The Karate Kid is one of those classic teen movies of the 80s that while not especially good, pretty much everyone who watched it loved it. For those of you who miraculously haven’t seen it, it starred Ralph Macchio as Daniel “Danny” LaRusso, a kid from New Jersey who moves to California with his single mum. Unfortunately, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and some other bullying students from the nasty ‘Cobra Kai’ karate dojo set upon him, and although he’s had some karate classes himself, he takes a beating.
Fortunately, his apartment block handyman, Mr Myagi (Pat Morita), comes from Okinawa and is a true karate champion, so is able to come to Macchio’s aid, after which Morita takes him under his wing and trains him in the martial art of his home island so he can defend himself against Zabka – and learn the true spirit of karate.
The movie was hugely successful and spawned two sequels (parts II and III) with Macchio and Morita, a follow-up movie with Morita and a young Hilary Swank (The Next Karate Kid) and a remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, in which Smith bizarrely enough given the title learns kung fu from Chan. Less official remakes, such as Never Back Down (basically The Karate Kid with MMA instead of karate), also followed.
However, the original’s influence permeates pop culture in far more indirect ways, through catchphrases (“Sweep the leg”, “Wax on, wax off”) and even stances (‘the Crane’) that pretty much everyone knows.
Sweep the leg
Small surprise then, given the current fad for all things 80s among both those old enough to remember them and those young enough to regard the original as a ‘period drama’, that we now have a follow-up series, Cobra Kai, from nascent online TV service YouTube Red. It sees both Zabka and Macchio still living in their old home town, 30 years after (spoiler alert) Macchio defeated Zabka in the All Valley Karate Championship.
Since then, their fortunes have differed. Macchio is now rich thanks to his success with a luxury car dealership. He’s happily married and has kids, including a teenage daughter. He still capitalises on the events of his teenage years, however, and often references them, too.
Meanwhile, Zabka is down on his luck. A general handyman, he lives in a crappy flat, he’s divorced, and has a teenage son whom he never sees and thinks he’s a dick. He remembers his teenage years somewhat differently, however.
Then one night Zabka defends a nerdy kid (Xolo Maridueña) who lives in his apartment block from a bunch of bullies, and before you know it, he’s taking on Mr Mijagi’s mantle to set up a new Cobra Kai dojo and train Maridueña – and anyone else willing to accept him as their sensei.
It’s not long before Macchio finds out about the reborn Cobra Kai. I wonder what will happen next…
The first two episodes of Cobra Kai mirror both The Karate Kid and each other. The first shows us Zabka’s life, the second Macchio’s, while Maridueña repeats Macchio’s Karate Kid storyline, updated for the 2010s – albeit with a sensei with a somewhat different ethical system to Morita’s.
Despite my initial fears from the trailers that this would all be played for laughs and childhood memories would get trampled on, Cobra Kai actually remains faithful to the original giving it a more modern depth, showing how being bullied and being a bully can stay with you and shape you for the rest of your life.
Zabka’s a dick still, for sure. He’s not exactly PC, being a bit of a misogynist and a racist to say the least, and he appears to have learnt nothing from the defeat of the Cobra Kai way back in the 80s, as he teaches his new student to have no mercy. But Cobra Kai definitely feels sorry for Zabka and is clearly providing him with ways to grow.
By contrast, Macchio’s Danny is still a good guy. He seems to have it all, but being super-rich means his children are spoiled and he still rides on the crest of his early victories. Meanwhile, although he still reveres Mr Mijagi and teaches his daughter the true spirit of karate, in some ways, he’s no better than Zabka – a cultural-appropriator, when his daughter’s Chinese-American boyfriend comes to dinner, he serves sushi and asks him where his parents are from, only to discover his guest doesn’t like fish and his parents come from California. When they confront one another in the second episode, it’s clear that neither Macchio nor Zabka is necessarily the clear hero or villain of the piece.
Indeed, while the show has the usual teenage high school issues at play for the young ‘uns, it’s clearly aimed at 40- and 50-somethings, who themselves have a bit of experience. They know that maybe success or failure in youth doesn’t necessarily lead to a failed life or necessarily a perfect adulthood.
That knowledge also extends to martial arts. Sure, Zabka is a bit more flexible than someone his age should be if he’d given up training decades previously (and the show does at least play with this a little), but Cobra Kai knows not only that karate has been overtaken by jiu jitsu and MMA in the public’s affections but that everyone now knows what a gi, a dojo and a sensei are. Cobra Kai’s teaching techniques do at least involve a modern punching dummy and some practical karate knowledge, making it a bit more realistic than wax on, wax off, which again is something the show likes to play with (“Why am I cleaning this window?” “Don’t question my teaching techniques”).
Meanwhile, neither Macchio nor Zabka’s character are either all good or all bad. Macchio is still recognisably Danny in both appearance and spirit, but he’s quick to jump to conclusions, particularly about Zabka, and isn’t an especially good parent. He doesn’t know how to deal with his daughter now she’s a teenager and while he tries his best to be nice to Zabka, he doesn’t know how to do it without accidentally humiliating him. Similarly, Zabka does end up helping Maridueña and life does treat him pretty badly – it’s not all his own fault.
Cobra Kai is both fun and faithful. It’s not too comedic and it’s not too serious. The karate is decent, if not professional stuntman grade, but that’s faithful to the original at least. It’s a shame that neither Morita nor Elisabeth Shue are in it, but Macchio and Zabka are both good and the young cast are sympathetic. The mirroring of the movie’s storyline, but flipped and retold from the sensei’s perspectives, helps it to be fresh and to show what happens when the student becomes the teacher and how that can be a learning experience, too. It also helps it to appeal to its older target audience, who presumably can empathise with two people nostalgic for their childhood years.
However… it’s on YouTube Red. It’s easily the best YouTube Red series I’ve seen so far (sorry, Lifeline and Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*) and I might even subscribe (or at least take out a trial) to YouTube Red to watch it – if that were an option in the UK. But it’s not.
That means that instead of the monthly $9.99 it costs in the US to watch YouTube Red’s entire catalogue, Cobra Kai is a tad more expensive in the UK: the first two, half-hour episodes are free and the remaining eight episodes cost £1.89 each, so the entire season of Cobra Kai costs £15.12 to watch. Sure that’s less than buying a TV series on iTunes, but it’s two months of Netflix or of YouTube Red in the US.
Which is a stretch. I’m tempted, since I did really like Cobra Kai… but I’m not made of money. Come on Google – sort it out.