Cobra Kai Never Say Die! Is that right? I might be getting my beloved ‘80s references mixed up.
by Thom Yee
I have a weird relationship with The Karate Kid. I mean, I’m mostly a ’90s kid, but I was born in the ’80s, a child of two worlds one might say (if one were being intentionally overdramatic), so even though it may have taken until the ‘90s for me to get to them, many of the biggest properties of the ’80s still managed to have a significant influence on my life. In fact, four of my all-time top five favourite movies — Big Trouble in Little China, Die Hard, Back to the Future, and Transformers the Movie — are properties firmly planted in the ’80s. And that’s not something I planned, I only just realized that as I began to write that last sentence, but 1984’s The Karate Kid was definitely a movie that never sat quite right with me, and there are two reasons for that.
Besides being a ‘90s kid born in the ‘80s, the other thing I was as a child was the one of the only Asian kids in my school, and being one of the only Asian kids, one of the only kids who had watched all of Bruce Lee’s movies, and one of the only kids who had taken Kung Fu lessons also kind of made me the de facto martial arts kid whenever that topic came up in school (which was pretty often, we really seemed to like fighting and generally violent behavior in those days). That wasn’t always a good thing either; I could kick a little faster and jump a little higher (y’know, not in absolute terms, relative to my height [which, y’know, wasn’t much because Asian]), but it often felt like I was being marginalized, like people only knew me through association with that one highly visible thing that’s associated with people of my race. And more importantly, as much as I was the martial arts kid, I don’t think anyone seriously thought I could beat them up, and that’s all that really counts when you’re the martial arts kid. People, then, wind up calling you things like “Karate Kid” more derisively than respectfully.
The other, perhaps less nuanced reason I was uncomfortable with The Karate Kid movies when I was growing up was that the titular character, Daniel LaRusso, sucked. He was skinny to the point of looking weak. He was mouthy, maybe not so much that he deserved violent bullying, but he could have done a much job better staying out of the bullies’ way. And, most importantly, he was bad at karate. He was slow, his form was bad, he lacked flexibility, crispness and efficiency, he always looked nervous as he fought, and you could just tell by the way he moved that, of all of the principal actors (none of whom had any formal karate training previous to being cast), lead actor Ralph Macchio was the least capable martial artist. Any single one of those things could have been acceptable and maybe even fitting given where Daniel was in life and his level of experience, but put all together, compared to these guys, and considering he was “the Karate Kid”, and it was hard for me not to be disappointed. But here’s the thing about The Karate Kid as a movie — it’s good (except maybe for his mom disappearing halfway through [and her story about a better job in California never really materializing]), seminal in fact and a defining movie of its age. I may have once hated it for its lack of cinematic martial artistry on the part of its lead, but in the same way we all know the Ruskie-punching, jingoistic Rocky IV isn’t nearly the movie Rocky is despite the former being easier to enjoy when you’re a kid because it has much better action, The Karate Kid is a movie that’s hard not to appreciate from childhood all the way through to adulthood because it tells a good, moving, compelling, and complete story.
And then there’s Cobra Kai.
What’s it about?
Thirty-four years later, in Reseda, Los Angeles, California, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is a down-and-out drunk, no friends and distanced from his family, struggling to hold down a job, and still reeling from his loss at the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Tournament at the hands of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), at the time a newcomer to the area and to the sport who stole his girlfriend and who has since become a successful and highly visible businessman in the community. But when Johnny has finally had enough of being a loser, he returns to the only thing that gave him strength by reviving his old karate school, Cobra Kai. Because while 34 years might not be enough time to get over losing some random karate tournament/girlfriend when you were a teenager, it’s also not enough time to lose your karate (because that doesn’t take constant practice or discipline or anything).
I think the first thing you think when you hear the premise of Cobra Kai is “Is this a joke?” And then you watch that trailer and it’s only natural to, again, think “No, really! Is this a joke?” And if this were a press conference about Cobra Kai and I was running it, this would be the point where I’d have to cut off the rest of the reporters and insist on “No more questions about whether or not this is a joke!” Because it’s almost unreasonable to take the concept of Cobra Kai seriously. But it’s real and it’s here, you can even watch the first episode of Cobra Kai for free. And yet it still feels like a bit of a joke, doesn’t it? There’s a reason we get a big, sh*t-eating grin on our faces whenever we run across The Karate Kid as we flip through channels on TV, a reason beyond just nostalgia or a recognition of its importance in many of our childhoods, and that reason is, for all of its touching and meaningful moments, the whole thing, staging a kid’s karate tournament as the greatest dramatic moment of these characters’ lives, is really kind of silly. It’s hyper real, hammy, and over the top, a reflection of life at its most stagy, exaggerated, and loud. And now we’re supposed to watch these people 34 years later and we’re supposed to believe they’re still defined what happened 34 years ago?
