The Nuanced Villains of the Original Karate Kid

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June 11 2010 11:05 AM

The Nuanced Villains of the Original Karate Kid

Also in Slate: Dana Stevens reviews the remade The Karate Kid, starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.

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If you only know William Zabka from his work as the quintessential teen movie villaina role he first played in the original Karate Kid (1984) and reprised in Just One of the Guys (1985) and Back to School (1986)I strongly recommend you read the interview Zabka gave this week to the Onion's AV Club. Zabka, it turns out, is a lovely fellow, nothing like Johnny Lawrence, the tow-headed, black-belted bully in The Karate Kid . To read the interview is to be charmed by Zabka's self-effacing manner, and the wry amusement with which he greets the fact that no matter what he accomplishesthis is a man who was nominated for an Academy Award for a Czech-language short he wrote and producedhe'll always be remembered as teen cinema's biggest dick.

Zabka is also an astute critic of the movie that fixed him in the pop cultural firmament. "Actually the movie really is about Johnny," he tells the AV Club. "It's a coming-of-age film." Zabka is kidding, but only partly. He notes that what allowed a nice guy like him to find his way into the role of a bad guy like Johnny is the character's unlikely redemption at the end of Karate Kid. Defeated by Daniel's perfectly executed crane technique in the movie's final moments, Johnny insists on delivering the All-Valley Karate Tournament trophy to the new champion himself. "You're alright, Larusso," says the chastened bully. "Good match."

I've always loved that moment. The coming-of-age story at the heart of Karate Kid is of course about Daniel Larusso, the twiggy but headstrong young man who learns from Mr. Miyagi the basics of good karate, the value of friendship, and the shameful legacy of the Korematsu decision. And yet for those of us who grew up on the filmtrying out its greatest karate moves on our younger siblings, committing its occasionally mystifying screenplay to memorythe movie's villains have always been more compelling than its heroes. In part, that's because Daniel's foes were so legitimately scary. But it's also because they were a surprisingly complicated bunch. Johnny really does change over the course of the film. I share Dana Stevens' affection for the new Karate Kid , a respectful and quite faithful remake. But lost in translation is the nuance exhibited by the toughs of the original. 

A couple of them at leastnot all of the movie's bad guys suffer bouts of conscience. John Kreese (Martin Kove), the muscle-bound owner/operator of the Cobra Kai dojo, is thoroughly evil, inculcating his charges with a remorseless code of pre-emptive street fighting, the Way of the Fist. (Its central tenets: "Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.") Some of his pupils have embraced this philosophy more readily than others. The hot-headed Tommy (Rob Garrison), for instance, demonstrates no moral progress over the course of the film: When we first meet him he's operating a dirt bike under the influence of warm lager; we last hear from him at the film's climax, laughing maniacally at the hobbled Daniel-san and bellowing the bone-chilling "Get him a body bag, yeah!," a line that every American male of a certain age can to this day imitate with terrifying fidelity. Tommy's teammate, Dutch, played by Chad McQueen with more than a touch of his father's swagger, is similarly a hard case. Watch him bounce up and down with glee as he anticipates Daniel receiving a vicious front kick from Johnny on Halloween night, the occasion of our hero's most brutal beat-down. Note his unwillingness to follow tournament protocol and bow to Daniel before their quarterfinal match.

But now consider the ace Cobra Kai student named Bobby Brown. As that Halloween beating grows in intensity, Bobby decides things have gone too far and intervenes on Daniel's behalf: "Leave him alone, man, he's had enough" (to which the insatiable Dutch responds: "Shut up, Bobby"). Later, at the tournament, Kreese instructs Bobby to take Daniel out—not merely to beat him in the semifinal match but to deliver deliberate, excessive contact to Daniel's knee. Bobby complies, but having done his sensei's twisted bidding, he is stricken with guilt. His lightly feathered hair falling over his eyes, Bobby clings to Daniel's karate gi and begs for forgiveness. One senses he will not be going back to the Cobra Kai dojo on Monday, though maybe he'll keep his dirt bike. 

That Bobby has a heart is established right from the beginning of the filmwatch closely the beach party scene, the site of Daniel's first drubbing at the hands of the Cobra Kai, and you'll see a fleeting shot of Bobby looking on with concern as Daniel writhes, bloodied, in the sand. (Tommy is laughing; Dutch is bouncing.) Johnny's transformation from supreme asshole to decent guy is rather more abrupt, but that magnanimous bit with the trophy that concludes the movie is not our first sign that what Miyagi has told Daniel-san is true: "No such thing bad student. Only bad teacher." In perhaps the most famous line of the film, Kreese instructs Johnny to break the tie in the championship bout by targeting the knee Bobby has already softened up: "Sweep the leg. You have a problem with that?" Sensei's utter lack of conscience is revealed at this moment, the depth of his craziness. But don't miss what Zabka is doing in that same scene. Look at his wide eyes, darting fearfully from side to side. Listen to the sudden quiet in his voice. Johnny is realizing he has been serving the wrong master. He's becoming his own man.

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.