Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Why Bruce Lee Would Have Loved 'Cobra Kai'

Cobra Kai

'Cobra Kai'

Columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a friend and student of the late martial arts great, watches the Netflix 'Karate Kid' update with him in mind: "He would have loved that the show doesn’t take itself too seriously."

Netflix recently launched its third season of Cobra Kai, the “Where Are They Now” update of The Karate Kid movie franchise. Rather than the rip-off we might have expected, the creators have served up three seasons of clever and surprising storytelling that captures the moral simplicity of the '80s movies but with some unexpected character nuance and genuine emotion. Heresy alert: It’s actually better than the movies.

The Karate Kid’s initial success in the '80s can easily be linked to the international phenomenon of martial arts popularized by its most energetic promoter and biggest star, Bruce Lee. Without him, we’d have had The Uppercut Kid and Jason Statham packing heat instead of a spinning whip kick. Bruce was my teacher and friend, and he often spoke about his mission for martial arts to become not just action movie fodder, but a spiritual guide for living a richer life. He knew for that to happen, the world must first enjoy the entertainment and athletic aspect of the practice before embracing its spiritual side. Cobra Kai attempts to balance the combat with the conscience. Mostly it succeeds. Bruce would have been greatly delighted by the parts where it does and mildly disappointed in the parts where it doesn’t.

I first heard about Cobra Kai when I was writing on Hulu's Veronica Mars series. Several writers extolled its virtues, but it was on YouTube Red then and I wasn’t a subscriber. So when it showed up on Netflix, I dove right in, and I could immediately see why they liked it so much. Rather than just being a coming-of-age story like the movies, it was a redemption story for the first movie’s teenage villain, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Thirty-four years after he got crane-kicked into oblivion, Johnny is now a 50-something handyman stuck in the '80s who lives on gas station food and grudges. He’s still got good martial arts moves, but he lacks any of its spiritual grounding.

Bruce would have loved this reimagining because he saw martial arts not just as a way to defend against enemies, but as a way to defend against one’s own self-destructive impulses. Martial arts heals because it helps one identify their problems and adapt to solving them. Johnny’s character arc over the three seasons is of someone who believes the brutal teachings of his evil sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove) — “strike first, strike hard, no mercy” — over a more evolved Bruce Lee philosophy of toughness with compassion. It’s important to win, but more important to be fighting for something worthwhile.

Don’t worry, Daniel LaRusso (an ageless Ralph Macchio) is also back as a highly successful car dealership owner and family man trying to live up to the teachings of the deceased Mr. Miyagi. Rather than the put-upon innocent of the films, he’s a bit smug and pompous, which means he also has a redemptive journey to go through. This is a family show, so it also features Johnny and Daniel’s teenage children in a complicated shuffling of filial loyalties, musical-chairs romance and the usual high school bullying. Watching the adults struggle with their own childishness and insecurities, despite all the Zen teachings they spout to the children, is one of the more rewarding aspects of the series.

At its heart, the show’s conflicts stem from the battle between the philosophies of the Miyagi dojo and the Cobra Kai dojo, with the former teaching the way of water, gently adapting to the forces that would destroy you to defeat them, versus the latter’s way of fear, using the hammer to pound the enemy into submission. It is the spirituality of monks who use karate for self-improvement versus the worldliness of bullies who use it for material gain. Generally, the story stays true to this ideal, though the Miyagi kids often slip in order to serve up some whup-ass action scenes. Bruce, who had an extensive library of philosophy books, would appreciate the attempt to teach these values to a young audience. Bruce, who also appreciated humor and was quite the jokester, would have loved that the show doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it is much funnier than the movies.

Where Bruce might have quibbled is in the portrayal of the actual martial arts moves. Because it’s a family show, the punches, kicks and combinations often seem designed to be less aggressive. Fight scenes are generally slow and awkward, lacking the exciting artfulness that combines speed, grace and an edge of danger. Perhaps the show believes this is, realistically, how kids that age with that level of training would fight, but it’s the same when they show more experienced practitioners, including Daniel.

By contrast, Cinemax’s excellent and exciting Warrior, based on a Bruce Lee treatment, is a celebration of the potential of martial arts, with exceptional displays of fighting skills. Of course, it’s a much more adult series in every way, but there’s no reason the artfulness that excited Bruce’s fans and made martial arts an international success can’t be highlighted more in Cobra Kai.

The occasional eye-rolling lapses in story logic are amusing. The massive karate fight in the school corridors goes on for quite a while, with no interference from any teacher (which they attempt to lamely explain later). Also, rather than deal with what it would look like if cops and lawyers were brought in — especially after a violent home invasion in season three — they choose to pretend the cops are so incompetent that they would ignore it. This fudging of realistic behavior makes it slightly less believable, even within its '80s tone dome.

The show’s considerable strengths far outweigh these minor flaws. I like to think Bruce and I would have loved sitting on a sofa together enjoying the delightful Cobra Kai, while he lorded his great head of hair over me and reminded me of the times he kicked my ass when I was his student.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA Hall of Famer and the league's all-time leading scorer, is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Follow him @KAJ33.