On the other hand, we’re now living in an age of revivals that goes much deeper than the simple nostalgia of wearing a t-shirt with the Ghostbusters logo on it or seeing a real, live-action Transformers movie. Now we’re getting direct translations of properties thought lost long ago, shows like Fuller House and Roseanne, coming back for us to catch up with our beloved TV characters, see where they are now, and feel just a little bit better that their happy ever afters turned out just as badly as ours. And we don’t really flip through channels anymore, do we? We’re glued to our phones, we cut the cable TV cords, we have Netflix, we’re done with all of those traditional entertainment revenue streams, right? We want things like Hulu and CBS All Access, and Disney’s merger with Fox to finally go through so we can subscribe to their service too, right? And of course, we can’t wait to subscribe to YouTube Red, right? Except we’re Canadians and that means, by definition, that we shouldn’t have access, so things like YouTube Red are out of the question. So, instead, we here in Canada have to pay $2.49 for every episode of Cobra Kai. Or find some other way around. Because if there’s one thing we can learn from all of these content distribution deals, it’s that walking down the side of subscribing is safe, walking down that other, opposite side of the road is fine too, but walking down the middle — no access to YouTube Red and paying for every episode — gets you squished just like a grape.
Is it any Good?
I don’t know if it’s right to call Cobra Kai good, not exactly, “good” isn’t precise enough of a word to describe it. It’s “good” with a “but” and certainly not very bad, but it would be wrong to call it genuinely or good in the same way The Karate Kid is good.
To start, if you’re expecting a cinematic experience the likes of The Karate Kid or, really, any well-shot, well-done movie, prepare to be disappointed with Cobra Kai. It doesn’t look very good. The writing is often hackneyed. None of the actors are very good, including the returning William Zabka and Ralph Macchio who’ve both either regressed as actors or just aren’t as cute anymore and are, thus, far less appealing in middle age. And the whole thing looks and feels more like a TV show the likes of DeGrassi rather than a full-fledged movie. To be fair, Cobra Kai, told episodically over ten episodes, is far more TV show than movie, with, probably, a far lower budget, but it’s not as if we haven’t become accustomed to TV shows being the equal of movies lately.
That’s just about everything that’s wrong with Cobra Kai, though, and while it’s a list of significant ailments, none are significant enough to overcome the fact that Cobra Kai is a real easy watch. Once you start it’s hard to stop. I watched the entire thing over the course of the first 24 hours it was available, and by the end, none of those things that are wrong with it seemed to matter at all. They might have even made it better, because the creators of Cobra Kai made the canny decision to make this new, latter-day entry in the Karate Kid saga mostly a comedy. There’s a branch of thinking, popularized in 2015, that suggests it’s Daniel who was the real bully of The Karate Kid, and it goes something like this:
It’s a real “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” type of desperate, self-deluded logic at work there, stretching a grain of truth all the way over an entire field of greater, more obvious facts, but desperation and self-delusion are exactly where the Johnny we meet back up with has been living for the last few decades. Through the course of Cobra Kai, you find out that, despite the motorbikes, mansions, and not needing his mom to drive him to the Golf N’ Stuff in her beaten up car every time he wanted to go on a date, Johnny wasn’t just another rich kid with an easy path to follow and that’s why he followed Sensei Kreese’s teachings so devoutly back in 1984. When his dreams were crushed by Daniel LaRusso, some punk kid from New York who sucker punched him when they first met and then sucker kicked him at the All-Valley, he not only lost the karate tournament, he lost his mentor when Kreese, basically went insane in the opening of The Karate Kid Part II.
