In Defence of Johnny Lawrence

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As lockdown was easing up and cinemas were reopening, I went to see the original The Karate Kid (1984). Having never seen it before, I found myself defending character of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the villain of the film when leaving the cinema. To do so I relied on one key scene: near the end of the film, Johnny’s sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), tells Johnny to “Sweep the leg”, indicating to the protagonist Daniel’s ( Ralph Macchio), injured leg. It cuts to a close up on Johnny: he is shocked, his morals are conflicted. I do not agree with, or see as justifiable, every action Johnny undertakes in the film, but I like his character, and I think the filmmakers did too, and throughout the film there are numerous moments where he is seen to be worthy of empathy. I will return to that final scene, but for now let’s get into the reasons I like Johnny Lawrence.

Johnny is an interesting character because he and Daniel can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Johnny and Daniel wear similar clothes early on; Johnny rides a motorcycle and Daniel rides a bicycle. The centre point on which their conflict is based is their joint interest in Ali (Elisabeth Shue) and karate. But in these two similarities are key differences: Johnny is the ex, Daniel is the new guy; Johnny is a master of karate, Daniel is a novice. These similarities and differences, this yin and yang, are summed up perfectly in their teachers. For Daniel, having Mr Miyagi as a teacher really sets him on the straight and narrow through the film: he tells him to pursue Ali, he teaches him practical skills (washing cars, painting the house and fence, catching flies with chopsticks), he teaches him karate, he hands out life lessons like they’re going out of fashion. When, however, we see Johnny with his teacher, Kreese, we see a dire contrast with Daniel and Miyagi. In Kreese’s first scene with Johnny, the camera follows Daniel entering Kreese’s dojo: Kreese’s ego is immediately on display as we see, whilst panning over his wall, a cardboard cutout of Kreese in an action of physical attack (note the contrast: attack is the very opposite of what Miyagi teaches Karate as), trophies, and a framed photograph of Kreese in his military days (again note the contrast: Miyagi sees his military days as something to hide away, something to be ashamed of because of the hurt it caused him, his family and others). Before we even see Kreese on screen we hear him off it, shouting about having no fear, pain, defeat, nor mercy. When we do see him on screen he wears a black karategi with the sleeves removed. No more information is required to know that this guy is a real piece of work. Now, if we can attribute the impact Mr Miyagi has on Daniel and his actions as substantial, surely we can at least partly attribute some impact of Kreese on Johnny and his actions.

By the end of the film, I could not help but wonder how much more Johnny would have benefited from the wisdom of Mr Miyagi and the luck in finding such a man.

Johnny’s questionable actions throughout the film come as a result of Daniel challenging some aspect of his dominance, just like in a karate match, and he responded in the way he’s been taught: to have no mercy, and this is manifested in the film as revenge. For example, Daniel hangs out with Ali on the beach, Daniel beats him up; Daniel soaks Johnny in return, Johnny and his friends beat Daniel more; Johnny sees Daniel looking for Ali, he forces her to kiss him to make it look like Ali’s betrayed Daniel. Johnny can certainly be said to go on a downward spiral throughout the film because of the search for revenge he’s been taught by Kreese: in trying to get Ali back by pushing Daniel away he pushes her further away; following Kreese’s instruction to sweep the leg at the end of the film, Johnny loses the tournament; in trying to get revenge after Daniel soaks him with a hose pipe, he gets his arse handed to him by Mr Miyagi (admittedly, after Johnny himself had been beating up Daniel). Johnny’s actions are not justifiable, but are understandable considering all he’s trying to do throughout the film is follow Kreese’s orders – to have no mercy, or in other words to get revenge on Daniel. As Mr Miyagi notes, revenge is self-destructive as well as destructive.

Returning to the ending scene: the veil is lifted and Johnny realises the kind of man Kreese can be. The close up on Johnny’s reaction after being given the order to go for Daniel’s bad leg was a main point of contention with my defence of Johnny, and it could indicate one of two things, or perhaps some of both: either Johnny is shocked at the demand because he doesn’t think he needs to resort to foul play to win, or because he realises that his teacher – his ‘Mr Miyagi’ – has no faith in his ability to win. Either way – with the way it’s delivered, mirroring a sort of Sergeant-to-Private dialogue style – this is a moment of realisation from Johnny, that perhaps he does have mercy. It’s moments like this in any film – when your expectation is flipped yet it still works better than you could have imagined it – that creates genuine shock, and for me it was because I came to like a character I’d initially seen as detestable. As Johnny is beating on Daniel’s leg, off screen we hear shouts of encouragement from Johnny’s team mates, but cuts back to Johnny revealing no happiness; he looks utterly disgusted, not proud, of his actions, unlike his master. It’s an indication of change from Johnny. In the end, Johnny loses, and hands the trophy over to Daniel himself, surely the first sign of the change Johnny said he wanted to make at the start of the year.

Characters we love in film are not always perfect, or even good, and to reiterate, there are many instances in the film that I have mentioned here, and ones that I have not, where Johnny’s actions are unacceptable and I do not try to justify them in any way. What I have tried to do is offer some explanation of how the filmmakers behind The Karate Kid have explained why he does and how he’s not totally to blame. Along with all the evidence I’ve given that not only do I love Johnny Lawrence as a character, but the filmmaker do too, Mr Miyagi’s famous quote describes it best: “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher.”

The Karate Kid , directed by John G. Avildson, is available now on all digital platforms. Watch the trailer below:

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