In the 21st century, when movies launch on demand and Hollywood’s leading men are as likely to appear in prestige TV series as summer blockbusters, it can be hard to recall the cultural power movies held back in the 1980s. The year 1984 alone saw the premieres of Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Purple Rain, Gremlins, Police Academy, and The Terminator. It was also the year that The Karate Kid made Ralph Macchio a global superstar.
That summer, when Macchio was 23 years old (but looked about 14), he crane-kicked and leg-swept his way into cultural immortality as the film’s hero, Daniel LaRusso. Was The Karate Kid a little cheesy? Sure. Did Daniel always do the right thing? He did not. But there was something about its story that captured countless imaginations: puny kid in a new town, high-school bully, mysterious old neighbour who teaches him how to fight back with honour. Wax on, wax off.
“When people are still talking about movies 30 years later, that means they’re relevant in some way,” says Macchio, now 60, and still baby-faced. The Karate Kid’s relevance got a major boost in 2018 with the premiere of Cobra Kai, the Netflix series that catches up with LaRusso and his rival, Johnny Lawrence, as adults. Thirty-four years after their fateful showdown at the All Valley Karate Tournament, the show finds Johnny back in L.A., where he reopens the infamous Cobra Kai dojo and reignites his rivalry with Daniel via a new crew of ragtag young disciples.
While much has changed in the Karate Kid universe in the past 30 years (Daniel now owns a chain of luxury car dealerships, while Johnny has been humbled by hard times), the show’s central conflict of good versus evil, told through high-kicking martial arts sequences, remains as compelling as ever. “It’s still about mentors and students, fathers and sons,” says Macchio. “But Cobra Kai dives into the grey areas, whereas The Karate Kid was very black and white. Each episode, your allegiance may change based on the flaws in these characters that come to the surface.”
When the series returns to Netflix for its fourth season in early 2022, Johnny and Daniel have put aside their differences to unite against Cobra Kai, now helmed by original Karate Kid villain John Kreese, as they head toward the next All Valley Karate Tournament. It’s familiar, but with enough new characters, new conflicts, and snappy writing to make for a satisfying binge-watch. “What works about the show is how much we all care,” Macchio says. “Our showrunners are superfans, and they never lose sight of what they loved so much about The Karate Kid. It’s always about paying homage and staying true to that tone while branching out in new directions.”
While Macchio has worked consistently on films, Broadway, and TV since the ’80s (most recently with a recurring role as a Times Square beat cop on HBO’s The Deuce), Cobra Kai proves that — much like Michael J. Fox, Matthew Broderick, and other legends of the era — Ralph Macchio will never fully outgrow Daniel LaRusso. And even though the crane kick is a little harder for him at 60 than it was at 23, he’s happy with the way things turned out. “I could have maybe had another opportunity that might have offset that,” he says. “Should I have been Marty McFly? Should I have been Ferris Bueller? Should I have been in Top Gun? No, I think the right guy got the right part.”
Photography: Victor Llorente
Styling: John Tan
Grooming: Bruce Wayne