One of my favourite scenes in Cobra Kai takes place moments after the show’s brief recapping of Johnny’s loss at the All-Valley Karate Tournament, as Johnny prepares his breakfast of three slices of fried bologna with a bit of watery ketchup. It sounds disgusting and looks even worse, and, even without seeing the rest of his apartment (which is a sh*thole), it’s a pretty good illustration of where he is in life. Another great scene comes much later in the series when a heated argument between Johnny and Daniel almost comes to blows until Daniel’s wife almost immediately diffuses the situation by pointing out how stupid they’re being. There’s a spirit to the show that acknowledges how stupid the whole thing is without ever losing an essential and primal sense of love everyone in the show and everyone watching the show has for the Karate Kid property.
Of course, Cobra Kai isn’t just about the down-and-out Johnny and the successful, well-adjusted but sometimes lost-with-the-passing-of-his-mentor Daniel, the focus of Cobra Kai’s significant action concerns the rebuilding of Cobra Kai and the students who follow Sensei Lawrence. For Johnny, the rebuilding of Cobra Kai isn’t an attempt at a cash grab or a chance to relive past glories but a real turning point as he finds himself reluctantly thrust into the Miyagi role to Miguel, a young high schooler, living in the same building as Johnny who, like Daniel 34 years earlier, is new to Reseda and finding himself the victim of bullies. It’s a strange role reversal for Johnny, but it works really, really well, and it’s probably the only way this latter-day Karate Kid story could have any real relevance as Johnny learns that he can have a positive effect on the lives of Miguel and the students he brings to Sensei Lawrence’s dojo.
But Johnny’s still a d*ck, one who seems like he must have been a teenage bully and one who still tends toward bullying in adulthood, tempered only a little bit by the fact that life has bullied Johnny right back over the last few decades. He’s horrible to his students at first, calling them out for their physical flaws, but those who endure his abuses eventually find a genuinely strong teacher in Sensei Lawrence. Miguel becomes a formidable karate practitioner in his own right, as do his friends Aisha and Eli, later nicknamed Hawk for the radical hairdo he gives himself in a seasonal arc that really gives you a “f*ck yeah!” feeling as you watch him go from cowering to confident. And, once again, all of these kids are much better at karate than Daniel was.
Things eventually get complicated as Daniel finds himself increasingly drawn into the world of Cobra Kai due to his own past with Johnny and the dojo’s former students, and it’s another clever inversion when we see Daniel, who’s become a respected part of the community and is still well remembered in the Karate community, exert every power he has to keep Johnny and Cobra Kai down. As Daniel begins to, once again, practice karate to centre himself, he takes on a young student of his own who he only learns later has ties to Johnny. It’s all a tangled web of after-school soap operatics, between Johnny and Daniel, Miguel, his high school bullies and the girl he likes, Daniel’s family and his new student, and the students of Cobra Kai, and it all comes to a head at the 2018 All-Valley Karate Tournament in a way that’s surprisingly satisfying in its mix of emotions. Even though it’s so dumb. By going down the comedy route, the sheer stupidity of what’s happening in Cobra Kai melts away, and you’re left with what’s just a really compelling story that, once again, tackles subjects like bullying and cross-generational tensions in a way that leaves you feeling different.
So should I see it?
If you’re interested in the subject matter at all, you should see Cobra Kai. It’s so easy and breezy and genuinely fun to watch that, if you find yourself liking it at all, you’ll probably binge it like I did, in my case only stopping halfway through because I had to go to work. There’s a genuine thrill in returning to this universe, especially because these people have followed a path not dictated by heroism or villainy. In their post-‘80s futures, they’ve become heroes to some and villains to others, which is to say they’re often petty and shallow, but, at least eventually, they try to do what’s. Which is to say they’ve, in the last 34 years, become real people.
The plots in Cobra Kai are hackneyed and tired and contrived, but they get to a well thought out place thematically. They get their clumsily, but the ideas are strong, and as stupid as the story and the entire premise seems (and probably really, really is), once you get watching, none of the silliness and stupidity matters nearly as much as how endearing Cobra Kai becomes as its world opens up (and, judging by its final scene, will almost have to lead to a second season).
Thom’s Cobra Kai final score
On the Edge
- I swear, even though they don’t share any of the same letters, that the LaRusso Auto logo is patterned after the DMC logo from DeLorean Motor Company.
- I would love for Hilary Swank to show up in the next one (spoilers that she’s not in this one?). I’m sure she could kick Ralph Macchio’s ass too!