September 7, 2020

Waxing lyrical about Cobra Kai: a reality kick to the face for X-Gens

Where are they now? X-Gens once trawled their old yearbooks wondering what their class mates were up to, and asking themselves, “Did I ever look that young?”

Now of course, X-Gens just cut to the chase and stalk their old classmates on Facebook, ramping up the creepy and dialling down the mystery. Fatter, older, balder. Next!

Welcome to Cobra Kai – not so much a reboot of the 1984 cultural icon The Karate Kid as a boot to the face of our illusions about where we might end up some three or more decades later.

This is definitely one for the “peaked at high school” brigade, but also a sobering tale that not everything is as black and white as it seems in the movies, especially in the age of streaming services.

If you don’t know by now, Cobra Kai is the brainchild of several Hollywood X-Gens who wanted to know what happened to bad boy Johnny Lawrence in the years after his nemesis Daniel La Russo landed that crane kick to the face that ended his dominance in the All Valley karate scene.

The fact that both Ralph Macchio and Willam Zabka – the stars of the movie, reprise their roles (as well as being co-executive producers) makes it all the punchy. Actor Pat Morito – and hence sensei Mr Miyagi – may be dead, but the ghosts of the past won’t leave these two men alone. It’s interesting too that both men are older in real life than Morito was when the original was shot. Didn’t he seem like a hundred already? Say what you like about us X-Gens, but the men among us took to skin care products with a vengeance!

Cobra Kai – named after Johnny’s original karate dojo – or training centre – started live on Youtube Red with a steady audience and critical acclaim, before being bought out by Netflix, where the first two seasons are going gangbusters, and it’s close to 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s shot on the cheap and each episode is a mere half hour, but boy it can land a size ten in the solar plexus while making you laugh/wince with recognition at the same time.

We’ve got to stop meeting like this

You see I am of the Johnny Lawrence and Daniel La Russo cohort. In 1984 I was in Yr12, about to graduate high school, and graduate to a broken family life, and several aimless years figuring out what to do with it all.

I’m now the bloke who has less years in front of him than behind and keeps forgetting that fifteen years ago wasn’t 1995, but 2005. I’m the bloke who may have won his age category for a big race in Perth yesterday, but I’m also the blooke who copped a smack in the face – along with a set of broken glasses – when I arrived at the basketball a split second after my 12 year old son did. I thought I would get there first, but no! Time may fly, but gravity is pulling me down to earth.

The beauty of this series is that “the deserved good life” trajectory – the meritocracy that a movie such as The Karate Kid demands for its hero – arrives.

Almost. Almost but not quite. Sure, Daniel is successful and is married to a sassy wife (brilliantly and strongly played by Cortney Henggeler). Yet she is the sensei here. Shehas sharper emotional and verbal reflexes than he, and quietly, but firmly bails him out in his personal and business relationships. Sure he has a successful car dealership, but he’s trying to come across that bit too nice. And the cracks are showing up as lines on his face. I love the “almost” of the show. It’s where we 50-somethings are at!

Daniel’s struggling with his kids; a teenage daughter who in another world (an earlier movie perhaps?), would be perfect girlfriend material for him, but he can see the dangers lurking in her life due to her beauty and Instagram-esque influence. He frets about it. And his son? Well he’s almost given up on him. There’s a spectrum thing going on there for sure, and it exasperates him.

Daniel needs to find more life balance than a crane standing on one leg, but he has infinitely less energy and patience than his younger self. And of course his rivals are no longer comic book cardboard cut-outs, they’re selling cars – and very successfully too. The leverage of being All Valley karate champion is long gone (though not before a sweet scene where his roundhouse kick comes into brilliant comic “gotcha” effect).

And Johnny? Let’s just say The Dark Knight, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, and a touch of Mickey Rourke in the minor classic The Wrestler. In fact Cobra Kai focusses on Johnny this time, fleshing him out beyond his ghoulish skeleton suit in the original.

Life isn’t working out. Hasn’t worked out since the credits rolled back in 1984. Broken marriage, broken relationship with son. Broken sums up Johnny Lawrence, and he is struggling to keep a grip. Driving past La Russo’s car dealership billboard every day – all shiny teeth and karate references – just drives the point home. Somehow failure has followed Johnny. Or, not to put too fine a point on it – he has followed failure. Followed it down some pretty dark alleys of his own volition, and gotten a kicking in the process. Here’s a man in need of a quest.

Enter the bullied teen, rescued by a roundhouse to the face of the bully. Hey kid, if you want to protect yourself from the bully, you need to learn karate! And suddenly it’s 1984 all over again and suddenly I’ve got a chance to rescue you, and… oh wait a minute! Just who is being rescued here, you or me? This thing just got complicated. Johnny’s decision to revisit the past and put himself in the role of saviour doesn’t just open up the Cobra Kai dojo in a seedy strip mall, it opens up an intergenerational can of worms replete with cultural faux pas, and a sense that the world is leaving his type behind. As it inevitably does to all types.

And that’s all the spoilers you’re getting! Go watch the show, it’s a (black) belter.

As I put it through the culture and theological grinder, I reckon there’s something of Wisdom Literature about it all.

Proverbs: train a child in the way he should go.

Ecclesiastes: life is fleeting and misty, you might get what you put it, but you might not.

And yes, perhaps Job too: there’s a snake behind your suffering, but what it meant for evil might turn out for the good.

While I don’t think it set out with these intentions, Cobra Kai is turning into a middle-aged morality tale, and how -in a surprisingly way – two seemingly contrasting lives can turn out so similarly for two men at opposite ends of the social, financial and relational bell curve.

And that’s perhaps why X-Gens such as I are lapping it up. We were all Karate Kids back in the day when age and experience had not softened our paunches and our kick-backs. But for so many, age has softened us! And that can be a good thing too. Maybe not so black and white about everything. In the intervening years we discover villains often have something of the hero in them, and sadly, we have discovered that many heroes have something of the villain in them.

And a week out from my 53rd birthday, I realise that the fault-line of Johnny and Daniel runs through every human heart. And that’s why I’m waxing lyrical about it.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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