The Next Stage: ‘Cobra Kai’: Miyagi’s Magic Is Missed

May 25, 2018 • Columnists, The Next Stage

By George Toshio Johnston

You may have noticed, what was old is new — and I’m not just referring to, say, hipsters who insist on feeding their musical appetites via vinyl LPs on turntables (What do those words mean, grandpa?) vs. downloaded or streaming content. Music on compact discs? Feh.

Hitting movie theaters now, for example, is Disney’s “Solo,” which revisits the “Star Wars” character Han Solo in the (light) years before meeting Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and so on, with a younger actor taking over that role from Harrison Ford.

On TV, there are revivals of long-defunct shows, examples of which include ABC’s “Roseanne,” NBC’s “Will & Grace” and Fox’s “The X-Files.” Those shows include original cast members (no doubt happy for a steady paycheck) and have met with varying levels of success.

In the reboot subcategory, there’s CBS’ upcoming “Magnum P.I.,” the first “reimagined” episode of which is directed by the ever-slick Justin Lin, with Jay Hernandez playing private investigator Thomas Magnum, a role originally played in the 1980s by Tom Selleck, who, bringing it back to Harrison Ford, had been considered to play Indiana Jones in the 1982 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” but couldn’t due to his TV obligations.

There’s another subcategory in which a defunct legacy TV show gets remade with different actors slipping into the shoes of the property’s characters. The best examples might be Paramount’s recent “Star Trek” movies and the fan-created “Star Trek Continues.” I’m lukewarm on the big-screen versions but in the latter, fan actors of the original 1960s series took over the roles of Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Lts. Uhura and Sulu, Mr. Scott (played by James Doohan’s son) and Ensign Chekhov.

Not only that, this dedicated group re-created not just the sets and costumes, but more importantly the spirit of the original’s exploration of larger social themes and issues via the medium of science fiction. (Rights holder Paramount Pictures wisely gave the team behind “Star Trek Continues” permission to produce it as long as they didn’t make a profit.)

You might think it’d be really bad — but “Star Trek Continues” proved to be surprisingly good — maybe because I wasn’t expecting too much.

Also on YouTube — or to be more precise, YouTube Red (the $10/month subscription version) — is a show that could also be considered a resurrection: “Cobra Kai,” which debuted for streaming and binge-watching on May 2. (FYI, I signed up for the 30-day free trial to watch this. I intend to cancel it since I don’t need another streaming subscription.)

YouTube Red, which wants to enter the rarified realm of streaming TV leaders Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, footed the bill to produce 10 under-30 minute episodes of “Cobra Kai,” which explores the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist from 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” by far the first (and best) of a Columbia Pictures movie franchise that begat more three more installments, a TV cartoon version and one reboot in 2010 starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith) that was co-produced by Overbrook Entertainment, Jaden’s dad’s company.

One thing I wondered about was why IP rights holder and Columbia Pictures owner Sony Pictures Entertainment didn’t try to put “Cobra Kai” on its Crackle streaming service. My guess would be that YouTube Red (and Google) parent Alphabet coughed up a bunch of money to get this made.

Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita from 1984’s “The Karate Kid.”

As it turns out — and deservedly so — the original “Karate Kid” has a huge, multigenerational fan base. It was written by Robert Mark Kamen (“The Transporter,” “Taken”), directed by John Avildsen (“Rocky”) and produced by Jerry Weintraub (“Ocean’s Eleven”). It starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita and made them into huge stars.

The 1984 movie involved a teenage boy (and his mom) who moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. It was a combination “new kid in town/fish out of water/underdog” tale in which that boy, Daniel LaRusso, becomes the target of bullies, led by Johnny Lawrence, who also happens to the No. 1 student at the Cobra Kai, a karate dōjō led by a sociopathic ex-Green Beret named John Kreese.

LaRusso makes the understandable mistake of flirting with winsome Valley Girl Ali Mills, Lawrence’s ex-girlfriend, who returns his attention, which puts LaRusso on Lawrence’s enemy list — and, as taught by Kreese, an enemy deserves no mercy. For LaRusso, his new high school is of the hard knocks variety, as several beat downs, courtesy of the empty hands of the Cobra Kai, ensue.

In his darkest hour of teenage despair, LaRusso finds a literal savior in a man named Mr. Miyagi, who is the supervisor at the rundown Reseda apartment where the LaRussos have landed. Mr. Miyagi may not be too good at keeping the apartment’s pool clean and filled with water, but he knows a lot about something else: karate.

To sum up the rest of the movie, Miyagi agrees to teach LaRusso karate to stave off the bullying and in a climactic scene, he wins the All Valley Karate Tournament championship, beating his nemesis, one Johnny Lawrence.

William Zabka and Ralph Macchio square off at the All Valley Karate Tournament in 1984‘s “The Karate Kid.”

