Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) is like that cockroach you found scurrying through your first apartment; he can’t be defeated easily and he keeps coming back. He did just that an epic 34 years after the original The Karate Kid premiered, when Cobra Kai emerged in series form on YouTube in 2018. It garnered more of a deserved cult following when we needed it the most, in 2020, when it made the move to the more binge-friendly Netflix.
If you haven’t yet gotten into it, you have a chance to strike second…
A sort of down-on-his-luck and just-skating-by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in adult form meets a carbon copy of his childhood nemesis in innocent, likable teen Miguel (Xolo Mariduena). The neighbors first share semi-pleasantries in passing, but Johnny can’t help getting involved when he witnesses punkass teens bullying Miguel outside a mini mart. With a stunning flying roundhouse kick to the face of one of the bullies — the very same move he delivered to Daniel Larusso in the All Valley Tournament — Johnny gains the admiration of Miguel and their journey begins.
The parallels to the original film are no surprise, but they don’t come across as cheesy. Instead, head writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg and their team manage to incorporate Johnny’s glory days reminiscing seamlessly with present day, via a fresh take from Johnny’s perspective of how things went down and where they’ve led him to now– all backed by the original 1980s soundtrack. Johnny has the misfortune of his adult life constantly intertwining with Daniel’s and as life happens, the past never quite goes away.
The tables have flipped as Johnny takes on the bullied Miguel as his first karate student, by resurrecting the Cobra Kai dojo. He has his own selfish reasons for doing so but Miguel is happy to take the bait, gaining confidence to confront his bullies in the process. Though Daniel has become a successful luxury car lot owner, he eventually opens Miyagi Do, hoping to continue the past feud with his nemesis through training his own first student, the rebellious Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who happens to have a link to Johnny, of course.
Even with a few predictable storylines, the series manages easy forgiveness through its delightful character development. The audience is taken on a wonderful journey, from empathizing with Johnny’s un-sobering reality, to eye-rolling just a little bit at how easy Daniel’s life appears to have become, to getting to know a new generation of teens with relatable flaws. The standouts here are Eli (Jacob Bertrand), tormented for looking a little different, as he transforms into a no-nonsense reinvented badass, and Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), who manages to keep Daniel in check with a perfect blend of wit and humor; the cool mom we all want that still manages to be an actual parent.
Then there’s hilarious Demetri (Gianni Decenzo), the unapologetic and matter-of-fact uncool friend of Miguel and Eli, and Aisha (Nichole Brown), a seemingly atypical candidate for karate who harnesses her intelligence with the inner warrior that was there all along. And who also deserves way more screen time that the already-filmed Season 3 hopefully awards her.
The series provides most characters with redeemable qualities and flaws, a tough feat when writing a well-paced series with no less than a dozen regular characters. Even the minor characters, like the homeless woman who spins Cobra Kai’s advertising sign, charms with lines like, “I want meth and a burrito.” Johnny’s reply: “you can spend it on whatever you want. That’s how money works.” The dialogue is so succinct to each character’s personality that you could create a whole game based on one-liners and who said them, even just a handful of episodes in.
Zabka managed to keep up with martial arts training throughout the years and it shows in the stunts he performs. The fight choreography is miles ahead of the original, which both Zabka and Macchio have also admitted in interviews. It is shocking that most of the teen actors weren’t already studying martial arts prior to being cast, as the action scenes are performed impeccably through a combination of the actors and a few stunt doubles, and are meticulously crafted by Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman. Just when you think they’ve truly outdone themselves, they keep raising their own bar. They know what the audience came for and stay true to the basis of the whole series.
The storylines and characters pull us in but the martial arts keep us breezing through all twenty episodes. Older generations will appreciate the recognizable faces and nuances, while the newer ones will be inclined to check out the original to see how ‘Cobra Kai’ came to be. YouTube made the series a quality watch and Netflix elevated it to bingeworthy.
Much like the low-rent apartment cockroach, Cobra Kai never dies. 4.75/5 Bibles.