Fear and Darkness in The Karate Kid. (Or, how I learned to look properly at Johnny Lawrence.)

**This is part one of a short series of blog posts about my observations of the Karate Kid franchise of films and the TV show Cobra Kai. First up; how perceptions of a text can alter, the older you get.**

If someone had told my thirteen year old self I’d be writing a blog post (not that there were such things as blogs when I was thirteen!) on the subject of The Karate Kid‘s chief antagonist, Johnny Lawrence, I’d have giggled pathetically and pledged eternal allegiance to Daniel LaRusso. At aged thirteen, for me, the narrative of that most perfect of films was clear cut; light versus darkness; Cobra Kai versus Miyagi-do; hero wins, villain loses. Scrappy kid from New Jersey moves to California, gets bullied, learns karate from enigmatic teacher-handyman, falls in love, wins tournament, job done.

But perhaps not.

Fast forward thirty years and it’s a slightly different story. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I haven’t watched The Karate Kid in over twenty five years. I know for a fact that I’ve never watched it with my husband, and we’ve been together that long! But yesterday afternoon I decided it was time to introduce KK to my daughters, and, despite the fact that my husband fell asleep (so we’ve still, technically, never watched it together!), a good time was had by the remaining three of us!

screen-shot-2020-10-19-at-17.23.13Anyone who’s been following my Twitter feed lately will know that I recently watched the YouTube produced (and now Netflix streamed) Cobra Kai, and to say that CK is a gamechanger is a bit of an understatement. I absolutely adored it, so part of the reason for wanting to watch KK again was to refresh my memory and see if I’d caught all of the references in CK. But in the end, it wasn’t quite the experience I’d anticipated.

Now, I’ll admit freely that CK turns the KK world on its head a bit. Following, as it does, the potentially redemptive journey of Johnny Lawrence, 34 years after he lost the final of the All Valley Karate Championship, it’s very much through Johnny’s eyes that we recall the events of the first (and to a point the second) KK film. But what interested me from the moment William Zabka came on screen in the original film was how I, as an adult, immediately changed my perspective of that character. A lot of this, of course, comes from the back story and world building of CK, but there was one thing that struck me about Zabka’s performance in nearly all of the film’s scenes. He’s playing Johnny as completely and utterly terrified, almost the whole time. Barring his entrance scene on the bike (where there’s certainly anger and heartbreak framed as aggression), and the couple of rare moments where he’s at ease (mostly with friends, sitting on the bike at school, or schmoozing Ali’s mum at the country club), Johnny is scared.

For me, it’s in the eyes it’s most obvious – Zabka’s playing Johnny as on the verge of tears that never come, almost the whole time. 
Once I’d realised that, I just kept noticing it, all the way through the film. Take, for instance, the scene after Mr Miyagi has taken on Johnny and the gang after the Hallowe’en dance. Johnny’s distracted by Daniel and Mr Miyagi at the back of the Cobra Kai dojo. But is he scared of Mr Miyagi because of the night before, or because he’s afraid of what John Kreese will do when he finds out why he’s sporting a black eye? He seems reassured when Kreese responds positively to him, but that nervous half-smile when he tells Kreese feels forced, as if he knows there will be worse to come. His body language here is not that of someone who’s been reassured; it’s as if he just knows this isn’t the end of it. And while, of course, he’s a footsoldier in the image below, standing at attention beside his General, and that might explain the body language, there’s a palpable tension here perhaps interpreted as fear of attack from all sides.

Throughout the whole film, there’s just this sense of ‘banked fires under colossal control’ (to quote Jilly Cooper) when it comes to the character of Johnny Lawrence. You can see the fear, the nerves, the genuine terror of failure written all over him, even when he’s trying his hardest to be the opposite, and I think that’s Zabka’s real strength, even at that young age. To an adult, that kind of reaction to stress in a young man would suggest trauma, abuse, grooming, even, and yet as a teenager I just didn’t see it. Of course, the intuitive links are obvious; one reading of the film is that Kreese is an arch manipulator who sets his students against one another and against the outsiders of Daniel and Mr Miyagi. That kind of behaviour has more than a suggestion of abuse. Close ranks, deny everything, but bleed to death on the inside. It’s testament to both William Zabka and the fabulous Martin Kove that this dynamic works so well on film.

That realisation, that all is much darker in the Cobra Kai dojo than I’d ever imagined as a teenager,  is the thing that really shocked me this time around, more than anything, and it goes to show what a couple of decades does to alter your perception of events. Right at the end of the film, after the crane kick that wins Daniel the fight, Johnny is absolutely alone. Apart from the match officials, there’s no-one there to pick up the pieces, to offer any comfort. His friends are on the sidelines, as is Kreese; Johnny’s isolation is total. The contrast between him and Daniel is obvious, with Daniel being surrounded by friends and family in triumph. That’s what makes Johnny’s last gesture particularly powerful as he takes the trophy from the official and presents it to Daniel himself, uttering ‘you’re all right, LaRusso, good match.’ Broken grace just about sums it up. He’s on the verge of breaking down, but he doesn’t. And that’s something I noticed even more when I started watching Cobra Kai, of which more in the next post!





4 thoughts on “Fear and Darkness in The Karate Kid. (Or, how I learned to look properly at Johnny Lawrence.)

  1. It has been a while since I’ve had a celebrity crush, but holy heck William Zabka. His Cobra Kai journey is making me feel all sorts of ways.

