Let’s be honest: bad guys are way cooler and more interesting than good guys. Luke Skywalker is blandly wholesome. But Darth Vader? Cool. The Joker? Interesting. And now you can add Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) to the bad guy list. Have you forgotten him? Johnny was the antagonist in 1984’s The Karate Kid, and he’s back to make Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio) life difficult in Cobra Kai.
When we first see Johnny, he’s a maintenance guy marinating in a well of self-pity. He drinks too much. He eats garbage. Where once he had the money and LaRusso lived in a motel, now Johnny’s the one in the motel and Daniel LaRusso owns the most successful car dealership in town. Late one night he gets in a fight with some high school bullies and it turns out he still has the moves from his days as the star student at Cobra Kai.
At the insistence of Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), the bullies’ original target, Johnny agrees to start teaching karate as he learned it: strike first, strike hard, no mercy. So yes, he’s the anti-Mr. Miyagi. But getting involved in the life of a high school student puts him back in the orbit of Daniel, who has a high school-aged daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser).
Cobra Kai moves its focus around the different characters, as Daniel struggles to be a good father, businessman, and sensei; Miguel and Samantha navigate high school drama; and Johnny confronts his past mistakes and inner demons.
While the ethics in the original movie are fairly black and white, Cobra Kai deals in shades of gray. Even as they clash, it seems that Johnny is often on the verge of a moral breakthrough just as often as Daniel crosses moral lines. While the characters inevitably go back to their respective corners before the next round, it’s debatable if there are any heroes here or just broken human beings.
The internal struggle between right and wrong is familiar to all of us. Even the Apostle Paul wrote about doing things he hates and not doing what he knows is good (Rom. 7:15-20). While the heavy drama sometimes takes Cobra Kai into the territory of the teen soap opera, it generally gives us a world that is nuanced and real.
A complicated show for those with fond memories of the movie, it is not a show for the adolescent target audience of The Karate Kid, so those expecting more of the same should be forewarned. Villains lead messy, profane, and ugly lives, and what we find here is that we all have a little bit of the villain in us.
Maybe that’s why we tend to find bad guys more interesting. While we’ll never be as cool as Darth Vader, or as wholesome as Luke Skywalker, or as interesting as the Joker, anyone can find him or herself as broken as Johnny Lawrence or as lost as Daniel LaRusso. (Netflix)