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Netflix's 'Cobra Kai': A Tale of Karate and Redemption

January 20, 2021 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at TV or movies adapted from other works.

Cobra Kai, a Netflix series created by Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, based on the characters created by Robert Mark Kamen from the original Karate Kid film trilogy. (SPOILER WARNING! If you haven't finished Season 3, leave now.)

NOTE: I wrote this blog prior to watching the final episode of season three where Ali (Elisabeth Shue) hints in an early scene what the underlying theme of the series is, in what industry insiders refer to as an “obligatory scene.”

The third season of Cobra Kai sets the tone through the backstory of Cobra Kai karate-dojo founder John Kreese (Martin Kove). He's working at a diner during the the 1960s, when a student struts in wearing a USC (University of Southern California) letterman jacket, boasting that “it’s Notre Dame’s turn for a butt-kicking next week.” His girlfriend-in-arm asks why he had to run up the score against Stanford.

The quickest of Google searches yields in 1965, the Trojans ran up the score against the Cardinals, but the student's prediction proved wrong in a 28-7 humbling by the Irish in South Bend the following week.

The pop-culture reference shows the producers' attention to detail. It also reveals their insight into human nature and nuanced characterization: each person populating the Cobra Kai universe vacillates between good choices and bad ones.

Having graduated from both Notre Dame and USC, I see the rivalry from an objective and, dare I say, more omniscient perspective. Where an alumnus of one of the universities might only think the best of his alma mater and the worst of his rival, I know each private school to be more like foils of each other, equally capable of both inspiring and disappointing.

The true brilliance of the show, then, follows this trajectory over a decades-long arc and blurs fiction with real life. Watching the original Karate Kid movie with my mother and older sister in 1984, my most lasting impression was minor character Tommy -- his rictus grin, his cowardly ducking behind stronger friends, and his whiny voice taunting the hobbled Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) with the infamous line, “Yeah, put him in a body bag.”

At that young age, if seeing him on the street, I would have had trouble separating the character from the real-life actor, Rob Garrison, as the performance was so visceral to many in-the-flesh bullies.

Thirty-four years later, the same character who drew such ire now evokes sympathy. In the second season, main character Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) joins up with former high-school buds for a road trip.

Upon catching up at a bar, the original Cobra Kai dojo alumni show maturity, most notably the always likable Bobby (Ron Thomas), who followed a calling into Christian ministry. Tommy grew up, too, and enjoyed life’s successes, but now faces a losing battle with terminal cancer.

By episode’s end, EMTs ironically zip him up in a body bag. In between the filming of seasons, life unfortunately imitated art as actor Garrison succumbed to cancer at the age of 59.

The person I once rooted against in a fictional movie, I found myself offering a little prayer for in real life as his tribute played after the end credits. “Cobra Kais Never Die” reads the epitaph, suggesting, perhaps, even the most serpentine among us are not beyond God’s redeeming work.


Image: Netflix

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