It has been 34 years since ‘The Karate Kid‘ came out, and after a few sequels with the original stars and a few attempts at rebooting the franchise, the idea of continuing the adventures of Daniel LaRusso in any form seemed like a horrible idea. But along came the creative minds of Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald with a fresh take, and ‘Cobra Kai’ is born.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that it doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s the best we’ve seen of these characters since the original 1984 film.
A video has gone around the internet for a number of years now suggesting that Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) was actually the villain of the first movie and his adversary, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), was the victim. The clip, which can be found on YouTube, is intended to be humorous, but the creators of ‘Cobra Kai’ have taken the idea and spring-boarded it into a ten-episode series.
Johnny is now a 50-something nobody still living in the Los Angeles area. He’s kind of stuck in the past, still driving around in a red sports car and drinking massive amounts of Coors Banquet. He’s divorced and has a son, Robbie (Tanner Buchanan), but isn’t involved at all in his life. No, things haven’t gone well since his high school days, and in the first episode, he gets fired from his handyman job when he gets into a fight with a female client after hanging a widescreen TV on the wrong wall.
That night, Johnny goes to a local convenience store for a slice of pizza and watches as a high school kid, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), gets the snot beaten out of him by some classmates. Johnny has no intention of intervening – until, of course, the fight gets too close to his car. Johnny karate chops the young punks into submission, which gets him a night in the slammer, but also catches the attention of Miguel. Miguel eventually talks Johnny into teaching him karate, leading Johnny to re-open the once-infamous Cobra Kai dojo.
Meanwhile, Daniel LaRusso’s life also didn’t turn out the way he planned. Well, if not the way he planned, then certainly not the way most fans of the movies thought he would wind up. Daniel has grown up to be one of the most successful car salesmen in Southern California, using his karate background as a sales pitch, including giving every customer a bonsai tree to take home. Daniel never married either Ali or that Japanese chick from ‘The Karate Kid, Part II‘, but he did marry the attractive Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) and has two young children: high school aged daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and younger son Anthony (Griffin Santopietro).
While Johnny is off training Miguel, Robbie decides to get back at his father by getting a job at Daniel’s car dealership. Of course, Daniel doesn’t know that Robbie is Johnny’s son and starts to feel a fondness for the kid. It isn’t long before he’s training him in a similar fashion to the way Mr. Miyagi once trained Daniel.
As Miguel is learning karate outside of the classroom, inside it he has an eye for Samantha, although he has no knowledge that his current sensei and Samantha’s father are bitter rivals. Samantha has been seeing one of the bad boys in school (played by Joe Seo), but when he starts treating her poorly and spreads rumors about her among classmates, Miguel steps in and uses his new training to put the bully down. This catches Samantha’s attention and it’s not long before the two are dating. However, a visit to the Russo household brings Robbie into the picture, and Samantha soon finds herself attracted to him as well – especially after Miguel starts to show a jealous streak.
Johnny’s dojo becomes more popular after the kids in school – almost all of them nerds who have been bullied – see what Miguel can do and want to get trained themselves. Johnny is at first reluctant to train this group of losers, but soon warns up to them. Meanwhile, Daniel continues to do everything he can to put Cobra Kai out of business – including trying to stop them from entering the 2018 All Valley Karate Championship tournament. (What, you didn’t think this would end without a tournament, did you?!)
The first couple of episodes set up Johnny as an antihero and Daniel as… well, honestly, as kind of a jerk. The former Karate Kid has become both rich and selfish and seems to have forgotten the lessons of the past. When he finally turns back to karate to find his balance, the series pays homage to the late Pat Morita in an episode dedicated to him.
In fact, ‘Cobra Kai’ really soars through this use of nostalgia. The creators are obviously huge fans of the original movie, and fill Season 1 with nods to the 1984 film throughout – not just via flashbacks, but blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Easter Eggs, re-creations, and/or references to memorable scenes from the original movie.
For whatever reason, YouTube (and even some of the creators) have labeled ‘Cobra Kai’ as a comedy (YouTube categorizes it as such) or, at best, a “dramedy.” Don’t worry, this isn’t some spoof of the movie you love. It’s exactly the same mix of drama and humor that were in the films, with one exception that I feel is worth noting (particularly for parents): While the original ‘Karate Kid’ movies were fairly wholesome, ‘Cobra Kai’ spends some time delving into sexual humor and profanity that really doesn’t seem to fit these characters. As a result, the series is best labeled as something between a hard PG-13 and a soft R. I suppose the intention was to latch onto a younger teenage crowd by giving the series a bit of a harder edge, but it’s really not needed. While I wasn’t offended by anything (it’s not that crude), it does seem out of place.
The best thing about ‘Cobra Kai’ is that it lets you choose a side – Johnny or Daniel – and things aren’t as clear cut as you might think. In fact, dare I say it’s William Zabka and not Ralph Macchio who’s the real star of the series, and the real reason to tune in. While his Johnny in the 1984 movie may have been a one-note baddie, this latest version is a living, breathing human being with all the guilt, regret, and – yes – hope that things will still work out that we all have as we get older. It’s a career-best performance for Zabka, 34 years in the making.
One last note: Season 1 of ‘Cobra Kai’ ends with a cliffhanger/tease for Season 2. Don’t let anyone spoil it for you. You’ll be screaming at your TV set with glee.
Loaded with nostalgia – but in a good way – ‘Cobra Kai’ is one of those ideas that probably shouldn’t have worked, yet does somehow. It’s reverent to its roots, but also isn’t afraid to shake things up and have some fun with these characters. The bigger a fan you are of the original ‘Karate Kid’, the more you’re going to get out of this series. I sat through it all with a big smile on my face. Bring on Season 2!