‘Cobra Kai’: Strike first. Strike hard. Come back for more.
By Alexis Soloski
In that first “Karate Kid” movie, the elbow strikes and flying kicks never really pummeled the actors or stuntmen on the receiving end, not even the controversial crane kick that won Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso the 1984 All-Valley Karate championship. The only blow that actually connected? The right hook that Elisabeth Shue’s high school junior, Ali Mills, throws during the country club scene.
“Right on the jaw,” William Zabka, who took the shot, said as Shue laughed in a neighboring Zoom window “She packs a real punch.”
So did the movie. A box office smash and a slumber party totem for teens and tweens of the 1980s and beyond, it birthed two immediate sequels, an animated series, a partial reboot starring Hilary Swank and a head-scratcher 2010 remake that shifted the action to China. That crane kick? It had legs.
In 2018, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (the Harold & Kumar movies) and Josh Heald (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), brought the franchise back to the mat with “Cobra Kai.”
A stealth hit for YouTube’s premium service, “Cobra Kai” visited Zabka’s onetime bully Johnny and Macchio’s Daniel in middle age, with Johnny a down-and-out-in-Reseda handyman and Daniel a successful car dealer. Instead of winking pastiche, the series presented surprisingly rich characters and themes — bullying, toxic masculinity, how past choices reverberate — plus some REO Speedwagon needle drops.
After Netflix made the first two seasons available in August, roughly 50 million households clicked play on Season 1 in the first four weeks, Netflix reported.
Each season revives more and more franchise characters, like the evil sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) and Johnny’s Cobra Kai mat pack. Ali has appeared occasionally in conversation. “Man, that girl was something,” Johnny says mistily in Season 1. The Season 2 cliffhanger? Ali’s Facebook friend request.
Finally, in the latter episodes of Season 3, which premiered Friday on Netflix, Shue’s Ali returns in person, in setups that gesture toward the Golf N’ Stuff and country club scenes from the film.
On a recent weekday, Macchio, Shue and Zabka met up again, this time via Zoom, to discuss their shared legacy and who really won that long-ago championship. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Let’s settle this: The crane kick in the 1984 tournament. Was it legal?
WILLIAM ZABKA: Technically, it was not legal. Am I right, Ralph? You’re not supposed to kick somebody in the head with no pads on in a real tournament.
RALPH MACCHIO: I would venture to not disagree with that. Although, if you play back the fight. I took one right here (gestures to the side of face) 2 points back. That was allowed.
ZABKA: I was given a warning!
MACCHIO: I didn’t get a warning. It was over.
ELISABETH SHUE: I heard it (the crane kick) was a made-up move. That it isn’t actually a karate move.
ZABKA: It is now. Lyoto Machida, he knocked somebody out with that. He’s a karate guy in the UFC.
MACCHIO: YouTube that and you’ll see. Guy walks right into it. But no one took as good of a hit as Mr. Zabka. Listen, if he didn’t take the hit brilliantly, the kick doesn’t work. So we both won.
Q: Elisabeth, did they ever let you do any karate?
SHUE: I did get to play a little bit of soccer. I got to do my back handspring. I tried to put a back handspring into almost every movie I was in in the ’80s. If you look at “Cocktail,” there’s one there, too. I actually did a back handspring and hit Tom (Cruise) in the face. Funny story. Chipped his tooth.
To be honest, back then I did feel like, “I want to be doing karate.” It was hard to not be in the middle of that storyline. But that would have been absurd.
Q: Or not.
SHUE: I got those punches in. That’s all that matters. As long as I punch a few people in the face and I can do a back handspring, I’m good.
Q: That first movie really holds up while so many ’80s teen movies don’t. Why?
MACCHIO: There’s so much pop culture that surrounds “The Karate Kid”: “Sweep the leg” or catching flies with chopsticks or “Get him a body bag.” That’s all fun and great and adds to the legacy, but the film worked on a human level. Those elements of mentorship, bullying, single parenting — these are all elements that stand the test of time.
ZABKA: You can watch the movie again from the beginning, knowing exactly how it’s going end. You’ve seen this crane kick a million times, and you’ll still be sucked into the moment. That’s (director) John Avildsen. And Robert Kamen, who wrote it. We were lucky enough to get to play those characters. The rest is magic.
Q: The movie became a huge hit. How much did that determine the arcs of your careers?
MACCHIO: It affected me in the most profound and positive way, and now I’m reaping the rewards and benefits and privileges of that role. But our town is so tunnel vision-y. By the time “My Cousin Vinny” came around, it was a big challenge. I could not get in the room. And then I did, and I got that part on the drive home. But that’s just part of it, man. I chose to always be creative and during those lean years in the ’90s, to be there for my kids. So it kind of worked out perfectly.
ZABKA: I was the guy that took that crane kick. You get typecast. You know, “You served up taking the fall, do it in this one and be a bigger jerk.” I had a lot of those come my way. Then I got into filmmaking and made a short film. So it’s all a blessing, and here we are in “Cobra Kai” and it’s all come full circle. I get to play the character that launched all this and turn him inside out and rip him apart and dissect him and put his heart out for the world, and that’s just a thrill.
SHUE: I had a definite up-and-down journey, just like these guys, coming to terms with how I was birthed into the business as a “girlfriend.” One of the reasons I wasn’t in “Karate Kid II” is I was actually in school. Going back to school was my way of saying, “I’m not going to be defined by this business.” All three of us had this amazingly successful movie and then had to really claim our lives and push ourselves to find the parts that were more complicated, that would challenge us, so we wouldn’t be defined by this one film. I’m really proud of that.
Q: How did it feel to be back together at Golf N’ Stuff and in a replica of that same country club?
SHUE: I loved it. Ralph and I were talking about how emotional it was to reconnect to this innocent place in your life, and to realize the impact that these actors and this world has had on your life.
MACCHIO: There’s been that through the entire series for me. With Billy, standing in our first scene together. In the scenes with Mary (Mouser), who plays my daughter, talking about Mr. Miyagi (Daniel’s fatherly sensei in the films, played by Pat Morita in an Oscar-nominated performance). This thing has lived with the three of us. We’re all connected to this universe.