One can only imagine what the late Bruce Lee would have thought about how far along martial arts came in pop culture since his passing in 1973 especially with the success of a franchise like The Karate Kid and its successor Cobra Kai on Netflix. We at least have one perspective from one of his students in NBA legend, actor, writer, and The Hollywood Reporter columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who suspects his former sensei would have enjoyed the series. He co-starred with Lee in Game of Death (1978), which was originally unfinished until it was released posthumously from Enter the Dragon (1973) director Robert Clouse and Columbia Pictures cobbling the story together, sloppily using cutouts and stand-ins for Lee to complete the film.
Abdul-Jabbar said Cobra Kai beat his own expectations of the series. "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," he wrote. "Heresy alert: It's actually better than the movies." Further, the Hall of Famer articulated how Lee understood the value of bringing martial arts to the screen.
"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."
Abdul-Jabbar went to explain how he originally heard about the series while writing for Veronica Mars and Johnny Lawrence's (William Zabka) redemption arc as the basis of the series living as a 50-something-year-old handyman, living on gas station food and lacking 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.
For more on how Abdul-Jabbar contrasts Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso, the series' plot holes, the conflicting philosophies of the dojos, and how Cobra Kai as a family show compares to the more Lee-oriented Warrior on Cinemax, you can check the rest on THR. Cobra Kai is available to stream on Netflix.