saw him as when they first met, he takes a check from his disinterested elderly stepfather Sid Weinberg (Ed Asner) and reopens Cobra Kai, taking on a meek teenage neighbor of his, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Marideuna) as his first student. When Daniel gets wind of this, he tries everything under the sun to prevent Cobra Kai from rising from the dead, taking on his own student, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who starts out a lot like Johnny did in the original film and let's just say there's a very good reason for that, which I won't give away.
Daniel also must deal with the rebelliousness of his teenage daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) who is basically a good girl but falls in with the wrong crowd because she wants to be popular. She starts to date Miguel but doesn't tell her father because she knows he won't approve of her dating Johnny's student. Naturally, the season finale climaxes at the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
The appeal of the show is that while it might have appeared to swap the roles of Johnny and Daniel with Johnny as the babyface (good guy) and Daniel as the heel (bad guy), it wasn't actually a question of that at all. It was merely a matter of wanting to show us Johnny's side of the story. He didn't see himself as a bully, he saw himself as Ali's boyfriend and she and Daniel disagreed and that angered him. Just like on this show, Daniel doesn't see himself as doing anything wrong and he isn't (well, technically he is a bit because he did something in one episode that affected not only Cobra Kai but also the strip mall it was located in's other tenants, which his levelheaded wife Amanda rightly points out), he's just trying to prevent the brand from reemerging because he remembers all the nonsense they put him through as a teenager. It fleshes out Johnny and makes the viewers see him in a newer light, not as an arrogant rich jock but as a man whose actual life was not as privileged as we thought. There is a particular scene in episode nine where he and Daniel reminisce about old times and we get the sense that not only are they more similar than they ever realized before, but also that if it had not been for the true antagonists of the original film, Sensei John Kreese and Ali Mills, they just might have been friends. Even with Miguel and Robby, those two young men have a mixture of good and bad qualities (just like the Karate Men of the show do).
And Johnny has been described by his performer as being stuck in 1989. With good reason, the man drives an old Pontiac Firebird car, calls a laptop a boombox and doesn't know what the hell Daniel is talking about when he explains he has seen Ali's Facebook profile. So it's no wonder he has fallen on such hard times and is desperate enough to restart Cobra Kai.
There is a scene in the show whereby Daniel visits his old mentor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita)'s grave. This kind of plays up to the Internet theory that Daniel is the real bully because he complains to his old father figure's tombstone that he can't seem to find balance in his life with he and Johnny being at it again and not being able to handle his children and he says, "You know me, I've always been a bit of a hothead." So he is a hero but he's a flawed one. And I was glad to finally hear him admit it.
In fact, stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka have a sort of chemistry together which brings to mind the late great pair Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (whom, for the record, usually played pairs who were antagonistic on the surface but best friends deep down, just like Johnny and Daniel here). There is, in fact, one particular scene in the show that could have been lifted right from one of the Grumpy Old Men movies.
All the critical acclaim the show has gotten is deserved because after thirty years, Macchio and Zabka finally figured out how to do a proper Karate Kid sequel and assembled a fine young cast of supporting characters to aid in that. And I have a feeling Season Two will be even better because the suspense is already killing me with the cliffhanger they just left us with. There are also a few modern variations on certain classic moments from the original film which are humorous and heartfelt homages.
As much as I thought it could never be done, the 1984 Karate Kid finally has a proper followup. I hope the villain in the third film, Terry Silver (who was referenced in the show and was the best thing about the otherwise dreadful third film) returns next season. I also would like to throw Yuji Okumoto's Chozen into the mix because, although the second film was fair at best, he was a great villain too.
Cobra Kai is most definitely worth signing up for a YouTube Red free trial for. How they ever outbid Netflix or Hulu for this show I'll never know.