The original “Karate Kid” movie was a sleeper hit in the summer of 1984. I would’ve been twelve when I saw it that July, probably at the Ridge Cinema.
It’s an easy summer to remember because everyone at the neighborhood pool began doing the famous crane kick that Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) uses in the film’s climactic fight scene. The movie helped martial arts explode in popularity, which meant kids were buying throwing stars from Hull Street Outlet and pegging them into trees or houses -- maybe crafting their own nunchaku and cracking themselves in the head.
“The Karate Kid,” which earned $100 million against an $8 million budget, would spawn some truly terrible sequels that (thankfully) I never suffered through. Along the way something weird happened: A line of dialogue from the original movie, delivered by a background character, became the pop culture idiom most associated with the franchise: Of course, I’m talking about “Get him a body bag!” which one of the Cobra Kai fighters shouts after Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) sweeps LaRusso's leg in the championship.
For a certain aged kid, that hilarious phrase began to seep into the collective unconscious and even competitive sports. This was long before kids were actively protected from concussions, bullying and all manner of physical intimidation. “Get him a body bag” was a very real strategy, some might say philosophy, back then.
The clever creators behind the 2018 web series, “Cobra Kai,” which recently made the jump to Netflix and found a new audience of fans, are fully aware of this phenomenon. For those who don’t know, Cobra Kai is the authoritarian karate dojo originally run by John Kreese (Martin Kove) where kids learn to “strike first” and “show no mercy.” It’s the polar opposite of Mr. Miyagi and LaRusso’s more balanced, defense-centered karate. And, brought back by former star Lawrence, it's returned to kick politically correct ass.
The two seasons of “Cobra Kai” take place 30 years after the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament. Amazingly, almost the entire cast from the original movie is back, even LaRusso's mom, everyone except for Elisabeth Shue and Pat Morita, or Mr. Miyagi, the latter who died in 2005. Now a family man, Daniel LaRusso has become a successful car dealer (the little details are great – he gives customers free bonsai plants) and his former nemesis, Johnny Lawrence, is a down-and-out drunk, pissed off at the modern world and missing the glory days of Motley Crue, muscle cars and beating up kids like Ralph Macchio. He’s so bitter and angry that I almost expected the show's writers to have him wearing a MAGA hat – but they mostly stay away from that kind of politics, opting for a more personal one.
The show plays up the plentiful cultural differences between then and now through various high school kids (basically avatars for the original characters) who are learning karate at the new Cobra Kai under Lawrence, and conversely, under LaRusso’s tutelage when he restarts Miyagi dojo to balance out the dark side of the force, basically.
At its core, the series is built on Lawrence, who embodies an aging white male stereotype in America that is increasingly lost at sea. Through him, we see the moral failures of chauvinistic, macho '80s male culture, while the writers also use him to provide humorous critiques of neurotic and sheltered modern kids whose life experience happens mostly behind screens. Zabka gives one of the great cuck performances of all-time with thinly veiled looks of disgust and shame constantly flickering across his usually blank expressions. He’s the bully who has suffered enough to understand the errors of his ways, but still he can’t give up his love of being “a badass” as defined by Whitesnake videos and '80s action movies like "Iron Eagle 2."
The writers flesh out his sympathetic character more fully than the original LaRusso: for instance, through flashbacks we learn that Lawrence was once an unpopular kid seeking to escape a cruel stepfather, which led him to being molded into a bully by Kreese, the stupid man's Rambo. “Cobra Kai” is ultimately the story of Lawrence’s spiritual awakening and better-late-than-never maturity. But the guilty pleasure of the show is when it’s making tongue-in-cheek jokes that play on generational divides.
The first season is tightly scripted and consistent from start to finish, offering some laugh-out loud moments and having fun with the lead characters’ age-old rivalry. But the second season settles into predictable teen soap opera territory, where we can see the plot points and character reversals coming a mile away.
After season two's cliffhanger ending, when one of the top karate kids is badly injured during a group fight that feels like a choreographed Broadway musical, a big audience will be waiting for season three's arrival in 2021. Hopefully, we’re not all still sitting at home desperate for something nostalgic and gloriously cheesy to kill the time.