'Cobra Kai' revisits 'Karate Kid' on YouTube Red

ATLANTA -- "The Karate Kid" was an iconic 1980s film, right up there with "The Breakfast Club," "Dirty Dancing" and "Top Gun." It had multiple sequels and a revamped film version starring Will Smith's son in 2010. Phrases from the film permeate pop culture to this day: "Wax on, wax off." "Sweep the leg." "No mercy!"

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Rodney Ho
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- "The Karate Kid" was an iconic 1980s film, right up there with "The Breakfast Club," "Dirty Dancing" and "Top Gun." It had multiple sequels and a revamped film version starring Will Smith's son in 2010. Phrases from the film permeate pop culture to this day: "Wax on, wax off." "Sweep the leg." "No mercy!"

And for Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) and William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence), "The Karate Kid" has both haunted them and rewarded them for decades. Over time, they have embraced it as well.

But to bring them back together as Daniel and Johnny? It took a trio of true fans with the right script to bring YouTube Red's "Cobra Kai" to life. (The show debuted Wednesday. The first two episodes will be free on YouTube.)

"We dive into the belly of the whale," Zabka said. "We're playing the actual characters. This isn't a spoof or homage."

The series opens with Lawrence, whose life peaked in high school and has spiraled into a sad, middle-aged existence. Lawrence, divorced and single, resides in a dingy apartment, cleaning gutters and septic tanks for a living and still uses a flip phone. His estranged son calls him a "pathetic loser."

He experiences a couple of truly crappy days while LaRusso's "kicking it'" car dealership ads are like perpetual salt in his wounds. Ultimately, Lawrence runs into LaRusso himself, whose very existence belatedly inspires the former karate champion to open his own Cobra Kai dojo.

While set in the same Van Nuys/Encino neighborhoods in Los Angeles as the original film, the first season was actually shot in metro Atlanta with just a few exteriors in L.A..

Just a few days before Halloween last year, the Adamsville Recreation Center in Atlanta was masquerading as fictional West Valley High School hosting a Halloween party in the gym for the third episode of "Cobra Kai." Zabka, wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt, has brought his two kids and wife along to the set. He was relaxed and cheery but when the cameras began to roll, he immediately receded into the darkly intense Lawrence.

"He's very raw when we meet him," Zabka said in an interview, of playing Johnny in his early 50s. "He's had a difficult go at life. In the film, he was 18 and on his motorcycle. He said he needed that one year to make it work. It didn't. He still thinks that way."

During the scene, he is promoting his new dojo by placing flyers up in the high school hallway when LaRusso runs into him.

"What do you think you're doing?" LaRusso says during a run-through rehearsal.

"Promoting my business," Lawrence sneers. "Why don't you try minding yours?"

"Minding mine? LaRusso says. "This is ridiculous, right? We can be adults here. I just don't know why you want to bring Cobra Kai back after what your sensei did to you."

"I'm not Kreese. Lessons learned," Lawrence said.

LaRusso: "Strike first. No mercy. Really great lessons. You think I'm going to let you fill these kids with that garbage? You're nuts!"

"Is that why you're following me around?" Lawrence said, thrilled that he's got LaRusso riled.

LaRusso indeed looks flustered. "I'm not following you. I'm here. Just get off school property. You can't be here!"

They stop the scene and Macchio ad-libs, "You're in my head Johnny Lawrence!" The crew laughs. A rivalry is reborn!

In real life, Macchio and Zabka have remained friends over the decades, doing a mock music video in 2007 -- "Sweep the Leg" -- and playing jokey versions of themselves on CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" a few years later.

The early episodes of "Cobra Kai" use plenty of flashback moments from the original film to add flavor to the occasion for both characters.

Zabka really appreciates how the executive producers allow the characters to "burn out slow and breath easier than you can in a motion picture."

Bullying -- a major theme of the 1984 film -- continues in 2018 as well in multiple ways. Lawrence teaches a young man at his apartment complex to fight back against bullies using his Cobra Kai methodology. And LaRusso's 16-year-old daughter is unknowingly dating a bully while seeing her former best friend get cyber-bullied by a mean girl.

The producers -- whose credits including "Harold & Kumar" and "Hot Tub Time Machine" -- also maintain much of heart and spirit of the original film while injecting a kick of their signature humor.

During the second episode, Lawrence is teaching bullied teen Miguel Diaz (Xolo Mariduena) his karate philosophy and without warning slams him to the ground. Lawrence is the "Bizarro Mr. Miyagi," as executive producer Jon Hurwitz describes him. "He's not 'Bad Santa.' He's 'Bad Sensei.'"

"Mercy is for the weak!" Lawrence intones as the poor kid pumps his asthma inhaler. And when Miguel asks him if he wants him to clean the windows a particular way, Lawrence says off-handedly, "No. I don't give a s---. Whatever's easiest!"

For the executive producers, all Jersey boys in their early 40s, creating "Cobra Kai" is a dream come true since all of them worshiped the movie as children. They had this idea to bring back the characters and in August 2016 pitched it to Caleeb Pinkett, senior vice president of Overbrook Entertainment, Will Smith's production company, which owned the rights to the "Karate Kid" franchise.

It was kismet, said Hurwitz. "Immediately, it was clear," he said. "He loved the films as much as we did."

"He got it," added Josh Heald. "He celebrated it. We had a kinship. We were quoting the movie to each other, even minor obscure characters from the third movie."

They then had to sell Zabka (who was easy) and Macchio (not so easy.) "This franchise is sacred to Ralph and we are known for stoner comedies and hot tub comedies," said Hayden Schlossberg.

"We had to earn his trust," Heald said. "We felt that our take fit well within the 'Karate Kid' universe and landscape."

Macchio, in an on-set interview, admits he's been pitched many times on "Karate Kid" revivals, often centered around LaRusso becoming a sensei to his own son. He has said no. But he bought into this vision.

"It's all about execution and writing and time," Macchio said. "This is like a five-hour movie cut into 10 parts. This role represented a meaningful slice of childhood and an inspirational character. It's important to me we don't trivialize it."



"Cobra Kai"" 10 episodes available for YouTube Red subscribers, with the first two episodes free.

Rodney Ho writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: rho(at)ajc.com.

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