Back in the 80s, martial arts–specifically karate–was the thing to do. Right alongside inline skating, snap bracelets, and Nintendo, karate was one of the decade’s pop culture icons that exploded in popularity thanks in part to TV shows, movies, and cartoons showing kids just how cool it was to be a karate master while adults figured, “Well, it’ll give them some good exercise and maybe teach them something along the way.” Helping to pave the way for the martial arts movement were such unexpected heralds as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Chuck Norris, G.I. Joe‘s ninja hero Storm Shadow, and, of course, 1984’s The Karate Kid.
That story centered on Ralph Macchio‘s Daniel LaRusso, a new kid in town who was desperately in need of discipline and defense, both of which were provided by the late Pat Morita‘s Mr. Miyagi in an Oscar-nominated role. Despite Daniel’s crane kick heard ’round the world that cemented The Karate Kid‘s place in film fandom–and launched a franchise that continues to this day–one wonders what he and his childhood rival Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) would be up to today. That’s where the new YouTube Red series Cobra Kai comes in. Series writers/directors Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald have advanced the story of Robert Mark Kamen‘s characters 34 years to see how they fare in the present and how the past has affected their path. While Cobra Kai stumbles early on, as digital series often do these days, it ultimately finds its balance and delivers a worthy watching experience.
Before I jump into my review, take a look at this clip to get an idea of the storytelling angle that Cobra Kai is embracing by focusing on Johnny Lawrence:
As you saw in the clip above, Cobra Kai kicks things off–literally–by traveling back in time 34 years to the movie and the moment that started it all. Except this time we’re not focused on Daniel-san’s victory but rather Johnny Lawrence’s defeat. Fans of the film franchise got to see what happened next for Cobra Kai Sensei John Kreese’s most talented student in the early moments of the very next film, but to see just what effect those intervening 34 years of stewing on failure and being guided by a malicious mentor had on Johnny, you have only to watch Cobra Kai.
Johnny Lawrence is a mess. He’s stuck in the past, rocking 80s music and band-themed t-shirts, holding onto his Pontiac Firebird with a death grip, and watching Iron Eagle while crushing Coors stubbies all day long. When we find him, he’s living in the San Fernando Valley and working as a handyman for rich, entitled homeowners. No shame in that, of course; even Mr. Miyagi was a maintenance man once upon a time. The difference is that Lawrence is no good at his job, knows it, and thinks himself above it. Zabka nails this characterization and delivers a performance as Lawrence that’s both a down-on-his-luck has-been who deserves a chance to redeem himself and a drunken jerk who deserves exactly what he gets.
If Cobra Kai had only focused on Lawrence’s life post-Karate Kid, it may have been a tougher sell to stick with the story through ten episodes. Wisely, however, a strong supporting cast of characters features newcomers and familiar faces, each with their own personal battles to fight. Lawrence, of course, lives in the shadow of LaRusso’s success and is haunted by his own personal and professional failures. Macchio’s now-grown Daniel LaRusso, despite appearing to have it made as a “Valley Famous” celebrity who runs a successful car dealership, has to deal with the lack of respect from his fellow businessmen and his children, and the fact that the villainous Cobra Kai school is making a comeback thanks to his archrival. The newcomers–the second generation of Karate Kids–include Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who’s subject to bullying and lacking in confidence; Sam (Mary Mouser), Daniel’s daughter who is having difficulty navigating the pitfalls of high school adolescence; and Robby (Tanner Buchanan), a street-smart and tough-as-nails kid with something to prove, a dangerous way to go about doing it, and curious ties to both Lawrence and LaRusso. (Buchanan also reminded me of an early era Jason David Frank, so if they ever want to reboot the Power Rangers TV series, he’s a go-to guy.)
You might have a good idea of how all of these pieces are going to intersect, but the real fun is in watching these characters come together in interesting ways. Cobra Kai is surprisingly true to life in 2018, especially when it comes to 80s-era tough guys who aren’t woke to modern social faux pas, like Daniel asking his daughter’s Asian boyfriend, “Where is your family from … originally?” and is surprised when he answers, “Irvine,” or Lawrence telling Miguel to leave his asthma, peanut allergies and “all that other made-up crap” behind because Cobra Kai has no place for weakness, despite Miguel insisting that these are real medical conditions. Both sides of the generational divide eventually see the benefits of what each other brings to the table and the shortcomings they each bring, as well.
This time, the student seeking instruction from the master is Miguel and Johnny Lawrence, which makes for an odd-couple pairing that thrives on Lawrence’s rough edges and Miguel’s dedicated work ethic. Cobra Kai’s mentality is the polar opposite to that of Miyagi’s teaching, but despite this lesson, which Lawrence should have learned during the All-Valley Karate Tournament, he stays the course and passes Kreese’s misguided teachings onto the young, impressionable Miguel and his fellow loser friends. Clearly Lawrence has a long way to go toward redemption, but his students may end up paying the price for his own shortcomings in the meantime.
Fans of The Karate Kid should enjoy the parallel storytelling that skewers some of the beloved and, if we’re being honest, slightly cheesy morals of the original movie, along with plenty of references to the franchise and 80s culture in general. Early on, the series go a little heavy with the movie footage used as flashbacks, though eventually there are some more subtle Easter eggs scattered throughout all 10 episodes. For once, this doesn’t feel forced because Cobra Kai grew out of the 80s and centers on two grown men who haven’t fully put that era behind them. Daniel holds onto Miyagi’s memory, Okinawan sushi recipes, and bonsai trees in a time when those things may be seen as quaint, cultural appropriation, or even gimmicky. Lawrence holds onto his rebellious, ladykiller ways even as everyone around him writes him off as childish, irresponsible, and irredeemable.
Cobra Kai finds itself asking an interesting question that might be impossible to answer in a way that satisfies all kinds of audiences: Is restoring the honor of both himself and Cobra Kai still the most important thing in Lawrence’s life right now? And if he does so by training kids the same way he was trained, to fight without honor, is that really a victory at all? You’ll find out by watching all 10 episodes of Cobra Kai on YouTube Red, and if you like what you see, you may just discover that there’s more tale to tell in the future!
★★★ Good for the general TV-watching public.
★★★★ Very good for diehard fans of The Karate Kid.