The Karate Kid (1984) is an iconic piece of American pop culture. We all know the story: An Italian kid from Jersey moves to California, gets bullied a bunch, learns karate from a Japanese gardener/war veteran, then uses said karate to defeat evil. Good triumphs, and everybody lives happily ever after. The Italian kid was Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio, top right), the “evil” was Cobra Kai dojo’s Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka, above left), and guess what? That happy ending wasn’t really for everybody.
Enter YouTube's original series Cobra Kai, the continuing story of Johnny Lawrence and the answer to the question, “What happens when your high school bully doesn’t end up joining law enforcement?” In this instance he spends 30 years at the bottom of every Coors Banquet bottle in Reseda, California. The Karate Kid told a very black and white story of the bullied vs. the bully, but Cobra Kai’s first season tells a more complete one, because it’s amazing what you can learn when history isn’t written by the victors. In the series’ second season, Johnny has already completely revived Cobra Kai dojo, survived local automotive kingpin Danny LaRusso’s attempts to destroy his livelihood, and finally won that All Valley Tournament. Danny, on the other hand, has won something slightly more important -- the respect of Johnny’s son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan).
Let’s back up a bit …
The most interesting aspect of the Cobra Kai series (and there are so many) is the turning of the proverbial tables. In 1984, Danny was just a poor kid trying to live his life, and Johnny was the rich prick who just wouldn’t leave him alone. Three decades later, Johnny’s the one just trying to live life while LaRusso sits in his ivory tower, not-so-silently judging him. Since the ending of The Karate Kid, Johnny’s life has been trash. He left Cobra Kai, lost his way even more than he had before, and fell into obscurity until the world had shifted so much that it turned out he qualifies as the hero now. Meanwhile, LaRusso has seen nothing but success. The confidence he gained from crane kicking all the potential out of Johnny’s life gave him enough fuel to become a successful businessman and local celebrity, with a beautiful family to boot.
This success was a negative form of positive reinforcement for Danny, though. After defeating his rival -- who was forced to cheat by his mentally and physically abusive sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), by the way -- LaRusso saw himself as the hero; his victory a sign that he was on the right path. He never examined the role that he really played in all this, or considered the fact that Johnny was just a kid, too. Yes, Johnny was a dick, but was it because he was evil and Danny was good, or was it because he wasn’t lucky enough to end up with the nicer of the two Karate-teaching war veterans in Reseda? Also, what the hell is wrong with Reseda?
Hot take: Maybe karate is evil!
You see, that movie, The Karate Kid, doesn’t exist in their universe. In their world they’re just two grown ass men, both old enough to have children in high school, fighting a thirty-year karate war. Seriously? I think we can all agree that a decades long rivalry over anything other than hidden money from an old bank heist is just ridiculous. In all honesty, both of these men need much less karate and a lot of therapy. Every time they forget about karate and just talk (you know, like adults) it appears they’re both coming to the realization that “we’re not so different, you and I.” Then karate rears its ugly gi-wearing head and everyone promptly remembers how much they hate each other. The only time this martial art truly does any good in this show is when someone learns to defend themselves from a bully, and even still, if they karate too much they just end up becoming the bully/aggressor themselves. Just ask Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) or Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) in season one, or I don’t know, Danny damn LaRusso.
Tonally, Cobra Kai hits a sweet spot between The Power Rangers TV franchise and a serious drama. We have color-coded groups of hormonal teens expressing their confusing emotions through learned violence while spending way too much time with dysfunctional men in pajamas. Instead of fighting evil space monsters, these teens are fighting the very real demons of their emotionally damaged predecessors. Oh, and each other, let’s not forget that. They constantly beat the hell out of each other. Plus, no one’s scared to cuss, and that’s always fun.
Still, there’s something amazing about the regular use of training montages, and the employment of a nostalgically ‘80s soundtrack. It kind of reinforces the idea of how stuck in the past everyone seems to be. But, again, how could they not be? Hurt people hurt people, and this is no different. Kreese abused Johnny, Johnny abused LaRusso, LaRusso abuses adult Johnny, and round and round we go. Is Cobra Kai’s motto of “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy” a perfect one? Nah, but they’re no more “evil” than LaRusso was when he tried to keep Cobra Kai from competing in the All Valley tournament, or that time he got Johnny “I’m so poor I fry bologna” Lawrence’s dojo rent doubled. Maybe Johnny was a mean kid, but didn’t Danny steal his girl? Two sides, people. Two sides.
In the recently released second season, we get to see what happens when even more middle-aged men decide not to let sleeping dogs lie (Kreese is back), and the effect it has on their impressionable students (sh*t gets even more real). As someone who’s already seen all of it, I can tell you, it is amazing. I love this show, and its ability to pay respect to, expand upon and continue the legacy of something that I wasn’t alive for the first time around. In reality, I’d need a podcast and an hour to truly get into all of the things that make this show the definition of “surprisingly good” -- but you don’t have to take my word for it. Both seasons are on YouTube Premium right now, and trust me, you just need to watch them.
Just remember, Danny sucks. #TeamCobraKai
Click on the social media tiles above or below to share this content with your friends and colleagues.
The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively those of the author and/or subject(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet, Inc. management or associated bloggers.