For Ralph Macchio, returning to the part of Daniel LaRusso — the part he played in three Karate Kid movies from 1984–1989 — was not an easy decision. He even turned down opportunities to return to the role following the release of 1989’s The Karate Kid Part III. But with YouTube Red’s new Cobra Kai series (now Fresh at 100% on the Tomatometer), he finally picks up Daniel’s story some 30 years later. Key to his decision to return was the new streaming series format.
“You can tell these stories like long movies just broken up into say 10 parts,” he recently told Rotten Tomatoes. “In our case, it’s a great narrative way to not have to compete with Iron Man, Batman, and Star Wars.”
As those film franchises are predicated, to some extent, on the nostalgia factor, Macchio noted the interest in 1980s nostalgia also became a factor in coming back.
“If you can do it in a way that is relevant for today and bring in that young audience, as well as the nostalgia, I think you can have a win-win,” he explained.
The series, which sees Daniel running a string of successful car dealerships in the San Fernando Valley while old nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) reopens the Cobra Kai dojo, balances the nostalgia with a new set of younger characters, a plan devised by executive producers Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald.
“They had really fresh, passionate, unique, and well-thought-out take on it,” Macchio said.
Zabka, whose Johnny Lawrence hits a run of bad luck as the series begins, said that both he and Macchio felt protective of the characters they played in the original film and wanted to make sure Cobra Kai felt “like a true continuation of that story.”
“They pitched the show to me and it sounded awesome, the way they were going to approach it,” Zabka said. “They assured me all along the way of what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. They’re huge fans of the franchise, and they’re extremely talented. I trusted them, and they delivered.”
Macchio added: “They were the guys that were the kids in the movie theater in the ’80s, that saw this movie a zillion times, and watched it on VHS til it wore out. It just seemed in the right hands. I thought it was a smart and fresh angle into the world.”
— Cobra Kai (@CobraKaiSeries) April 21, 2018
Part of that fresh angle was finding Daniel not only successful, but living in an affluent part of the Valley economically far from Reseda and facing mid-life issues Daniel never would’ve dreamed about in the ’80s. Macchio said he smiled when the executive producers first pitched the idea to him. Running the car dealerships, in particular, seemed like a natural extension of waxing Mr. Miyagi’s classic car collection in the original film. Daniel also received a beautiful 1947 Ford convertible from Miyagi for his 16th birthday, so to Macchio, “it wasn’t so out of the realm of possibility that maybe a successful auto dealership might be a place that he would wind up.”
Meanwhile, Johnny finds himself 30 years on living in an apartment very similar to Daniel’s in The Karate Kid and working as a freelance contractor and handyman — a mirror of the occupation Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) held in the original film. But unlike the seeming contentment that work brought Miyagi, Johnny faces a number of other issues from rough clients, a broken family, and his own spiraling sense of self-worth. And though it seems Johnny blames a lot of his problems on losing the 1984 All-Valley tournament, Zabka believes the character is not stuck in a high-school mindset.
“The tournament is not the theme of his life, it’s just one thorn in his side that altered his course, and there are many other complications and details going on around it,” he explained. “He’s dealing with adult issues, but he’s resisted change for sure.”
Johnny Lawrence here, and it’s time I took the wheel. Follow along as I tell you what it takes to be a badass sensei and share your own badass moments using #BadassTakeover. pic.twitter.com/l66wPKyEbk
— Cobra Kai (@CobraKaiSeries) April 23, 2018
Part of that resistance is listening to old tunes while cruising the Valley in a vintage — if somewhat disheveled — 1980s Camero.
“He’s an analog man in a digital world,” he continued. “There’s something refreshing about a time when everybody wasn’t on their ‘iComputers,’ as Johnny calls them, and we weren’t so connected. There’s a little bit of autonomy that Johnny’s preserved.”
Though he admitted that Johnny is somewhat stuck in his ways, he thought it was “refreshing” to play someone whose maintained that sense of self across the coming of the Internet and social media.
And as Johnny holds onto that analog sensibility, it eventually leads him to reopen Cobra Kai and revisit the lessons he learned from John Creese (Martin Kove). While it quickly gives him a renewed purpose, it sets Daniel’s world “off its axis,” according to Macchio.
“It’s kind of like walking into the Death Star,” Macchio said of the moment in the Rotten Tomatoes TV sneak peek above when Daniel walks into the new dojo. “He just remembers taking a beating his whole adolescence and what that form of karate is, versus what he has learned through Mr. Miyagi.”
Despite overcoming those challenges and facing opponents like Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) in The Karate Kid Part II and Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) in The Karate Kid Part III, Macchio said Daniel makes a startling discovery about Cobra Kai: “It is the kryptonite for Daniel LaRusso.”
The fact that the two characters would reconnect 30 years later and immediately resume a rivalry both thought long buried was always part of the pitch for Cobra Kai.
“Johnny doesn’t really work without Daniel in this universe,” Zabka explained. “Really, Daniel doesn’t work without Johnny. If he didn’t run into Johnny, who knows what he’d be doing? He’d be working with his mom at the restaurant.
“Both of these people affected each other’s lives, positively or negatively,” he continued. “Like it or not, there are events that happen in our lives that affect us and alter our course.”
And in this latest alteration of their shared course, it no longer clear who the hero might be.
“They’re dual protagonists and dual antagonists,” Macchio said, “which is kind of refreshing and challenging.”
Added Zabka: “I think this show gets really, really layered and leveled, in the humanity of [Johnny] and all the characters. What’s really amazing is that [The Karate Kid] has breathed so much and kind of evolved that a show like this could be made and we could explore another side of it.”
Zabka firmly believes the series will reshape the way people perceive The Karate Kid and the conflict between Johnny and Daniel. At the same time, he also thinks a new viewer could come fresh to the show and find things to enjoy.
“If you’re not a Karate Kid fan, if you’ve never seen the movie, you’re going to love Cobra Kai regardless.”
Macchio agreed. While the early episodes reestablish the rivalry between Daniel and Johnny, the series will give Daniel’s kids and Johnny’s students plenty of focus.
“It really blossoms and becomes a world of relevance for how bullying is dealt with in 2018,” Macchio explained.
Though that theme of bullying was a big part of The Karate Kid films, Cobra Kai will talk about the way it becomes a more complex issue with the arrival of social media.
“Daniel LaRusso would come home with a black eye, you knew what was going on,” Macchio said. “When [his daughter] Samantha maybe comes home, or [Johnny’s student] Miguel or some of these other characters that you’ll see, you can’t quite tell what’s going on because you can’t see it. We deal with that in a subversive way.”
The series will also continue to use the world of the original films as a place to draw from, though neither Macchio nor Zabka would say if Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), the main villain of The Karate Kid Part III and apparent owner of the Cobra Kai name, will ever come to the Valley and deal with Johnny.
“There’s a groundswell of that even on Twitter right now,” Macchio said. “People are asking ‘Is Terry Silver coming back?’ This is great stuff, because we have so many places to draw from and revisit story. Hopefully we’ll be doing this for seasons to come.”
“That’s a way to go,” added Zabka. “There are many ways to go with it, and we shall see.”
Cobra Kai is now streaming on YouTube Red.