**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!
Anyone 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!