Cult 80’s phenomenon The Karate Kid, finally gets a worthy sequel in the form of a ten episode series, both series originally aired on YouTube Red in 2018 but has recently been picked up by Netflix earlier this year, after YouTube’s transition to their “Premium” service. Season 1 & 2 are available to stream now and holy chopsticks are you in for a treat.
Enter The Cobra
Cobra Kai follows on from the original film some 34 years later with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) both reprising their immortalised characters. The major difference with Cobra Kai versus The Karate Kid is that this time around we’re seeing things through Johnny’s eyes. It’s his story, his memories and his perspective of how things went down all those years ago, that invites the audience to totally reconfigure our perception of past transgressions and life altering moments. The writers ( Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald) have been praised endlessly by the cast during press runs and interviews, for how lovingly they’ve honoured the source material and managed to create a show that slots right into the Karate Kid universe, perfectly. And it’s certainly not hyperbole. It’s just that good.
And so here we are 34 years on and poor old Johnny’s fallen on hard times since his high school glory days, now working as a handyman, paying the bills by cleaning out gutters and fixing televisions to (the wrong) walls. What little money he does make is enough to fuel in his red Pontiac Firebird, live in his crappy Reseda apartment and single-handedly support the production of Coors beer. I genuinely don’t think he’s aware that tap water exists.
But this isn’t the same leather jacket toting frat boy we knew back in the ’80s, sure he retains a lot of that alpha-male attitude but exudes it here in a more humorous, likeable way, that is almost endearing. You can’t help but like the guy, even when he’s being a total dick.
The first episode tees up proceedings with the arrival of Johnny’s new to the area neighbour, Miguel (sound familiar?), a kind-natured-nice- guy-nerd whose attempt at a polite introduction to Johnny is quickly shut down with what becomes his signature stroke of mockery. Not too long after though, Miguel finds himself in a spot of trouble with some nuisance classmates and sure enough, we get our first taste of flying kicks and spinning backfists courtesy of Johnny Lawrence. It’s a glorious moment, not so much in the actual fighting but rather the whole vibe coming together as we’re wilfully pulled back into this Karate universe.
The series gains momentum quickly when Johnny agrees to mentor Miguel and resurrect the infamous Cobra Kai dojo. Queue training montages. From this point onwards, the series really explodes and finds it’s footing. The writers have delivered an almost unprecedented level of fan service, you’ll find dozens (and I mean literally dozens) of Easter eggs, tastefully scattered throughout each season that respectfully pay homage to the original movies, complimenting them rather than mimicking. It all feels so innately familiar yet simultaneously completely new.
The show is funny too. Johnny has developed a sincerely hilarious apathy for the digitally aged world he’s been forced into, shamelessly brandishing his 80’s influences at every opportunity, everything from his vocabulary, to his demeanour, to his personal taste; just screams retro. There’s been a resurgence of the revered 80’s era in television and film, both mediums have revived classic franchises and forged new offerings too, most notably shows like Stranger Things come to mind as one of the more successful incarnations that accurately portray the popular era. Johnny is a monument to that time. I almost fell over laughing when Miguel pulls out his inhaler during a training session and whimpers “I’m asthmatic” only for Johnny to swipe it out of his hands replying, “not anymore”. His intolerance to society’s perceived weaknesses are the residual of his former sensei’s cruel teachings. Something Johnny struggles to shake even to this day.
A New Challenger Arrives
Cobra Kai’s ‘ying’ wouldn’t exist without it’s ‘yang’; Miyagi Do. By complete contrast, perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel LaRusso lives the American Dream. Nice car, nicer house, beautiful family and an abundance of positivity seeping through his veins. Life’s sweet for LaRusso, that is until a drive-by glimpse of Johnny’s dojo reignites a flame, he’d thought to be long extinguished.
As the popularity of the Cobra Kai dojo grows, as does its members. With Miguel at the forefront of the clan, other fellow nerds and rejects join the fold. It’s great to see these young actors spread their wings, especially a character by the name of Eli, his transformation throughout the first two seasons is startlingly bad-ass, to use a Johnny colloquialism. With the prospect of competing at the ‘All Valley Tournament’ looming ahead, the students are put through their paces, undergoing unusual and probably unlawful training regimes in order to prepare for the ultimate challenge, this of course presents the ultimate opportunity for Johnny to redeem himself from the defeat he’d suffered at the hands of Daniel, thirty odd years prior.
Anyone For Mini-Golf?
But it’s not all fists and feet mind you. This is after all, an adaptation from what is essentially a set of family friendly movies and so while there’s plenty to gawp at for the martial arts fans, there’s also a soft, gooey centre at the heart of the show too. Given that we’re now in modern times, the series explores the societal themes of high-school aged kids; bullying, rejection, insecurities, social media, relationships; the typical pain points of young adults as they battle for a place in the world as they carve a path to their true selves. Daniel and Johnny’s respective worlds collide when Miguel favours the attention of Daniel’s daughter, Samantha. A kind-hearted popular girl that has a few tricks up her sleeve too (wink wink). Running parallel to this, a troubled kid called Robby enters the fray. I won’t disclose his connection to the characters but let’s just say, he’s paradoxically integral to the show.
It has to be said, Cobra Kai tackles some fairly harsh themes but it never strays too far into dramatic prose, always keeping the balance just right between action, comedy and drama. The episodes are just shy of thirty minutes a piece, so things move at a refreshingly spritely pace. I can’t count how many series I’ve watched over the last few years where the hour long episode lengths have been completely wasted or stuffed with filler. Thankfully, there’s none of that in sight here.
The first season of Cobra Kai wraps up in spectacular fashion with the inevitable ‘All Valley Tournament’. It’s a serendipitous journey to get there and ends with a huge, huge character reveal for season two; which incidentally builds on what’s been laid out from the first and absolutely maintains the quality with bigger fights, more intricate explorations of the group’s relationships, heartbreaks, twists and turns and a shocking, cliff-hanger ending. Since Cobra Kai released on Netflix earlier this year I’ve watched it twice over and am returning for a third helping, this time with my daughter. The student has indeed become the master.
Cobra Kai is one of the greatest things to come out of the streaming era. I could not have imagined a better way for The Karate Kid’s universe to be explored and I certainly could not have asked for a more fitting homage to these iconic characters. It’s fun, it’s cheesy, it’s even a little corny at times but overall, Cobra Kai stands as one of the most thoroughly enjoyable slices of entertainment you’re likely to see. With Season 3 and 4 recently announced, I’m already ironing my Gi in preparation. Cobra Kai, never dies.