34 years ago, a little movie called the Karate Kid was released. For a lot of people, it was an underdog story that focuses on Daniel Larusso, a young boy from New Jersey who moves Los Angeles with his mother. He gets bullied in his new school but he befriends Mr. Miyagi, the maintenance man of his apartment complex, who teaches him karate. Daniel eventually makes a name for himself by beating Johnny Lawrence, the leader of the bullies and the best member of the Cobra Kai dojo.
While it may seem like a straightforward story, however, some people actually question if Daniel Larusso is actually the Karate Kid. Rather, some may argue that the hero of the film is actually Johnny Lawrence. The argument was popularized by the comedy sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where Barney Stinson openly admits that he thinks Johnny Lawrence is the hero and not Daniel Laruso.
The Karate Kid then spawned two sequels, continuing Daniel and Miyagi’s story. But what about Johnny Lawrence? Well, this is where YouTube Originals’ new television dramedy, Cobra Kai comes in. This time, we get to see what happened to him as well as his side of the story now!
Although the show has already been out on YouTube for quite a while now, I’m still rather wary of revealing any major plot details and twists since there still may be some of you out there who haven’t seen it. Don’t worry, though; this will be a SPOILER FREE review of Cobra Kai.
Cobra Kai actually takes place after the events of the first Karate Kid film. Johnny Lawrence is now a 40-something nobody who is still stewing over his loss to Daniel all those years ago. It certainly doesn’t help that, while Johnny is now a down-on-his-luck alcoholic, Daniel has become super successful as he now owns a string of car dealerships, thanks to his capitalizing heavily on his 2 straight wins in the Karate tournaments all those years ago. One day, a hispanic kid, Miguel Diaz, moves into his neighborhood and, in a weird role reversal, Johnny decides to help the kid out by reopening the Cobra Kai dojo and start training him as well as other students who are a victim of bullies. But instead of teaching him the ways of defense, he teaches the “no mercy” style he learned from Cobra Kai. This does not sit well with Daniel and this will lead him and Johnny as well as their respective familes to eventually clash against each other once again.
Right off the bat, the first thing I’m going to say about Cobra Kai is that it’s fantastic! I was actually hesitant about the entire series as, while I liked the premise and the trailer, I was thinking that it was going to generally be a parody of itself. Hollywood has had a tendency of reviving old properties and just make fun of it and that’s fine and all. But Cobra Kai did something different as, while you can see they’re having a good time with the property and the tropes, the series actually tells a really good story filled with some decent dramatic moments, funny comedy and, honestly, some great action and fight scenes.
One thing that may come as a shock to those who watched the Karate Kid trilogy is how Johnny Lawrence comes off in Cobra Kai. You actually sympathize with the guy here. While he’s still generally the same jerk he was 34 years ago, you still get the feeling that he’s actually not a bad guy but rather someone who was led down the wrong path by some bad guys. William Zabka, the same actor who played the character all those years ago, gives a stunning performance and manages to give the Johnny a whole lot of personality of a man who has to act tough but still has a vulnerable side to him.
Of course, Daniel Larusso is also back and Ralph Macchio once again is back in the role that made him a star. He also pulls off a really good performance as a guy who seems to have his life together but has forgotten his past somewhat. For those who subscribe to the “Daniel is the real bully in Karate Kid” idea, it’s kind of reinforced in Cobra Kai, at least in the first few episodes. One of the best thing about the series is actually the chemistry between William Zabka and Ralph Macchio. You kind of get the idea that, if circumstances were different, both Johnny and Daniel would have actually been great friends as teenagers as their personalities mesh remarkably well. This leads to a weird frenemy relationship between the two throughout the series.
While both Zabka and Larusso are definitely the stars of Cobra Kai and they are the primary focus of the series, there are also other characters and stories as well and they’re nothing to be sneezed at. What I like about them is how they all link to each other and flow in a rather natural way. Not only that all of the characters have their own story arc, which does lead them to grow as the series goes on. The best sub-story deals with Miguel Diaz, the kid that Johnny takes under his wing, as he actually represents a weird Daniel Larusso and Johnny Lawrence hybrid. He’s kind of a “what if” scenario if Daniel didn’t have Mr. Miyagi to help him and just trained in the Cobra Kai dojo instead. He’s easily the most interesting characters in the show.
That’s not to say that every character is likable. Oddly enough, it’s the Larusso side of the cast of characters I didn’t like as they’re the ones who act like jerks for most of the movie. I guess this is what happens when a family becomes successful and forgets their roots or decide to ride the coattails of their more successful brethren. Thankfully, this is mostly countered by most of the Cobra Kai members who all have interesting origins and developments in their characters. You can even say that Johnny’s harsh training method and politically incorrect manner of speaking was the best thing that happened to them… kinda.
Of course, what would a Karate Kid television show or movie be without fighting and training montages? Actually, there isn’t all that much fighting and training, honestly. But the scenes that has those elements are actually really good. The fight choreography is done really well and it does look like the performers have some actual fighting skills, or at least they really rehearsed the scenes well. The training montages are also pretty good but if you’re expecting a classic “wax on, wax off” moment, you may be a little disappointed. It’s there but it’s more like a joke.
It doesn’t really matter as the training and the fighting generally takes a back seat to focus more on story and character development. Like I said before, the overall flow of the story is really good and that’s thanks to two things: pacing and direction. There are only 10 episodes for the first season of Cobra Kai with each episode running for around 30 minutes each. But each episode is crammed with plot and story development that, when an episode ends, you’re just eager to jump to the next one immediately. And, since all episodes are already out, it’s incredibly easy to binge watch the entire first season of Cobra Kai in one evening. I was just planning to watch the first episode one night since it was free but, at the very end, I quickly downloaded the rest of the series. I would’ve watched the entire thing in one sitting if I wasn’t watching it with my family but I had to go on their pace, not mine.
While there is a part of me that wished there were more than just 10 episodes or wished each episode was longer, I’m glad YouTube was smart enough to limit the length and number of episodes as there are generally no filler episodes and storylines never really felt stretched out in general. Yet, by the end of each 30-minute episode, I felt that there was always something that happened that moved the plot further, which made me simply want to watch what would happen next as soon as possible.
The only real major nitpick I have with Cobra Kai is that you can only get the maximum enjoyment if you’ve watched the original Karate Kid films. Since I actually watched them when I was a kid, I have a strong nostalgic feeling with the characters. Unfortunately, those films were a product of their times and, well, I won’t say they have aged badly as they still hold up somewhat. It’s just that the movies definitely look dated by today’s standards and younger audiences may have a hard time getting into them. God help them if they think they can watch the remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith and keep up with the characters! It really should have been called Kung-Fu Kid!
I do think Cobra Kai can be watched without any prior knowledge of the Karate Kid franchise, though. The series does a great job of introducing the characters to newcomers for the most part. There are even some flashbacks from the movies sprinkled in when a callback is needed. But really knowing their roots is where you will get the most fun out of Cobra Kai. You just won’t really get the full effect of why Johnny Lawrence is so upset or how much Daniel Larusso has changed for the worse since the Karate Kid trilogy ended. You won’t unless you watch them, anyway.
Overall, Cobra Kai is an easy thing to recommend, especially to those who grew up watching the films. Thanks to a really well crafted plot with interweaving storylines, fantastic character development and great chemistry between the two leads, Cobra Kai is something that you really have to watch. If you don’t, I’ll go get you a body bag!
Have you seen Cobra Kai? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!