While that ending was crowd-pleaser, what really made the heart of “The Karate Kid” beat was the relationship between LaRusso — who was being raised by a single mom — and Mr. Miyagi, who lived alone and had neither wife nor child. Miyagi and LaRusso developed a father-son relationship that seemed genuine because of the onscreen chemistry between Morita and Macchio.

Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) puts a drunken Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) to bed. LaRusso’s hand partially obscures the patch worn by members of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.

What sealed that relationship was a scene in which Daniel-san, as Mr. Miyagi referred to LaRusso, visits his sensei to find him in a state he’s never seen him before: wearing an Army uniform and drunk. Daniel and the audience learn that Miyagi had been married and that his wife and son died due to “complications at birth” while incarcerated at Manzanar. The kicker to the scene: Having put the passed-out Miyagi to bed, LaRusso discovers that his sensei had been awarded the Medal of Honor as a member of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, hinting at a compelling backstory for this humble man who wants to spend the rest of his days in peace.

The original turned out to be a huge box-office hit and was bigger in the in the home-video market, when VHS tapes ruled.

Daniel-san is awestruck upon learning his sensei was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The unexpected success of “The Karate Kid” begat “The Karate Kid Part II,” “The Karate Kid Part III” and “The Next Karate Kid.” While “Part II” had its charms, such as having Daniel and Miyagi visit Okinawa (with Hawaii standing in) and introducing audiences to Tamlyn Tomita and Yuji Okumoto, it also undercut that aforementioned scene from the first movie by introducing a love interest from Miyagi’s youth, played by Nobu McCarthy, as well as Miyagi’s own version of Johnny Lawrence, Sato, played by Danny Kamekona.

No offense to the late Nobu McCarthy’s character — but Miyagi’s deceased wife is conveniently forgotten, cheapening the scene that garnered Morita a best-supporting actor Oscar nomination.

1989’s “Karate Kid Part III” was the nadir of the series and should have been the end — and it was, for Macchio, who wisely chose to leave the headband and white pajamas behind. With the possibility of some money still left to squeeze out of the franchise, however, Columbia’s distaff “The Next Karate Kid” in 1994, with Hillary Swank becoming Miyagi’s new student.

(It’s a bad sign when a successful movie franchise decides to take the original premise and “refresh” it by just changing genders. It happened a few years back with the “Ghostbusters” reboot and may happen again with the upcoming “Ocean’s 8.” To me, the gold standard for a successful sequel is “Aliens.” The original “Alien” was a horror movie — but audiences that made it to the end without losing their lunches knew what the scary creature looked like. Doing a sequel as a horror film would have been dumb. Proving why he’s a genius, James Cameron wisely chose to switch genres, making “Aliens” a war movie.)

If there was one common denominator in the first four “Karate Kid” movies, it was Pat Morita, who breathed live into Mr. Miyagi. But when Morita died in 2005, Miyagi died, too, and “Cobra Kai” is poorer for it. (Original “Karate Kid” team members who have also died include Weintraub in 2015 and Avildsen in 2017.)

Which brings us to “Cobra Kai.”

First off, it’s not horrible and most reviews I’ve come across are generally positive. The acting is good and the young cast is strong. Also, it’s buoyed by a “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” approach. But it does have some problems.

The main conceit is 34 years after that All Valley Karate Tournament, Johnny Lawrence is mentally and emotionally freeze-framed (to use an ’80s VHS term) to the day LaRusso beat him. As a result, his life is a shambles. You might even say his seemingly charmed life ended that day.

LaRusso, meantime, is no longer anyone’s punching bag and owns a successful car dealership and seems to be living the American Dream: wealth, success, respect, a nice house, a beautiful wife and an adorable teenage daughter, with LaRusso’s spoiled and not-very-bright son the only sore spot on an otherwise great life. He uses his All Valley Championship to goose car sales and while he misses his teacher, what can you do when the actor who played Miyagi has left for the great dōjō in the sky?

Without going into the “why” and “how” (sorry, you’ll have to watch it for yourself), Lawrence decides to reopen the Cobra Kai dōjō, much to the consternation of LaRusso. Hard to believe, but until this show, these Valley denizens have not crossed paths since the mid-1980s. No high school reunions? No bumping into each other in line for an Orange Julius at the mall? Really?

Then there are the soap operatic subplots involving Lawrence’s top Cobra Kai student, LaRusso’s daughter, Lawrence’s estranged son, the latest All Valley Tournament, cyberbullying — and, of course, the revived drama between LaRusso and Lawrence. Yes, in the words of that song used in the original movie, “history repeats itself” and the decades-old rivalry between these two men with daddy issues in their 50s begins anew!

History repeats itself as Johnny Lawrence (Billy Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) cross paths more than three decades after fighting in the All Valley Karate Tournament in YouTube Red’s “Cobra Kai.”

