A ‘SUR­REAL’ RE­TURN

Co­bra Kai cre­ators con­vince Mac­chio to re­visit his iconic char­ac­ter from The Karate Kid

Ottawa Citizen - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

For any­one of a cer­tain age, hav­ing Ralph Mac­chio sit­ting across from you dis­cussing The Karate Kid can be a lit­tle over­whelm­ing, kind of like hav­ing a gi­ant wave of nostal­gia crash over you.

Even at the age of 56, the ami­able ac­tor still looks im­pos­si­bly youth­ful. Be­lieve it or not, 34 years have passed since he first played Daniel LaRusso, the un­der­dog teen who takes karate and life lessons from Mr. Miyagi af­ter mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia with his sin­gle mother and run­ning afoul of rich bul­lies.

Yes, nostal­gia is a pow­er­ful thing. Mac­chio felt it him­self last year when film­ing his first scene in Co­bra Kai, the hit web se­ries that has him repris­ing the role.

It was with ac­tor Wil­liam Zabka, who re­turns as LaRusso’s for­mer neme­sis Johnny Lawrence. It’s a tense con­fronta­tion scene set in Lawrence’s new Dojo, where the one-time bully is in­tent on bring­ing the “No Mercy” phi­los­o­phy of his for­mer sen­sei John Kreese to new stu­dents.

“It’s sur­real,” says Mac­chio, in an in­ter­view at the Banff World Me­dia Fes­ti­val, where he was par­tic­i­pat­ing in a mas­ter class with Co­bra Kai co-cre­ators Josh Heald and Hay­den Schloss­berg. “On the one hand, it feels like 100 years ago and on the other hand, it feels like it was yes­ter­day. I don’t know how to ex­plain it more than that. That was the first scene I played with Wil­liam Zabka. We both had a few more wrin­kles, the hair­lines have re­ceded a lit­tle bit, but it was just like that,” he adds, snap­ping his fin­gers. “All that stuff un­der­neath. You had the wis­dom and the decades of time but it did not take a lot of ‘How are we go­ing to do this?’ It was re­ally quite won­der­ful. And it plays nice.”

Co­bra Kai, a 10-episode se­ries streaming on YouTube Pre­mium (only four are avail­able in Canada at the mo­ment, but all 10 will be avail­able by the end of the month) has be­come a run­away hit, a quirky re­boot/se­quel with an in­trigu­ing twist that has au­di­ences view­ing the world of Karate Kid from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Be­cause the pro­tag­o­nist here, al­beit a flawed one, is Lawrence. While LaRusso has be­come a wildly suc­cess­ful, glad­hand­ing busi­ness­man who owns nu­mer­ous car deal­er­ships in town, Lawrence has be­come a bit­ter, un­der­em­ployed alcoholic es­tranged from every­one in his life, in­clud­ing his trou­bled teenage son.

Cre­ated by Jon Hur­witz, Schloss­berg and Heald, Co­bra Kai de­buted in May and its first episode at­tracted 5.4 mil­lion views in 24 hours. A sec­ond sea­son is al­ready un­der­way. It is a bonafide hit, but that doesn’t mean every­one was con­vinced right out of the gate. While Zabka signed on im­me­di­ately, Mac­chio proved harder to con­vince.

Heald worked with Zabka on the raunchy 2010 film Hot Tub Time Ma­chine. But nei­ther he nor Schloss­berg and Hur­witz, best known for writ­ing and di­rect­ing the Harold & Ku­mar films, had met Mac­chio be­fore set­ting up a meet­ing in New York with the ac­tor.

