History is written by the winners. For fans of the smash hit Karate Kid series of movies through the mid 80s to early 90s the Cobra Kai dojo and its students have been the villains of the piece. After all, their mantra is: Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy. But then, what if the story was told from their point of view? Cobra Kai pays homage to its roots but delightfully spin kicks the narrative and continues where the original three movies left off by re-joining Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) 34 years later.
Daniel is married with two children and runs a very successful car dealership, while Johnny (destroyed after losing the All Valley Karate Championships and being physically attacked by his mentor for doing so) is an alcoholic down-and-out unable to hold down a job. But when Johnny reluctantly intervenes to stop a bunch of high school kids bullying someone (although mostly because they bumped his car), the power of Cobra Kai begins to revitalise him. By making Johnny the protagonist, not Daniel, Cobra Kai adds oodles more intrigue in what could have so easily been a pure exercise in nostalgia.
The Johnny of Cobra Kai is a fantastically written character. He’s stuck in a time loop having never really progressed beyond the 80s. As his reborn dojo picks up steam he teaches lessons based on, for the most part, ‘being badass’. He talks unironically about scoring ‘babes’ and has a comical lack of patience for modern life (the look of confusion tinged with irritation on his face as student Miguel Diaz tries to explain that he shouldn’t use gendered insults is one constantly worn by Zabka to great comedic effect). Yet there are plenty of moments of pathos as well, as Johnny is forced to confront how his teachings (particularly ‘No Mercy’) effect his students. His battle to be a better man is a constantly well crafted and nuanced performance. Which is not helped at all by Daniel…
You’d never think that a show could make you dislike Daniel LaRusso so much. Macchio plays him with all the earnest goodwill as before, but also with a large dose of self-righteousness and a painful inability to let go of the past. This Daniel frequently leaps to (wrong) conclusions and never seems to see the irony in preaching balance and inner peace whilst moments later barging into Cobra Kai’s to berate Johnny. If Cobra Kai was just these two it would be good fun already, but the show balances classic characters with a new bunch of teenagers often suffering the repercussions of old bitter feuds.
Standout star is Xolo Maridueña, Johnny’s first student and the one he somewhat coincidentally rescued from bullies. Over the course of two seasons, high schooler Miguel Diaz (Maridueña) goes through the most development as he moves from shy to bold, weak to strong, sweet to arrogant, and then back again under Johnny’s genuine concern for him. The relationship between Johnny and Miguel is easily the heart of the series as the young protégé is buffeted by the winds of adult influence, blossoming love life, and bitter jealousy, whilst Johnny can get a do-over for failing his own son by instead nurturing the kid in front of him.
The larger cast is filled out by more students who are given strength by Cobra Kai but break out in rivalry with Daniel’s newly opened Miyagi-Do dojo (started by a petulant Daniel who believes he is doing good). Daniel’s daughter, Sam (Mary Mouser), is rather more one dimensional and is defined by her love triangle plot lines. Similarly Johnny’s son Robbie (Tanner Buchanan) goes through a bad boy growth arc that is effective if perfunctory. The show switches up between the adult cast and the young cast often enough that neither teenage angst nor adult failings dominate, creating instead a fine balance between the two.
Season 1’s slow build culminates in another All Valley Tournament where the loyalties of the viewer will be much more split than from the movies. But season 2 ups the ante wonderfully by feeding into the bubbling tensions even more (exacerbated by the return of another classic character). A large portion of the final episode is dedicated to a gloriously fun all school encompassing brawl. The episode expertly ensures that every single part of the preceding tensions spills over so that the camera can duck and swing through dozens of wonderfully choreographed karate punch ups.
Many internet theories have painted Johnny as the real hero of the first Karate Kid movie and, through his eyes, you’d be hard-pressed to argue against him. The series certainly has no problem dropping in numerous clips from the original movies – be prepared to see the famous crane kick multiple times – but this is effective in driving home the point as Johnny growls “It was an illegal move,” quite correctly.
It is elevated by a cast of well written and performed characters and sweetened with a devil horns throwing 80s soundtrack that isn’t ashamed of itself. Chopped up with laugh out loud comedy and lump in the throat emotion, by making sure that everything is as badass as it can be, Cobra Kai is a crane kick to the face that you won’t want to stop.
Words by Mike Record