Cobra Kai picks up The Karate Kid story 34 years on from the perspective of Johnny Lawrence, who trains bullied students as his own redemption story unfolds.
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The Karate Kid movie
Cobra Kai continues the story from the 1984 movie The Karate Kid. The movie was a big commercial hit about a kid, Danny LaRusso, who moves from New Jersey with his mother to Los Angeles and starts at a new school. He soon gets bullied by a group of tough kids led by Johnny Lawrence and learns to defend himself when he gets coached in Karate by Mr Miyagi. The movie is an eighties feel-good story where the underdog triumphs. Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence face off in the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament, ending with the iconic crane kick delivered by Danny LaRusso.
Johnny Lawrence down and out
There are moments in our lives that define us, and for Johnny Lawrence, it is his loss to Danny LaRusso at the 1984 All Valley Tournament.
Now, forward wind 34 years to when Cobra Kai picks up the story and this time, from the perspective of Johnny Lawrence. Johnny Lawrence is down and out, having fallen on hard times. He lives in a cheap apartment, drinks too much and struggles to hold down a job.
We find that life hasn’t been good for Johnny, a situation that has gone on for some time and is developing permanency. While it is evident that Johnny has made many mistakes, there may also be a problem with the cards he’s dealt. When he gets down, he regresses back nostalgically to the last time things were good, the eighties.
He is a complex character who has never realised his potential and struggles with feelings of failure and inadequacy. Johnny’s story taps into the all-too-relatable human condition of what to do when your life is not where you hoped it would be. Nevertheless, Johnny is the unlikely hero, and the central story arc of Cobra Kai is the Johnny Lawrence redemption story.
The Power of a Redemption Story
There is a reason redemption stories resonate with people because they explore the very human experience of struggling and failing and trying to turn things around. When we meet a character, who is flawed and has made mistakes, we can immediately relate because we all make mistakes. When we identify with a character like this, we can explore our own mistakes and flaws.
Their journey becomes our journey, and as they experience personal growth and improvement, we are inspired and motivated to see what is possible in our lives. We see that change is possible and that we don’t have to be defined or limited by past mistakes. When the audience experiences empathy for the character’s struggle, feels hope and believes change is possible, this is empowering and transformative.
The series takes its cues from the original eighties Karate Kid movie and the two sequels. Nostalgic flashbacks from the original films give context to the current events. The lives of Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence now could not be more different. Danny LaRusso is very successful in business, wealthy and living a wonderful life with a wife and family in a big luxurious house.
He runs a chain of car dealerships in the San Fernando Valley with billboards of him everywhere and commercials on TV. His wife, Amanda, is beautiful and intelligent and co-manages the company.
He believes in doing what is right and having values. However, despite his success, he tends to be overly sentimental and nostalgic, and he has an underlying insecurity that dates back to his school days.
Cobra Kai Dojo
When Johnny Lawrence sees some bullies picking on a kid from his apartment block, he intervenes. Johnny quickly displays that he still has his karate skills and fends them off. Unfortunately, the police arrive and treat Johnny as the aggressor, pepper-spraying him and arresting him. His life is hard, even when he does a good deed. The kid he saved, named Miguel, is very grateful and impressed with Johnny and asks Johnny to train him. Eventually, Johnny agrees to train him and starts turning his own life around. Johnny opens a Karate studio and calls it Cobra Kai, after the one he went to in his school days.
Miguel learns Karate
The redemption of Johnny Lawrence comes into focus. He begins to develop and grows through the mentor relationship with Miguel. Soon Miguel shines as a star student. However, Cobra Kai dojo struggles to make enough money to survive without more students.
When Miguel wins a fight against the same group of bullies in the school cafeteria, the other bullied kids want to join Cobra Kai. They include Eli “Hawk” Moskowitz, Demetri Alexopoulos and Aisha Robinson. All of which become major supporting characters in the series. They go through amazing transformations after joining. Except for Demetri, until he later joins another rival dojo.
Old Rivalries Resurface
Later, a horrified Danny LaRusso drives by the strip mall and sees that the dreaded Cobra Kai Dojo from his school days has resurrected in his old neighbourhood. Danny is furious when he finds that Johnny Lawrence is responsible and the old school day rivalry resurfaces and clouds all judgement.
Danny LaRusso becomes obsessed with the existence of Cobra Kai, blaming it for everything. He begins to lose his sense of perspective and, consequently, the balance in his life, and the essence of Miyagi-Do Karate is balance. Unfortunately, a kind of hypocrisy now develops in Danny’s behaviour, and he makes appalling decisions based on the end justifying the means. The worst of these decisions is with Robbie Keene. While he should have known better, he focuses on Robbie and lets his kids spiral out of control.
One of the recurring themes in Cobra Kai is Daddy Issues. It is present in the original stories of Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence that go back to their childhood. The absent father is one of the things that, despite their more obvious differences, actually makes them similar. Likewise, it is present in the story of Miguel, who looks to Johnny as a father figure.
However, the most flawed father relationship story arc is around Johnny Lawrence and his estranged son, Robbie Keene. This broken relationship casts a long shadow over the entire show. Robbie despises his father and blames him for everything. He regards him as a loser and the last person he wants to emulate.
Robbie is extremely bitter about his father’s absence from his childhood. So he deliberately behaves in a manner designed to provoke his father.
Johnny Lawrence acknowledges his shortcoming and concedes that he has been a poor excuse for a father. He endeavours throughout the series to make amends to Robbie, but they always fail for diverse reasons, some of which are not his fault. One of the primary ones is his new relationship as Miguel’s trainer and mentor. He seems to choose Miguel over Robbie several times, damaging his relationship with his son even more. For Robbie, it is like salt to the wound, so he loathes his father even more.
Robbie’s bitterness toward his father, and resentment of Miguel, motivate many of his decisions throughout the show. Unfortunately, these are usually flawed and end in catastrophic consequences for him, as evident in the shocking and epic school fight scene.
A Series Worth Watching
It is extraordinary how impressively the Cobra Kai series accomplishes the rebooted story. There is just so much to appreciate about the cast’s performance. William Zabka revives his Johnny Lawrence role from the Karate Kid brilliantly. Likewise, Ralph Macchio brings an ageless quality to his performance as a considerably more mature and sophisticated Danny LaRusso. Like the TV show Psych, it combines comedy and action entertainingly while nostalgically looking back to the mid-eighties.
The school students provide the perfect balance to the original older stars, and all give exceptional performances. The exhilarating action contrasts with some characters’ infuriating, self-sabotaging decisions and provides the viewer with a rollercoaster of emotions.