In the days before I discovered real cinema, I watched the Karate Kid movies as part of my high-school obsession with martial arts. Mostly I watched the Sho Kosugi ninja flicks, which were non-stop adrenaline stunts filled with high body-counts and piss-poor acting. The Karate Kid films didn’t have the former but plenty of the latter. They were family films that made you feel warm and fuzzy when underdogs triumphed against bullies in the safe arenas of tournaments. They were campy and cheesy in the extreme, had laughable dialogue, a painful top-40 soundtrack, and embarrassingly contrived scenarios. The third and fourth films in the franchise were so bad that even the core audience heaped scorn on them. But when Cobra Kai was announced last week as a worthy successor to the first two Karate Kid movies — it has a 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes — I had to see for myself what the fuss was.
I will say this for Cobra Kai. If it’s still the same Karate-Kid animal, it shakes things up enough to make it a watchable and in some ways even impressive miniseries. The Karate Kid I & II have aged terribly, even aside from the cheesy elements I mentioned. As ’80s underdog films they were facilely one dimensional. The bad guys were ciphers with no backstories — Johnny Lawrence and his Cobra Kai gang completely unsympathetic jerks. The good guy was an endearing character, but he didn’t work very well as a karate protagonist. For one thing, Daniel LaRusso was a supreme light-weight, clocking in at about 120 pounds. His indentured servitude to Mr. Miyagi — waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences — was impossible to take seriously a way of learning karate techniques. (There is an amusing swipe at this in Cobra Kai, where Johnny uses Miguel as his own slave, having him wash the windows, mop the floors, and clean the toilets of the Cobra Kai dojo. When Miguel asks if there’s any particular way he should be doing these tasks, Johnny says it doesn’t matter.) As for Daniel’s crane kick, it was the sort of last-minute melodrama that won the day in other sports films of this era (like the quarterback sacking of Sean Astin’s character in Rudy, or the final hoop shot in Hoosiers). The Karate Kid was essentially a poster child for the Reagan years, optimistic about the underdog’s potential to “be all you can be”, really to the point of absurdity. Cobra Kai inverts this premise, so that the underdogs become the assholes — and the previous underdog becomes an even bigger asshole. That’s at least a story.
By making Johnny Lawrence the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable one, the writers of Cobra Kai have brought the franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso the bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they’ve taken the original hero in an unexpected direction. Part of it is the social class reversal. Daniel grew up dirt poor but has done well for himself as a wealthy car dealer who can treat his family to country club outings. Johnny, for his part, has fallen out with his rich stepfather and lives hand to mouth in the shitty neighborhood of Reseda where Daniel used to live. This reversal alone pays dividends.
But aside from even that, Daniel is astonishingly judgmental. He condescends to Johnny, kicks him when he’s down, tries to ban Cobra Kai from participating in the local tournament, and launches a pathetic crusade to shut down the dojo. He does this by manipulating a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where the new Cobra Kai has just opened, which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters. This is a supremely asshole move, and Daniel’s wife calls him on it. But I was frankly put off by the entire LaRusso clan. Daniel’s wife sounds like she’s always talking down to people, his cousin is a useless twit, and his daughter a priss. The LaRusso home gives off a superficial Miyagi vibe, and at work Daniel has turned some of the best things Mr. Miyagi taught him into cheap gimmicks — karate chops in car commercials, and the bonsai trees he gives away free to car buyers. Daniel does revere his deceased mentor, but has little to show that he actually understands the “balance” that he lectures others (his daughter, Robby) to strive for.
It’s the Cobra Kai losers who sell the series. As actors they have the better performances, and as characters the better balance. Yes, they learn the merciless version of karate that teaches beating the shit out of people — even fighting dirty when necessary — but that is tempered by their empathy as victims who have taken their own heaps of nasty abuse. Aisha is particularly well scripted, driven to take karate after being cruelly bullied by classmates over her weight. Johnny at first refuses her, on the politically incorrect wisdom that “no girls are allowed at Cobra Kai”, until Aisha proves her potential by slamming his best student on his ass and almost breaking his ribs (mostly on the strength of her fat-ass weight for which she has been relentlessly teased). She soon becomes one of the best Cobra Kai students, and certainly one of the series’ best characters.
