William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid
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William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictrues)

The history of The Karate Kid's 'sweep the leg' scene and crane kick heard 'round the world

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Mar 29, 2019, 3:30 PM EDT

"May the Force be with you" might be the most quoted movie line in history, but what comes second? I'll let you debate the hell out of that in the comments section, but for many sagacious folks of my generation, it's got to be "sweep the leg," as uttered by The Karate Kid's John Kreese, aka "the Darth Vader of the '80s."

While that may feel like a heavy comparison, to this child of the '80s who was similarly afflicted by both Darth and Kreese, it doesn't seem overstated at all. Especially because that's how the Kid himself, Ralph Macchio, refers to the satanic sensei, as he does while speaking to SYFY WIRE over the phone while promoting the film's 35th-anniversary nationwide two-night theatrical re-release. Kreese himself, Martin Kove, as well as William Zabka, who played his Sith apprentice Johnny Lawrence, also had plenty to say about the iconic moment. With such quoteworthy performances to discuss (and of course the new season of Cobra Kai), I wanted to get the story behind the infamous "sweep the leg" scene, as well as the All Valley Karate Championship-ending crane kick that came next.

Both climatic beats were among the very last that John G. Avildsen (who also directed Rocky) filmed, and Zabka recalls it being a very emotional ending to his first filming experience. Zabka and the rest of the Cobra Kai jerks had become close friends over the course of the 1983 shoot, and Daniel-san was taking them down in order.

"One by one this guy is kicking us all out. And we knew that our end was coming. And there was something about that emotion as the actors, we were a little down, and unraveling a little bit. And that moment was very organic, and it was very true to how I was feeling as an actor during the film, and as a character in the film," Zabka tells SYFY WIRE about the moment Kreese instructs him to take out LaRusso's hurt leg.

William Zabka in The Karate Kid (Courtesy of Sony Pictrues)

"That one moment, which is most memorable, the more I look at that scene, it was Billy's scene. It was just Billy's scene. They remember me saying, 'No mercy. Do you have a problem with that?' And they all remember that, and when he says, 'No, sensei.' This is a father figure that is violating his son," Kove says, adding that fans will see more of that twisted relationship in the upcoming second season of the hit YouTube Premium series Cobra Kai, which is set to explore more of Kreese's dark side.

Part of the reason Kreese loomed so large over Lawrence is that Kove was in character from the moment he and Zabka first met, per Avildsen's direction. This helped create a "mystique" between them, as Kove calls it.

"I don't remember half the names of everybody, because we were all always in character," he recalls. "I was John Kreese, I was not Martin Kove, and he was not William Zabka."

"He was introduced to me and all the Cobra Kai in a black belt, in a dojo," Zabka says. "So I never met him as the actor Martin Kove playing Kreese. I met him as Kreese. He came in in character. And my relation to him was very much sensei/student."

Avildsen also purposely created similar power dynamics between Zabka and his Cobra Kai cohorts and Macchio, who went through a comparable experience on one of Francis Ford Coppola's famous sets. "It helps. I had the same experience in making The Outsiders; it helps to have the camaraderie if there are two sides — the antagonist and the protagonist," Macchio says. "The directors like to set up that separation because then it kind of has that awkward feeling of angst that goes into that time when you feel you're up against someone who creates conflict for you."

The conflict within Johnny shows up on screen as anguish during the sweep-the-leg scene, which is pretty darn impressive for an 18-year-old kid whose biggest previous pro gig was playing a geek on The Greatest American Hero.

"At that moment, when he says, 'sweep the leg,' and he puts that darkness in his eyes, it was a very vulnerable, honest moment that played," says Zabka. "But when he says 'no mercy,' that's something he's been hearing since he was a little kid, and it's almost like Kreese flipped a switch in him."

"And that look he gave me, every time I see it again and again and again, knowing where we've gone with the series and the writing in the series 35 years later … it's so rich," says Kove. "It's an award-winning moment between the two Darth Vaders, and who's to say who's right and who's wrong, based on his motive to obey and respect his sensei, and my motive to manipulate my students to win because it hurts too much to lose."

"He turns into a machine that Kreese built, and thankfully Daniel pulled out an illegal move and woke him up from that," Zabka says.

"It all comes down to the end fight, and the crane kick is totally illegal. There's no such thing as a crane kick," notes Kove.

Martin Kove, Ralph Macchio, and Pat Morita in The Karate Kid. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Of course, the crane kick — Daniel LaRusso's iconic finishing move – is most certainly a thing now (though still probably not tournament-sanctioned). Perhaps because it was so beautifully set up throughout the course of the film, from the very moment we see Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) performing the strange oceanside dance, to Daniel poorly practicing it, to him ultimately unleashing it on Johnny's stupid face to end the All Valley Karate Championship.

"The first time we ran through that, there were six cameras, and John Avildsen was our director, who directed Rocky, so he clearly knew how to shoot these kinds of sequences. And we worked that fight scene all the time, it was a ballet," recalls Macchio. "If we connected and bonded, it's with how well we worked together physically on those scenes, 'cause it was really a tango, it was really a ballet, every move."

"That final fight is really a dance, and we had to rehearse that five days a week, for the entire shoot a couple of hours a day," Zabka adds. "So we were working together constantly and had a lot of fun with that, and started out both completely green, and throwing sloppy punches and kicks, and we trained together, and the result is on screen."

"The first time we shot it with six cameras, there were 500 people in there, or whatever the number was, and their job was to cheer as if they were seeing it for the first time," Macchio explains. "So it was the ultimate for me, and the most devastating for him, because he was being booed, I was being cheered ... we're just two actors, doing a job."

"It was never more exciting than that first time running it through," Macchio continues. "We shot it a million different ways … slow motion, close-ups, over his shoulder, over my shoulder, [but] in the movie, it's just a low and wide shot. It's a very heroic shot, and with the music building."

(Of course, in Cobra Kai, we get to see all those different angles with dramatic effect.)

William Zabka and Ralph Macchio's foot in The Karate Kid. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures/YouTube Red)

"In hindsight, the replays, the reviews, and watching it in slow motion, it's extremely illegal, and very dangerous: coulda killed Johnny," says Zabka, laughing.

If the crane kick was indeed illegal, perhaps there's more about the film that needs to be reconsidered. I'm certainly not the first person to suggest such a thing, as there's been a minor internet groundswell taking Johnny's side in this 35-year brouhaha, while pegging Daniel-san as the real bully of the film.

"He triggered it. I think Johnny's reactions might have been a little extreme, though," jokes Zabka.

As for Kove's take on the controversy, he fully believes Billy is "the real Karate Kid," but knows there's a light side and a dark side. "You get a school of one way and a school of the other," he says. "Did Ralph invite himself into a dark situation? Yeah. Did he aggress a bit of it? Yeah. Did Billy and all the Cobra Kai, per my instructions, operate in a dark framework? Yes. So it's a rigged question with rigged answers. It's gray, it's so gray."

"Karate Kid was very black and white, good over evil — where Cobra Kai settles in the gray area; there's a moral ambiguity to all our characters, and that's what makes it rich as these adult characters," says Macchio. "But no one was talking about that at that point.

"You know, Daniel LaRusso was a feisty kid, he did not back down," Macchio continues. "And as Johnny Lawrence once said, he couldn't leave well enough alone … which is what he's still saying in the Cobra Kai series."

Cobra Kai comes back to YouTube Premium on April 24. To get properly pumped, get a sneak peek at Season 2 and watch the entirety of The Karate Kid in theaters on March 31 or April 2, or wait for the film's 4K Ultra HD release on April 16.