Review: 'Cobra Kai' offers more than just nostalgia
** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD **
It’s been 30 years since the events that took place in the original Karate Kid. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is now the owner of a successful auto dealership (“We kick the competition!”), while his old nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is living the kind of life an '80s bully deserves: growing old in a ratty apartment, barely scraping by doing menial labor. And justice for all.
Surprisingly (or not surprisingly, depending on how you look at it) Daniel and Johnny have managed to keep a lot of stuff from their karate years. Trophies, gis from their respective dojos, framed photos of Mr. Miyagi – it’s all here. Even Johnny’s Dee Snider bravado is still in full effect.
Johnny’s tough-guy posturing starts looking archaic when he meets Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), the good kid from next door. “Great, more immigrants” Johnny quips when Miguel introduces himself. Johnny brushes off the kid, but is later forced to save him, using some classic karate moves, from a gang of bullies.
The next day, Miguel offers to hire Johnny to teach him those moves. Johnny brushes him off again, but later reconsiders. He cashes a check given by his stepfather and reopens the dojo he attended as a kid: Cobra Kai. True to form, Johnny hectors his only student and forces him to adhere to the infamous Cobra Kai dictum of Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy.
It’s worth noting that the guys who picked on Miguel would have made great Cobra Kai material, if only they were born two decades earlier. But this time, it’s the geeks and social outcasts who are drawn to Cobra Kai. Of course, one could argue that bullies are simply outcasts with weaponized insecurities. But Johnny’s new students don’t exactly fit the Cobra Kai mold. He bullies them the same way he bullies Miguel, calling them “pussies” and “losers.” It’s fun watching the awkward and strained interaction between a dojo full of millennials and their washed-up Gen X sensei.
In what is perhaps the greatest scene in the show, Johnny tells Miguel about the events that took place in Karate Kid. But told from Johnny’s perspective, Daniel becomes the bully. In the beach scene, for example, all Johnny wanted to do was talk things over with his ex-girlfriend Ali. But Daniel butted in and struck first. Johnny goes easy on him at first, only letting loose after Daniel sucker punches him. The show does the remarkable job of making Johnny a sympathetic character. It doesn’t gloss over the facts – Johnny is still an asshole – but in Cobra Kai he isn’t just a stock baddie pulled from the '80s.
A disturbance in the Force
Daniel eventually learns about the nascent Cobra Kai. In early episodes, Daniel and Johnny were mostly civil, but the reopened dojo rekindles the enmity between the two. A drunken Johnny vandalizes a LaRusso billboard, and in retaliation, Daniel pulls strings to get Johnny’s landlord to double the rent.
Up to that point, Daniel was portrayed as the quintessential nice guy. But his actions prove that he can be just as big a jerk as Johnny – perhaps even more so. When the landlord doubled the rent, it affected not just Cobra Kai, but all the tenants in the strip mall. Cobra Kai represents a disturbance to Daniel’s content, middle-aged life. And if preserving midlife bliss means acting like a petty high schooler, then so be it.
To complicate matters, Miguel forms a budding relationship with Sam (Mary Mouser), Daniel’s daughter. And Johnny’s estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) takes a job at LaRusso to spite his father. Robby impresses Daniel with his work ethic, but doesn’t reveal who his father is. Daniel becomes the father Robby never had, and teaches him a more balanced, compassionate style of karate. The show deftly maneuvers between the two factions and their overlapping emotional stakes.
It all comes to a head at the latest All-Valley Under 18 Karate Championship, the same tournament where Daniel and Johnny faced-off over 30 years ago. Cobra Kai and Robby, who enters as an unaffiliated fighter, enter the tournament. Miguel has become a formidable fighter, and while he never becomes a full-on bad guy, the kid is merciless on the mat.
Robby injures his shoulder during the prelims, which spurs Daniel to get in his corner. The inevitable final showdown between Miguel and Robby, now representing Miyagi-do Karate, takes place. The match presents an obvious dilemma to Johnny, but he initially opts to stay on-brand. “You know what to do,” he tells Miguel.
After Miguel continuously attacks Robby’s injured shoulder, Johnny has a change of heart. “I know we wanted to win, but it’s got to be the right way,” he counsels his pupil. Miguel ignores his pleas, and proceeds to beat Robby.
Johnny tries to patch things up with his son, but it’s too late. Robby leaves with Daniel, who takes him to Mr. Miyagi’s old house. “Welcome to Miyagi-do Karate,” he tells Robby.
Back at Cobra Kai, Johnny drinks to his empty victory. An all too familiar face enters the dojo – it’s John Kreese, his old sensei. Kreese tells Johnny that Cobra Kai’s story has only just begun. We don’t know how Johnny will react to his abusive sensei’s return, and what this means for the show. But with Daniel resurrecting Miyagi-do karate, I hope it doesn’t mean a return to the old Miyagi = good, Cobra Kai = bad dynamic. But that’s a concern for a different season. For now, it’s great to have seen Cobra Kai, a brilliant show that twists the established lore while remaining respectful to it. – Rappler.com
Cobra Kai premiered on May 2 on YouTube Red. It was written and executively produced by Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg. The series has been renewed for a second season.
Iñigo de Paula is a writer who lives and works in Quezon City. When he isn't talking about himself in the 3rd person, he writes about pop culture and its peripheries.