Johnny Lawrence Is a Badass with a Heart of Gold on Cobra Kai
by Kim Krober
"Watch Cobra Kai," they said. "You'll love it!"
I've been hearing those words for the past three years, but I didn't want to pay to watch it on YouTube. I was excited when Cobra Kai moved to Netflix last year because I already use that streaming service, but I was too busy binging other shows during the pandemic to give it much thought. Besides, I was never a huge fan of The Karate Kid in my youth.
I remember catching glimpses of the franchise here and there when flipping through cable TV, but it seemed a bit boring and hokey to me. I had very little interest in sports, let alone martial arts. It felt like a guy's movie to me. Ralph Macchio's character Daniel LaRusso looked like a scrawny wimp and not even an interesting wimp like the comic book nerds I still love to this day. Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) bothered me due to his stereotypical Japanese portrayal and because he was practically a slave driver, exploiting free child labor during the "wax on, wax off" scene that everybody loves.
The bullies were very two-dimensional and almost too over-the-top in their desire to "strike first, strike hard, and show no mercy." Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) was a rich, arrogant jock who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, although he did look fierce in a skeleton suit. Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) was way out of Daniel's league, which always sorta irritated me because it felt so unrealistic for her to choose Daniel over Johnny. Mature love life decisions like these aren't usually made until college or long after, and many women never stop chasing the bad boys.
Although Ralph Macchio was always cute, I much preferred him in his role in The Outsiders, in which he and the other Greasers played badasses with hearts of gold.
I didn't have high hopes for Cobra Kai, but I thought I'd finally give it a shot last month. To my amazement, I loved the series so much that I binged the entire three seasons in a single weekend, and I can't wait for the fourth installment later this year. What they've managed to do is nothing short of genius. They've weaved heartfelt nostalgia for the original movies by reuniting fan-favorite characters in new scenarios, while also creating new characters to breathe fresh life into the franchise for younger generations. They've brought a rich backstory to the previously two-dimensional bullies, flipping everything you thought you knew about them and making you eager to learn more.
In the '80s, we didn't need to know what motivated cinematic bullies. Johnny Lawrence was a jerk who broke Ali's boombox and beat up Daniel with his cronies for fun and sport. John Kreese (Martin Kove) was a military veteran turned evil sensei with a seemingly personal vendetta against Mr. Miyagi. Biff Tannen threatened to beat up George McFly in Back to the Future if he didn't do his homework assignments. It seems like the Russians were always nefarious as a result of the Cold War tensions. I could go on and on. But now thanks to Cobra Kai, we have more insight into at least why Johnny and Kreese acted the way they did. Kreese's past was darker than night and Johnny didn't have a happy home life, nor was he the spoiled prick he seemed.
I loved seeing the reverse side of things from Johnny's perspective. Ironically, it turns out he is the badass character with the heart of gold that I always admired about Macchio in The Outsiders. Daniel really did come sweeping in on Johnny's home turf, disrupting his love life and practically making a mockery of his passion for karate by winning the All Valley Karate Tournament as a beginner with like a month of training. He also acted like an ass at the Halloween party, prompting the actions of the skeleton crew. In the present, Daniel continues to make a mockery of karate by using it as a cheap sales gimmick to sell used cars, while Johnny continues to hone his craft and has noble ambitions of being a sensei and passing on these defense skills to others.
Cobra Kai is the ultimate story of redemption. Out of all the series I've recently binged, Johnny has had the most satisfying character arc. At the series' start, he's a bit of a washed-up loser, drinking booze in the parking lot of a 7-11 and completely ignoring his responsibilities as a father. All Johnny cares about are fast cars, beer, heavy metal, and women. But by the end of the third season, he's tried to make up for his past mistakes by being a mentor to Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) and other kids who get bullied by teaching them how to fight back. He also spends time trying to patch things up with his son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). Inadvertently, he also tries to redeem himself with both Daniel and even Ali in a surprisingly touching mini-reunion at Christmas.
By now, Johnny realizes he was a pawn in Kreese's twisted mind games. When Kreese returns to town and inserts himself into the newly resurrected Cobra Kai dojo, he continues to mess with impressionable minds behind Johnny's back. Unfortunately, Johnny is too late on the uptake to prevent the drama and disruption this causes in the community. By the series' end, it becomes clear that Johnny and Daniel must join forces to fight the evil that is Kreese, as they all prepare their dojos for another All Valley Karate Tournament and the inevitable return of Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) from the franchise's third movie.
I'm excited to see how events will unfold in the next season of Cobra Kai. I love Johnny Lawrence and how much his character embodies what was so great about growing up in the '80s before the Internet, social media, cellphones, and other modern technology. It's been a welcomed blast from the past, but they also do a fantastic job with the new generation of kids and keeping my interest in their growth and obstacles. I especially like the character Hawk - Jacob Bertrand does such a brilliant job with him.
If the show's producers and writers can do this much with an unassuming movie villain like Johnny, perhaps they can do the same with other characters we love to loathe. Instead of doing all these reboots and reunions, I want to see more original backstories and creative reinterpretations that enhance these beloved legacies. In my opinion, Biff Tannen (Tom Wilson) was the king of '80s bullies. I would love to know more about what made him tick (besides living with his overbearing grandmother and perhaps a lack of a father figure) and see a character arc of his life after the BTTF trilogy. Maybe it would work, and maybe it wouldn't. Maybe you can only catch lightning in a bottle once, and they got extremely lucky that William Zabka makes Johnny such a lovable, well-rounded character. Let's face it, he's the best around and nothing's gonna ever keep him down - not even Daniel LaRusso. I hope to someday meet him at a con!