“We re­al­ized we were com­ing at him with some­thing that he prob­a­bly, on pa­per, didn’t want to do,” says Heald, in­ter­viewed along­side Schloss­berg but sep­a­rately from Mac­chio. “He had said no for over 30 years to any­thing Karate Kid re­lated be­cause he was very com­fort­able leav­ing that char­ac­ter and the le­gacy of that char­ac­ter in the past be­cause there was just too much po­ten­tial to spoil that le­gacy, es­pe­cially as the brand took on more of a comedic tone over the years when it was ref­er­enced, whether it was some­body mak­ing fun of a crane kick or us­ing the song You’re the Best Around in a comedic way. So when he hears that there are three R-rated com­edy screen­writ­ers that are go­ing to come pitch him a Karate Kid TV show, I can’t say he was im­me­di­ately over­whelmed with the idea.”

Mac­chio con­firms that point. “I was the last guy to the party,” Mac­chio says with a laugh. “I was a lit­tle hes­i­tant, to say the least. Not with their pitch. I didn’t have reser­va­tions about what they were say­ing. I had reser­va­tions about go­ing back to that le­gacy that has be­come a piece of pop cul­ture around the world. That char­ac­ter is one that I hold dear to me and feel a great re­spon­si­bil­ity to­ward.”

So Mac­chio had a lot of ques­tions. First, since it’s called Co­bra Kai, where ex­actly would Daniel fit in? As much fun it is to flip him into the an­tag­o­nist of the piece, Mac­chio wanted to en­sure his char­ac­ter main­tained his in­tegrity.

He didn’t have to worry. While Co­bra Kai’s three cre­ators are best known for ir­rev­er­ent com­edy, they are also ma­jor fans of the 1984 orig­i­nal film. Heald saw it in the the­atre when he was six. When his par­ents bought a VCR later that year, he de­manded the fam­ily buy The Karate Kid as their first video. Schloss­berg’s cousin taped it off TV and he fell in love with it the first time he watched it. The three cre­ators talked about the movie “all the time.”

This rev­er­ence shows in sea­son 1, with nu­mer­ous ref­er­ences and straight flash­backs from the orig­i­nal film. Still, the three were most in­trigued by the idea of ex­plor­ing the fate of Johnny, the high school bully. What would hap­pen to a guy who peaked in high school only to suf­fer his big­gest hu­mil­i­a­tion be­fore grad­u­a­tion?

“We loved Johnny Lawrence,” Schloss­berg says. “We saw that it wasn’t just us. How I Met Your Mother did a whole char­ac­ter spin on Johnny Lawrence. There’s been a pop­u­lar YouTube video about whether Daniel LaRusso is the real bully and Johnny the real vic­tim?”

Which is not to say Co­bra Kai for­wards that par­tic­u­lar the­ory. Mac­chio, for one, wasn’t in­ter­ested in play­ing him as a “rich prick.”

He is no longer the un­der­dog and his suc­cess cer­tainly an­tag­o­nizes Johnny, but he is not a straight an­tag­o­nist. He may hand out bon­sai trees to his cus­tomers and star in his own cheesy TV com­mer­cials that have him shame­lessly ref­er­enc­ing his cli­matic All Val­ley cham­pi­onship win from the first film, but he is also a fully de­vel­oped char­ac­ter in­creas­ingly dis­turbed by his own chil­dren’s rich-kid sen­si­bil­i­ties. He also deeply misses the wis­dom-im­part­ing Mr. Miyagi (played in the orig­i­nal film by the late Pat Morita, who earned an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for best sup­port­ing ac­tor and died in 2015), which helps deepen the sur­ro­gate fam­ily themes ex­plored in the orig­i­nal film. Mac­chio says he was very pro­tec­tive of the “LaRusso-Miyagi side.”

“We would not be do­ing this show if it were not for Pat Morita’s per­for­mance,” Mac­chio says. “You can say what you want about the crane kick and the Co­bra Kai and the high school, but it was the el­e­ment of his char­ac­ter. It was the fa­ther-son el­e­ment of that film that res­onated so much, cer­tainly for me.”

YOUTUBE PRE­MIUM

Ralph Mac­chio brings the char­ac­ter of Daniel LaRusso back to the screen in the hit YouTube Pre­mium web se­ries Co­bra Kai.

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