As “Cobra Kai” shifts from YouTube Red to the monstrously popular Netflix, a moderately popular series has become a full-blown hit.
It seems the timeless comeback story of “The Karate Kid” has no glass ceiling, or any ceiling.
A little backstory for anyone too old to know who Daniel LaRusso or Mr. Miyagi is, or, for that matter, who Bananarama is and why their summer is the cruelest (“…leaving me here on my own…).
The final scene of “The Karate Kid,” in which underdog Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) wins the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament, is one of the most iconic in cinema.
It’s also a moment that replays in the mind of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) on a daily basis, a constant reminder of when his youthful ambition, upward trajectory and promising future were taken from him. When LaRusso “crane-kicked” Lawrence in the face, he lost the tournament and seemingly everything else he had going for him.
Lawrence has never left town and, when we meet up with him in present day, his life is a series of dead-end jobs and cringe-worthy encounters. A car accident sends him to a slick auto dealership run by LaRusso, whose life, in comparison, has seemingly gone in golden and prolific ways.
Lawrence’s tense reacquainting with the good intentioned but rather smug LaRusso stirs something within; against better judgement (and inspired by one re-watch of “Iron Eagle” too many), Lawrence re-opens the Cobra Kai dojo that shaped his life, though he seems only partially aware of the damage it did him in the 1980s.
With LaRusso now a very real and revitalized rival, Lawrence trains Miguel (a great Xolo Mariduena), his first student, whose innocence and background not unlike LaRusso in his youth. As the dojo builds and Lawrence exhibits the potential to corrupt teens the way his mentor once did, LaRusso counters, though the tried and true ways of both characters are constantly at odds with reality.
If there was ever a “formula” for either character to follow, it seemingly doesn’t pan out in expected ways in the 21st century.
“Cobra Kai” is ostensibly about the dangers of hero worship, both the mindset of the impressionable young characters under the guidance of unreliable adults, and the hero-worship that the audience bring to their pre-conceived notions about LaRusso and Lawrence.
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A recurring theme is how LaRusso and Lawrence often discover an inability to recreate what worked for them as teenagers; LaRusso correctly assumes he has “big shoes” to fill in trying to apply Mr. Miyagi’s carefully nuanced teachings to a new generation, while Lawrence’s defiantly old school, aggressively un-PC, stuck-in-the-80s mindset often works against how he’s actually a good teacher.
A well-remembered (and hilarious) Patton Oswalt monolog and a building of an internet affection for Laurence’s fallen angel over LaRusso’s insufferably toothsome hero clearly helped creatively pave the way for the series’ re-think of the character dynamics.
Zabka and Macchio will never be singled out for being The Great American Actor, but they’re wonderful here. Altering our alliance with each character was a masterstroke, as the out-of-touch, chauvinistic and perpetually screwing up Laurence is a troubled soul but a consistently likable one.
LaRusso, on the other hand, takes some time warming up to; Macchio brings the brio we expect from the character but seeing that quality in a middle-aged man sheds a whole new light on the character. LaRusso, as always, pushes too hard, is overly earnest and, worst of all, is really corny.
It’s to the credit of Zabka and Macchio for going all-in with the built-in charm but (much harder to pull off) the innate flaws of their characters, giving these roles an unexpected depth. As cheesy as this series sometimes gets (and does it ever overflow with Velveeta at certain points) the sincerity and layers in the acting and writing are its biggest asset.
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There’s a collection of winning performances from the young cast, who will presumably move onto bigger things once the show wraps. Mariduena’s character, so sweet and innocent in the early episodes, is especially compelling in his gradual corruption under Lawrence’s guidance.
There’s a soulfulness to Tanner Buchanan’s Robby (Lawrence’s estranged son) that the series doesn’t fully engage with. On the other hand, Mary Mouser as LaRusso’s daughter Samantha, is excellent playing a character that nicely develops in the second season. Nicole Brown’s Aisha has a depth that the series uses to illustrate how betrayal looks like at a young age.
One character’s rise from a high school punchline to a vicious, mohawked warrior is especially strong- Jacob Bertrand’s “Hawk” has a real edge, as do his solo scenes, giving the character genuine pathos.
The series correctly asserts that, after years of being viciously bullied and mocked by your peers, the best revenge is reinvention. It’s fun to be one of the bad guys, though the students of Cobra Kai don’t seem to grasp entirely that their black-clad, foot-to-face, No Mercy approach to martial arts is a means of empowering bullying.
On the other hand, including Paul Walter Hauser (the gifted character actor who played “Richard Jewell”) is too much, as the comedy is fine when its character driven and doesn’t need a Will Ferrell-like doofus as a tag-along for an already tight ensemble.
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Hauser’s scenes can be amusing but his gimmicky bits (namely, the angle of a middle-aged man deciding to join the youthful Cobra Kai) belong on a different series. Akin to Adam Sandler’s Bobby Boucher joining “The Office,” Hauser seems out of place here but, seriously, is funny and talented enough that he deserves his own series.
Tonal consistency is the biggest problem with both seasons: the first season is a sharp comedy of a comeback story that never stops being funny. It’s also an exploration of two men defined by their past… until it finally becomes a déjà vu embrace of franchise expectations.
The season one finale doesn’t sell out, exactly, but, rather than mark its own path, is too reliant on the expectations of the ’84 movie.
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Season two has it even worse, as the on-the-surface corn and hits of nostalgia undercut the real dramatic moments that are startlingly well accomplished. A nice touch is how, every time it seems LaRusso and Laurence come closer to finding the personal and professional redemption they seek, they always manage to get in their own way and undermine their best intentions.
The conclusion of Season Two is something of a cliffhanger and a true come-to-reckoning point for Lawrence, whose existence is always somewhere between perpetual screw-up and a man searching for his purpose. By the way, the big high school showdown, a fittingly acclaimed sequence, is perfectly bookended by “Cruel Summer” (among the many great, on-point soundtrack choices).
The comparison to eighties-bait “Stranger Things” is on the nose, and not just because each revels in the Reagan years: both are youth oriented but have adult appeal, are nostalgia-infused but engaging enough for the uninitiated.
Unlike the dozens of TV shows based on movies that don’t survive an entire season and result in an embarrassing footnote (anyone remember “Dirty Dancing: The Series”?), this one is better than merely bringing a film property to television. It works as genuine extensions of the franchise, providing the parts IV and V to “The Karate Kid” we always wanted and never received (and no, I am not acknowledging “The Next Karate Kid” and neither should anyone else).
The much-heralded scene in the first season, where LaRusso dons his karate gi for the first time in years and embraces the image and teachings that Miyagi provided him, is as moving and earnest as the films that inspired it.