    I have been spending some quality time reading everything I can about CK and BZ and I very much enjoyed your observations in this post. It was intriguing to see Karate Kid-era Johnny through your writer’s eye, and with the benefits of a couple dozen extra years of perspective.

    The SyFy Channel celebrated The Karate Kid’s 35th anniversary with an oral history of Sweep the Leg/Crane Kick, talking to both Martin Kove and Billy Zabka.


    Some of the themes in the article reflect your understanding. First we learn that the young Cobras were never introduced to actor Martin Kove. They were brought to the dojo where Sensei John Kreese was in full gi and black belt and waiting for them with displeasure. And that was the dynamic for the whole shoot:

    “I don’t remember half the names of everybody, because we were all always in character,” [Kove] recalls. “I was John Kreese; I was not Martin Kove, and he was not William Zabka.”

    Then Billy talked about the final match:

    “At that moment, when he says, ‘sweep the leg,’ and he puts that darkness in his eyes, it was a very vulnerable, honest moment that played,” [says Zabka.] “But when he says ‘no mercy,’ that’s something he’s been hearing since he was a little kid, and it’s almost like Kreese flipped a switch in him.”

    “…[He] puts that darkness in his eyes” nearly ended me.

    Can you imagine young Johnny Lawrence looking into that void? How he managed to not be driven to his knees from the weight we will never know.

    • I’m so glad my observations resonated with you – and thanks for the link to the SyFy post – what a great and revealing read it was! It’s interesting to see that my perceptions of KK as an adult are largely in line with BZ’s own experiences of shooting it. It strikes me, every time I read something by him, or listen to him speaking about the experience of playing Johnny, just how incredibly thoughtful and articulate he is. I suppose when you’ve lived with a character for so long, you know all of the ins and outs!

      You’re right, though, that quote about Kreese and the ‘darkness in his eyes’ is hugely revealing – and Billy’s emotional response to it as Johnny is so raw, and so immediate. As a teenager (I think I was about thirteen when I first saw it, which was some time after its release) I didn’t spot it, although I do remember thinking how afraid he looked at that point, but as an adult, it just breaks your heart. The one person he thought he could depend on selling him out for a victory that didn’t come: tragic. Interesting too, what Martin said about the way the Cobras were introduced to Kreese – immersive, method acting or not, that’s a way to provoke an authentic response! I’d have been terrified, seeing him in full flow for the first time…

      I must put up the second post I wrote at some point – it’s more CK focussed and explores what an absolute torrent of unshed tears Johnny is – it’s something I noticed as the series went on, and it’s again tribute to Billy Zabka’s mastery of that role that he plays adult Johnny with such pathos and nuance (and incredible humour, of course – lest we forget the brilliant, lighter moments of the show!).

      Thanks again for the comment – I’m totally with you on the celeb crush, too 😉 xx

  2. It’s the eve of the trailer for Cobra Kai Season 3 so I thought I would check back in.

    Thank you for your response!

    The question remains – not just how did Johnny Lawrence survive the darkness, but how did a seventeen-year-old actor find that in his character and bring it to the screen?

    Further to the SyFy article and prob’ly a few other interviews I read, Billy understood that Johnny realized in that moment that he had a choice – break free from Kreese or fall into that darkness forever. So he chose freedom*, dropped his fists and walked right into that crane kick. Someone in a comment section somewhere also noted that Johnny’s black headband flew off in the end stage of the fight and he never put it back on – he presented the trophy to Danny without his bonds.

    *We’ll also stipulate that he knew Kreese wouldn’t let him go that easily so he was also factoring for the beatdown he eventually got in the parking lot.

    Fast forward thirty-six (!) years and we are on Johnny’s redemption journey. I would very much like to see your thoughts on his unshed tears.


    • So sorry for the delay in responding to your thoughts, Emily – I’ve been writing up to the wire on a deadline and also remote teaching since the start of January (and home schooling, eek!), so it’s all been a bit bonkers.

      The headband flying off is something I definitely hadn’t noticed – and you’re right, it makes perfect sense! Such a great visual metaphor for Johnny hopefully breaking free of Kreese and moving on with his life, although, with the CK framing and 36 years of hindsight, that escape wasn’t as successful as we all hope at the pinnacle of the first film. I watched KK 2 and 3 recently, and that opening scene in the car park is terrifying – and heart breaking. Although Kreese feels like a bit more of a pantomime villain in that scene (but the whole film is a bit more technicolour and tonally different to the first), Billy Zabka maintains that character of Johnny perfectly – he’s about the only consistent thing in that scene! The fear when he’s in the choke hold, and then the devastation when he’s slumped on the pavement afterwards are so well communicated and expressed, and of course that fear is mirrored in CK when Kreese first makes his return to teaching the new Cobras. And yes, I think the residual fear between ring and car park is definitely a thing – the poor guy’s defeated on most levels. Even though we can try to feel hope at the end of the first film, Kreese’s dynamism is too much for a seventeen year old to truly escape.

      I finished watching CKS3 this week, and was so pleased to see a bit of JK’s backstory getting some airtime – and that he seems to be hanging around for another series. The dynamic between BZ and MK is just so good, too, and it would have been a shame to have lost that at the close of this series. And then there’s Ali…but that’s another post!!

      I really must get that other CK/KK post sorted out soon – as soon as this next book is off to my editor, I’ll be on it! Hope you are well, and that you’ve had a good start to 2021 (as good as possible, given the corona weirdness!). xx

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