Like any good child of the 1980s, I watched Cobra Kai (2018-present), the once quaintly nostalgic but now tediously repetitive spin-off from the classic Karate Kid franchise. Oddly, it seems that the more of its familiar teenagers hate each other, teenagers fight other, teenagers form new alliances formula it replays, the more people like it. Throw in the constant bickering of the grown-up Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and you have a mobius strip of martial arts nonsense that lost its charm a while ago. Yet, because I guess I am a masochist, I have stuck with the series despite starting season four, watching the first few episodes, quickly getting bored, and skipping to the last two. Whatever. Because I am wondering why they keep wanting to squeeze material out of a film series that they managed to get five movies out of, I decided to go back to the original, The Karate Kid (1984). Aw, look at all their cute little, young faces back in the 1980s. Sigh. You know what they say: nostalgia just is not what it used to be.
I had forgotten that The Karate Kid began in Newark, New Jersey, despite the clues given in the more recent YouTube/Netflix series. This is where the LaRussos move from when Daniel’s mother, Lucille (Randee Heller), gets a job in California. I am sorry, but I must remark on this now. Later on, Lucille is chatting excitedly about how the restaurant they migrated cross-country for her to work at has a management training program and great benefits, better than the dead-end career in computers in which she had been employed . . . in 1984. I had a good laugh when this was said. The one person who is not enthusiastic about their move is Daniel. Though he makes some initial friends in the low rent apartment complex they settle in, it is quickly turned into bullying. This is because Daniel catches the eye of Ali Mills (Elizabeth Shue), and her ex-boyfriend, Johnny Lawrence, is not keen on her new romance. Unfortunately for Daniel, Johnny is enrolled at the Cobrai Kai karate dojo, and has won the famous (mostly because of the show) All Valley Karate Tournament twice. Daniel attempts to stand up to Johnny at first, but Daniel’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) lessons and self-taught book moves are no match for the champion Johnny. Making matters worse, there are a number of Johnny’s classmates that also go to Cobra Kai that gleefully take part in harassing Daniel. Thus begins an endless cycle of bullying that pushes Daniel to the breaking point. He receives help from a seemingly unlikely source. Working as the handyman for the apartment complex is one Mr. Myagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita). Though they had some cursory interactions, particularly when Mr. Miyagi introduces Daniel to the art of bonsai, Mr. Miyagi’s real skills have yet to surface. After Daniel pulls a prank on Johnny at the school’s Halloween dance, Daniel takes off running and is chased down by Johnny and his skeleton clad posse near the apartment complex. Before the expectant beating can commence in earnest, Mr. Miyagi jumps into the midst of the assailants and easily stops them. Seeing the deftness with which Mr. Miyagi handled Johnny and his friends, Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate. Mr. Miyagi is reluctant at first, but is convinced when Daniel takes him to the Cobra Kai dojo. Seeing the no mercy, brutal instruction of the school’s sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), he agrees to enter Daniel into the upcoming All Valley tournament in exchange for Johnny leaving Daniel alone until the tournament. This means Mr. Miyagi will train Daniel, although in the beginning the regimen appears to be Daniel performing home improvement projects. Eventually, Daniel gets frustrated with waxing cars and painting fences and confronts Mr. Miyagi. It is then that the sensei shows the student that these seemingly menial tasks have taught Daniel how to defend himself. Somewhat buoyed, he goes into the tournament just happy to be there, not believing he could actually win. Remarkably, he begins advancing, beating several Cobra Kai opponents along the way. I think you know where this is going. Despite Kreese telling his students to injure Daniel, our hero limps into the final showdown with Johnny. Kreese tells Johnny to do further damage to the leg, leaving Daniel, though being ahead in the match, with only one usable leg left. He then goes into his famous crane stance, jump kicks Johnny in the forehead, and wins the title. And the crowd goes wild because I guess there is nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon in California.
There is an interesting moment at the end of The Karate Kid that seemingly gets forgotten in four seasons of Cobra Kai. Okay, maybe not “forgotten,” but certainly not played up enough. Johnny is the one to hand Daniel the trophy, saying “You’re alright LaRusso.” It is supposed to be the burying of the hatchet between former enemies, and yet the Cobra Kaiseries seems to act as if this never happened, at least for Johnny. Who knows? Maybe when I watch The Karate Kid II(1986) later tonight I will have a different opinion. In the meantime, it seems silly and annoying. And hokey. It is remarkable that The Karate Kid is remembered so-well. It is basically Rocky (1976), but with teenagers doing martial arts in California. It is also remarkably low-budget. You can tell they spent only $8 million, particularly when they show scenes of the local hang-out Golf n’ Stuff. The “n’ Stuff” appears to be one water slide, and a modestly sized arcade, advertised as having “Arcade All Latest Videos.” I had a hearty laugh when I saw this, too.
Despite the cheesiness, there were aspects of The Karate Kid that I appreciated. One of the things that Mr. Miyagi emphasizes to Daniel on numerous occasions is the fact that karate is not for fighting, but purely defense. I also liked the fact that Mr. Miyagi mentions how karate came from China long ago. This is a fact. As somebody who has dabbled in the original martial art, kung fu, I often turn my nose up at karate because it seems to exist purely for the things that Mr. Miyagi feared: to teach people to beat up others. As I have grown in my Faith, this dedication to pacifism has intensified. Interestingly, kung fu was developed by Buddhist monks who sought to defend themselves from marauders. Christianity has similar moments in its past, such as the Knights Templar and Hospitallers. Both orders were disbanded by the sixteenth century, but while they existed their primary, stated mission was defense. There is nothing wrong with a healthy competition of fisticuffs as you see in the movie. Life and death struggles are another matter, and Christianity, like Mr. Miyagi, teaches that violence is failure.
Now that I have re-watched The Karate Kid, my annoyance with Cobra Kai has intensified. We shall see how this works after seeing the rest of the movies in the franchise. If nothing else, they might give clues as to what kind of shenanigans they will next attempt. In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with The Karate Kid if you enjoy silly 1980s movies.