I assume you all have heard about the new series on Youtube? It’s a continuation of the original Karate Kid Trilogy. It’s been kind of a big deal in some of the circles I travel in. Against my better judgment, I decided to get a YouTube Red subscription to watch it. I do not regret it.
I’ve never been a big Karate Kid fan. I enjoyed the first movie a lot, and the subsequent movies with decreasing interest. I never even saw the most recent one. This series does raise several questions, though?
1 – Is the Next Karate Kid, with Hilary Swank, part of the same continuity? One would think so, but you can’t really tell. Given the way the school she went to was run, it could just as easily be some sort of bizarro reality.
2 – Is the 2010 remake part of the continuity? I’m indifferent to Jaden Smith but I’m a big Taraji P Henson fan. And Jackie Chan? Yes, please.
3 – We’re not even going to talk about the cartoon.
4 – Aside from a passing mention of Brazilian Jujitsu, there’s pretty much no mention of the modern martial arts scene. Does MMA not exist?
5 – Is Cobra Kai a television series? Can we really call them TV series now, since so much viewing isn’t done on traditional televisions? What is the go-to term these days?
None of that is particularly relevant. If you never watched the Karate Kid…look, I’m going to be honest, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life, I really don’t. It is one of the seminal martial arts films, sports films, teen coming-of-age films, 80s films, and just genuinely one of the better movies ever made. And I say that, again, not as a big fan. It’s genuinely one of the greats.
One of the things that makes the Karate Kid great is also what makes Cobra Kai great: the martial arts isn’t that important.
The karate in the Karate Kid and Cobra Kai – like the boxing in Rocky and Creed, football in Any Given Sunday – is a means to an end and that end is character development and interpersonal narrative. If you’ve never taken a martial art class in your life, you are not going to miss out any pretty much anything in the series. There’s no getting bogged down in stances, strike terminology, anything more complicated than ‘punch’ and ‘kick’. But the lessons of balance, finding calm, aggression, these are universal.
Cobra Kai tells the story of Johnny Lawrence who is played masterfully by William Zabka. In reprising the role, he demonstrates that he may have suffered from the typecasting curse that so many who breakout in a major motion picture. Zabka is absolutely excellent in this series and even if one has no interest in martial arts or sports, his performance is genuinely excellent. Nuanced at times, he has uncanny comedic timing and displays a range of emotions that will impress even decorated actors.
Johnny Lawrence is a nobody, caught in perpetual adolescence having peaked in high school. He is inspired through a series of uncanny events to reopen his old karate studio, the eponymous Cobra Kai, with the headaches and triumphs that entails. The series also follows Daniel LaRusso (reprised beautifully by Ralph Macchio) as well as several teen characters (whose nature and story quickly knocks on the door of spoilers, but suffice to say that they acquit themselves just as well).
Johnny Lawrence’s story is well-developed, but he is a problematic figure. He’s a misogynist, homophobe, and likely racist. There is some token attention paid to his growth in these areas (accepting girls into the school, etc) but it can be a little subtle. Likewise, elements are played for comedy that shouldn’t be. In the second episode, Johnny takes a kid’s asthma inhaler and throws it against the wall, telling the kid ‘he doesn’t have asthma anymore’. This is never returned to and, in real life, is a potentially lethal thing to do. In a later episode (I think six?), he advises his senior student to ‘never take no for an answer’ with regards to asking out a girl. They do a decent-ish job of making clear this is asking out, not physical (showing that even Johnny isn’t THAT bad), but it still sustains the mentality of a woman and her attention as an object to win. It’s appropriate for the character, but as a trait of the protagonist, this is problematic. Which, in and of itself, is fine, if they showed more of the problems associated with it.
At ten episodes long, the series can be easily binge-watched in an afternoon or evening. I highly recommend it. This is not a pointless remake or a cashgrab, nor is it a fanboy vanity project. This is a complex story with a lot of moving parts, a lot of sincerity and honesty, and at times, a lot of bluntness. It’s funny and heart-breaking. I want to avoid spoilers, but I will go far enough to say that by the end of the series, everybody gets what they have worked towards. However, in doing so, they learn what they worked towards wasn’t what they expected or wanted.
This series is well worth watching and if there is any justice in the entertainment universe, there will be a season two.