But he just couldn’t shake The Karate Kid. And neither, it seems, could its legion of fans, who began to conjure up alternative histories of the film: What if Danny wasn’t the hero? What if Danny was the villain who bullied the rich, floppy-haired Johnny Lawrence (played by William Zabka), from the Cobra Kai dojo? What if everything you ever knew about The Karate Kid was wrong?
The fan theory became so popular that writers and Karate Kid obsessives Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg pitched a show that was centred on Lawrence’s point of view, where the rich bad boy was now a fiftysomething wastrel still tormented by the All Valley loss, while LaRusso was a successful car salesman who boasts “we kick the competition”. The two reconnect when Lawrence decides to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo and LaRusso tries to stop him.
The rest is history. The first two seasons of Cobra Kai appeared on YouTube Red in 2018 and 2019, but it wasn’t until Netflix scooped it up and it premiered on the streaming service in September last year that, to use a phrase popular in the show, Cobra Kai struck hard. It shot to the top of the Netflix rankings in the US, as well as in Australia and the UK.
The wax was back on, so to speak. So why did Macchio run back to what he had been trying to escape? Well, for that we have to look to another ’80s champ: Rocky Balboa.
“For 30 years, I heard many, many ideas,” he says. “And they were all short-sighted, either one joke ideas or big eye rolls. And then after Pat Morita passed away [in 2005], we lost that component of going back to LaRusso’s life, there was never a tie-in that made sense.
“When [Heald, Hurwitz and Schlossberg] brought this to me, I’m pretty sure I was the last one to come to the party, because I was the most resistant. Because the show is Cobra Kai, it sees the world through the eyes of Johnny Lawrence, at least at the onset.
“[Rocky spin-off] Creed had just been released, probably about six or eight months before then. And that was sort of a glimpse into how to take a franchise like Rocky and come in from another perspective. You’re not making Rocky VII, you’re making Creed. And Rocky Balboa then finds his way in that world of where he fits.”
Now 59, and still ridiculously baby-faced, Macchio says the success of Cobra Kai has “exceeded all expectations” and he’s right. So much of Cobra Kai shouldn’t work – LaRusso is a smug git, Lawrence is a charismatic mess stuck in the ’80s and REO Speedwagon is unironically on the soundtrack – but somehow it does. In my first sitting, I inhaled five episodes in a row, giggling at the old film clips, another sensible school teacher friend admitted to watching it “embarrassingly fast”, and then a very chic journalist friend in Paris said she had a crush on Zabka.
What was going on? Do we all just want to be 10 years old again?
“I call it comfort food,” says Macchio. “It’s the best dish your grandmother ever made that reminded you of a simpler time. And in the case of Cobra Kai, I hear that a lot from the original fans who saw the movie in the ’80s, or watched it on television in the ’90s or in the early 2000s. They feel that slice of nostalgia. That’s the best apple pie ever, you know?
“But also, as far as the stories and characters go, we’re good. They struck a chord. And maybe it reminds us of a simpler time, certainly in the current climate of the world. Certainly here in the US. It’s really been well embraced.”
The other reason Cobra Kai works is because it’s a top-shelf case study in how to reboot a franchise: it respects the original, surprises the audience and it finds enough grey areas in its old characters to give them new life. Essentially, it takes The Karate Kid lore – but not itself – seriously.
It was the grey areas that interested Macchio the most when he again picked up LaRusso, who fluctuates between the good guy of old and revelling in Lawrence’s misfortune. However, he was also mindful of not trashing The Karate Kid’s legacy (Macchio stands by the controversial crane kick at the end of The Karate Kid).
“It was not easy for me to dive fully in,” says Macchio of LaRusso’s jerkier aspects. “Sometimes I would say, ‘OK, I see this line is written specifically to gain sympathy for who was the antagonist’ – flip the script, you know? So there was always the push and pull with the writers … It’s kind of fun to play both sides of that as long as the audience sees both of these characters have good intentions.”
While seasons one and two of Cobra Kai focused more on Lawrence’s shambolic side of the story, season three sees LaRusso returning to Okinawa, the traditional home of Miyagi-do. And unlike in The Karate Kid II, where Hawaii was swapped in for Okinawa, this time Macchio actually travelled to Japan.
“It was like a long weekend, sort of like going to Australia for tea one afternoon,” says Macchio, laughing. “It’s around the other side of the planet. We left on a Monday, were back on a Friday and you cross that dateline, you don’t know where you are.
“But it felt close to having the essence of Pat Morita and Mr Miyagi in the show. We got there, you know? It’s like putting the flag on the moon. It was a nice big box to check.”
Season three of Cobra Kai screens on Netflix from January 1.
Louise is Editor of S and TV Liftout at The Sun-Herald. She also hosts the SMH and Age podcast The Televisionaries.