Binge on. Wax off.
If you’re like me, you binge-watched YouTube Red’s new original series, Cobra Kai, as soon as it debuted on May 2. Cobra Kai could have been a disaster or maybe just a fun reunion for the cast of a beloved 1980s classic. Instead, this new series revitalizes the The Karate Kid universe for a new generation. It simultaneously revisits the original film with a deep, ambiguous, human exploration of the pain of growing up and the trials of growing older. Cobra Kai honors its lineage and wins a new audience with a smart, hilarious script, a great new cast of kids, and a pair of performances from Ralph Macchio and William Zabka that rekindle the fighting spirit of the original film.
The steady trickle of YouTube trailers hyping Cobra Kai’s arrival played up the reunion of Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso character with his nemesis, Johnny Lawrence. It comes 34 years after LaRusso landed a jumping front snap kick under Lawrence’s chin, dropping him flat and winning the All Valley Karate Championship.
William Zabka’s return as the former leader of the Cobra Kai karate team is the Hollywood comeback of the year, and don’t be surprised if the actor attracts attention come awards season.
Cobra Kai takes its audience back to the San Fernando Valley. Now we see contemporary Los Angeles through Johnny Lawrence’s eyes after a series of misfortunes that began way back when he was defeated by a New Jersey nerd and an old man named Miyagi. The change of perspective is the masterstroke of the series, but it enriches this universe so vividly on Zabka’s swaggering, staggering shoulders. Macchio’s LaRusso is now a successful car dealer with a beautiful home and family. Macchio plays for lots of laughs this time around, and his storyline provides the series’ strongest tether back to the original film: he connects us back to Pat Morita’s Mister Miyagi character in some fun flashbacks of footage from the original film. Randee Heller is back as Daniel’s mom, and Daniel even spills the beans on what became of Ali Mills.
The 10 episode series also includes a new generation of nerds and bullies clashing on the light and dark sides of the fighting arts. However, this time the dividing lines between these latest karate kids subtly shifts between victims and bullies, honorable heroes and vile villains. In fact, the twists, turns, intersections and missed connections between this cast of characters feels downright Shakespearean, but it works because the themes are treated with more realism and complexity this time around. Of course, this is only possible with a 300 minute series, but it’s the kind of evolution that makes Cobra Kai so successful. I was hoping for a The Karate Kid sequel that I would want, but Cobra Kai is the sequel we need.
The original was directed by John G. Avildsen (who also directed Rocky), and although The Karate Kid knocks off Rocky on a number of levels, Avildsen was able to bring the same high drama to LaRusso vs. Lawrence that he brought to Balboa vs. Creed. Audiences who loved both films never complained. One of the best scenes in the whole Cobra Kai series finds LaRusso rediscovering his karate training. When LaRusso ties his old Miyagido headband on for the first time, that Karate Kid magic will still hook kick you in the head. Now might be a great time for “sand the floor.” Cobra Kai is currently streaming on YouTube Red.