What’s good about “Cobra Kai” is William Zabka, reprising his role as Johnny Lawrence, who only appeared in the original and in a scene from the beginning of the second movie that was actually shot during production of the first movie. He is definitely a trooper and you get tell he enjoys playing a real Richard. Being the bad guy is always more fun, right? Also good: seeing Randee Heller, who played Daniel’s mom in the original and was written out of the series, make a return appearance as Daniel’s mom. (And for those wondering, present-day Elisabeth Shue [Ali Mills] is MIA except for old footage and photos.)

Not So Good: Johnny Lawrence as a “stuck in the ’80s” semi-loser. This is the crux to this series, but I have difficulty buying it. The scene used at the beginning of “The Karate Kid Part II” shows Johnny finally realizing that he’s been duped by his psycho sensei and rejecting him. For that, Kreese begins choking him (and fighting off the other Cobra Kai boys) until Miyagi comes along to show him what’s what.

To my mind, this incident would have changed Lawrence, with him re-examining everything he was taught and what he stood for, setting him on a path of eventually doing good for others instead of continuing being an entitled and privileged rich kid. No way Lawrence would have sunk to the depths we see him at in “Cobra Kai”; he may be a borderline alcoholic but he’s in too good shape physically for me to suspend my disbelief.

As for Macchio reprising his role as LaRusso, he’s appealing as ever, but the present-day LaRusso is seems a bit lost, despite having overcome his modest origins to become a successful businessman. It would have been more satisfying to learn he had some sort of inner demon he was fighting or if he had something more angst-worthy than his spoiled son or his former tormentor showing up again.

And, at the risk of sounding like a prude (which anyone who knows me would know I’m not), I found the funny bits to be callow — but that’s to be expected since two of the three behind-the-scenes executive producer and writers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, have on their résumés the “Harold and Kumar” movies, as well as the recent “Blockers,” which definitely revel in potty humor. It seemed out of place in the established milieu.

Another thing that bugged me was the showdown between LaRusso’s student and Lawrence’s student at the 50th annual All Valley Karate Tournament. These kids have been at it for just a few months, but they’re black belts? (In the first movie, the rule was you had to have earned a black belt to enter, which leads to Mr. Miyagi swiping one from a gym bag for Daniel.)

End of the day, it’s a fun ride if you take it for what it is, something not too serious and an unasked for gift to “Karate Kid” fans still nostalgic for Daniel-san and that world.

What “Cobra Kai” really needs, however, is something it can’t have: Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi. As mentioned, only Morita was in all four of the original movies. Not only was the connective tissue, he was the heart and soul of the franchise, by far the most-interesting character in the “Karate Kid” universe. Having known and worked with Pat, he once told me: No Morita, no Miyagi. No Miyagi, no “Karate Kid.” I guess that’s why they called it “Cobra Kai.”

Speculating here, but if Pat Morita was alive now and had the chance to be in it, he would have definitely jumped, since he really wasn’t known for turning down a paying gig. But with Weintraub gone, he would have been the adult in the room and the keeper of the flame for the franchise, and might have steered the humor to be more palatable to broad audiences, especially since as a former standup comedian, Morita knew a thing or two about how to deliver the funny. Regardless, “Cobra Kai” is now part of the “Karate Kid” canon.

As mentioned, I knew Pat and we collaborated on something years before “Cobra Kai,” a sequel and a prequel that updated the relationship between Miyagi and LaRusso, but also, more importantly, told in detail the backstory hinted at in the “drunk scene” from the first movie: how and why did Miyagi leave Okinawa for Hawaii, where he met his future wife in a sugar cane field, how they ended up in California, how they were incarcerated along with thousands of other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and how, improbably, Miyagi joined the 100th Battalion/442 Regimental Combat Team and won the Medal of Honor as his wife and child died.

It was one of the last projects that Pat wanted to have made — but then he died Nov. 24, 2005 and our hopes of having that screenplay made into a movie ended.

With the success of “Cobra Kai” — its reported streaming performance has been phenomenal and YouTube Red has ordered a second season — I’m going to post a link to that script for anyone interested to read it. Go to tinyurl.com/y8gnrvl5. Another link featuring the voice of Pat Morita himself that you can download and listen to: tinyurl.com/yc3ke3b4.

The script is a different take, for sure, but I’d love to hear what people think of it. In the meantime, if you didn’t already do so, you could try that free 30-day YouTube Red trial and see what the fuss for “Cobra Kai” is all about.

Also on YouTube, there is a one-hour and 13-minute long video of a panel discussion, sponsored by the Japanese American National Museum, on the 30th anniversary of “The Karate Kid” back in 2014, that features Macchio, Avildsen, Zabka, Martin Kove (Kreese) and Aly Morita, Pat’s daughter. The link is tinyurl.com/y7sm68l3.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

(George Toshio Johnston can be reached at george@kubasaki.net. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of any organization or business. Copyright © 2018 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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