The very best however is Miguel. He’s what Daniel LaRusso should have first looked like, but of course that would have never happened in an ’80s film. Instead of finding a sage-like Mr. Miyagi to rescue him from his bullies, Miguel comes under the punishing tutelage of Johnny, and they play off each other wonderfully. As far as I’m concerned, Johnny is the true hero of Cobra Kai, in thrall to a harsh version of karate but unwilling to sink to the depths Kreese did. He has a vulnerable side, so he’s not just an asshole. His upbringing was less than kind, and his son Robby wants nothing to do with him. He’s politically incorrect (and, amusingly, a stone-age Luddite who doesn’t know what “a Facebook” is), showing hints of racism, sexism, and homophobia, while proving that in practice he’s really none of these things — as long as his students keep up. (He reminds me of Full Metal Jacket‘s Sergeant Hartmann: “I am hard, you will not like me. But I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops, or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless.”) Miguel takes his sensei’s flaws in stride, and Johnny comes to think of him as a son.
As for Johnny’s actual son, Robby, he’s the new Daniel, but again an inverted one, a troublemaker instead of a bullied victim. He’s a delinquent who steals for a living, and despises his father so much that he applies for a job at Daniel’s car dealership just to piss Johnny off. He gets the job, and rather predictably, he soon becomes Daniel’s reformed karate student. This happens by a very contrived chain of events, and is the weaker narrative arc of Cobra Kai. Daniel basically takes Robby on as a way to atone for his sanctimony throughout the first six episodes, and in short order he’s having Robby “wax on, wax off” every car in the lot (that shit is no more convincing as a way to teach karate today than it was in the ’80s), and then taking him on field trips out in the wilderness to practice dramatic kicks while balancing on perilously thin tree limbs.
Everything builds to the tournament finale and solid payoff. It’s better than the Karate Kid competition for a number of reasons, mostly because of the inversions which make viewers unsure of their allegiances. The Cobra Kais fight dirty, but they are still sympathetic, and frankly they were the ones I was rooting for, even over Robby. When Daniel and Johnny faced off in the ’80s, it was cookie-cutter good vs. evil. With Miguel and Robby in the final round, there’s no such duality this time. Each is an asshole; each is likeable. And I have to give the writers credit for having Miguel take the trophy, which I didn’t expect at all. Surely Daniel’s protege would win, as Daniel always did in the films? But no: Miguel kicks the shit out of him, and in a very Cobra Kai fashion — by taking full advantage of Robby’s shoulder injury, hitting him in his wounds repeatedly with “no mercy”. A sleazy move, and yet somehow Miguel (unlike the ’80s Johnny) doesn’t come across as despicable for it.
The epilogue scores for continuing to portray Daniel in a less than flattering light. On the drive home from the tournament, Robby remarks that with Miguel’s victory Cobra Kai is now back on the map and will soon take over the region. Daniel retorts, “Over my dead body,” and then takes a detour to what looks like an abandoned home. He leads Robby inside, throws on the lights… and Mr. Miyagi’s old home is unveiled, for the purpose, as Daniel explains it, of training more students in order to combat the rise of Cobra Kai. As soon as Daniel said “over my dead body”, I saw the Prince of Sanctimony again; and with the foreshadowing of what will surely be a Miyagi dojo in season 2, it’s obvious that Daniel is gearing up with more self-righteous measures against Johnny. And as if Johnny doesn’t have enough to worry about from that corner, the biggest surprise of all comes in the final frame: the return of John Kreese, who has all along been presumed dead. He strolls into Johnny’s dojo, congratulates him on his victory, and tells him they have “much to do” now that Cobra Kai is back. That sounds like a hostile takeover, and Johnny looks appalled; he’s been fighting Kreese’s ghost for years. Trapped between Daniel and the Devil, he has ugly challenges ahead of him, and season 2 has a lot to deliver on.
I don’t want to oversell Cobra Kai. It’s really the same thing as before: a campy family drama with a godawful soundtrack and situations that make you roll your eyes and smirk. But if you were invested in Karate Kid I & II in your coming of age years, and now find them embarrassingly unwatchable, you may just find yourself falling under Cobra Kai‘s hideous spell.