The year was 1985. I was a mere 5 years of age, but already a year deep into tae kwon do lessons. Early on in life, I became fascinated by the martial arts. From flipping through my cousin’s old copies of Black Belt and Inside Karate magazines to catching ninja flicks and Bruce Lee’s filmography on cable, I was as devoted to my martial arts fandom as one could be. You could just imagine my excitement when I heard that there was a new movie on TV for me to watch, one that focused on a young man and his entry into the world of martial arts. I had witnessed plenty of kung fu fights, even those of the R-Rated variety, but this is something I could sink my teeth into. Something slightly more relatable than guys in black costumes tossing Chinese stars at each other. I’m talking, of course, about The Karate Kid.
I watched The Karate Kid. I enjoyed it greatly. To this day, it’s one of my favorite films. But something felt…off. I didn’t care for the main character all that much. It was a feeling that I couldn’t shake. I didn’t want to like Daniel LaRusso. I didn’t like Daniel LaRusso. I liked Johnny Lawrence and his badass band of henchmen. I liked Sensei John Kreese and his unrelenting ways. I was a Cobra Kai guy. Over the years, it’s a feeling that was magnified by multiple viewings, more understanding of character development and plot points, and just flat out seeing what was in front of my face; Daniel LaRusso was kind of a dick. He was whiny, he was a liar, he was trolling Johnny every chance he got. Fast forward over 30 years later from my first viewing of The Karate Kid, and lo and behold there’s an entire television series devoted somewhat to that very premise. I’m talking about none other than one of the hottest shows today, Youtube Red’s Cobra Kai.
Cobra Kai catches us up with the major players from The Karate Kid in the present day. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is living in an apartment that’s just as rundown as he is, and (barely) making ends meet as a handyman. He seems to deal with a lot of crap and sucks it up, a far cry from the braggadocious badass we were introduced to in the first film. He’s had a hell of a day within the first few minutes of Cobra Kai, but we can tell that this is the new normal for Mr. Lawrence, and he’s about to reach his breaking point. That comes when he’s witnessing high schooler Miguel getting accosted by a couple of punks in front of the local mini-mart. Johnny does his best to stay out of it, but soon enough the loudmouth little bastards are getting their butts kicked, Cobra Kai style. Despite the legal ramifications of beating up a bunch of teenagers, the fight lights a fire within Johnny, one that was put out some 34 years ago when Daniel LaRusso kicked him in the face. Johnny realizes that his true calling is still karate, and he opens up a new Cobra Kai dojo, with Miguel as his first student.
Sound familiar? Young newcomer gets in over his head, drawing the ire of the local bullies, only to be saved by a handyman who is actually a martial arts master. It’s a brilliant nod to the original story (one of many that we see in the duration of this series), and an interesting twist on what was established of Johnny Lawrence in that film. The cocky California rich kid didn’t actually have the best upbringing. His stepfather (a character introduced for the first time here, played by Ed Asner) is a surly old schmuck who condescends him at every turn. He’s got an ex-wife who won’t let him do right by her and their son, Robbie. Even Robbie himself is anti-Johnny, preferring to let his mother sleep around and engage in petty crimes while poor Johnny struggles to be a better man.
Of course, we couldn’t have Cobra Kai without The Karate Kid himself. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is still the polar opposite to Johnny Lawrence. He’s a successful businessman, with his own auto dealership, a loving family, and not a care in the world. A set of unusual circumstances bring the old foes face to face again, and this is where Daniel lets that douchey part of his personality shine. Johnny keeps his cool and would rather not even deal with Daniel, but fate keeps bringing the longtime rivals back together, especially once Johnny gets his dojo up and running. Just the sight of the Cobra Kai logo eats away at Daniel, and he devotes a lot of time and effort to destroying Johnny’s new venture. Despite winning the war 34 years ago, despite Johnny admitting defeat at the end of their encounter, despite Mr. Miyagi saving Johnny from a beating from John Kreese (at the beginning of The Karate Kid, Part II), Daniel is going to use his influence to end Johnny once and for all. Like I said, Daniel LaRusso = dick.
Cobra Kai’s lure might be the original Karate Kid stars, but the new generation that gets introduced here all have their reasons for shining. Miguel is very much a surrogate Daniel as much as Johnny is the new Miyagi. He’s a new kid in town, comes from a broken home, and can’t find a friend to save his life. Even Johnny gets annoyed with him an awful lot, but their developing bond also helps Miguel’s confidence rise. It’s not long before he goes from being the local punching bag to Johnny’s prized pupil. Johnny’s estranged son, the aforementioned Robbie, is a young punk that loves to get under his dad’s skin, and he does it in the most obvious way possible. Daniel’s got two kids of his own, and it’s his oldest, Sam(antha) that finds herself caught up in the wrong crowd, but intrigued by Miguel, despite her father’s warnings that anyone associated with Cobra Kai can’t possibly be good for her.
So much happens over the course of Cobra Kai’s ten episodes, but I feel like going much more in depth will spoil your enjoyment. There are nods to the original trilogy for the older fans, amazing character development on those who had been previously established, and excellent writing to give the new characters (especially the younger cast) pivotal roles in the series. I typically pay no mind to critical consensus in entertainment; after all, I’m the guy who treasures The Garbage Pail Kids Movie more than almost anything. That said, there’s a reason why Cobra Kai has a 100% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. The writing is fantastic, the acting is solid (we’re not talking Academy Award-winning performances, but everybody plays their character perfectly), and the story takes us beyond the obvious directions we think it could go in. These aren’t twists just for the hell of it either. The motivations of every character make sense, even if it makes them look bad.
Some might consider it risky to take something so sacred in 80’s entertainment like The Karate Kid and turn it on its head by making the villain the hero and vice versa, but it clicks. Zabka and Macchio have sunken their teeth into something great here, and they must have been as ecstatic as I was to get a second season picked up only a week after Season 1 premiered. Even I have to admit that I was surprised by how good it is. I knew I was going to enjoy it, but I had no idea I’d love it this much. I started watching on premiere day (May 2nd) and was done by the following morning, with a complete rewatch taking place by the time that weekend was over. You may not have the time to watch it as quickly or the need to watch it more than once, but I urge you to get onto Youtube and see for yourself. Episodes 1 and 2 are available for free, but to see the rest, you’ll have to sign up for Youtube Red (the free month-long trial should be more than enough time for you to see the whole season). In a world full of reboots and revivals, this is a show rises above the rest. The sense of nostalgia here might be strong, but the new story is even stronger.
Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.
Watch Cobra Kai.
Cobra Kai Ep 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rB36UGoP4Y&t=693s
Cobra Kai Ep 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Aoc-cd9eYs