In 1984, when I was 10 years old and being bullied on the playground, an important movie came into my life. The Karate Kid was an antidote to feeling powerless and a well-timed complement to the martial arts lessons in which I’d recently enrolled. Since then, I’ve seen Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) crane-kick his arch-rival, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) dozens of times. Despite it not being history’s greatest cinematic work, The Karate Kid’s dialogue, epic moments, and even its musical score long ago became part of my DNA.
I’m not sure if this level of connection is required to understand Cobra Kai, an episodic revival series that began on YouTube Red in 2018 and subsequently moved to Netflix. (There are currently two seasons, with more in the works.) But getting familiar with and having some good-natured affection for the original movie’s ’80s-style schmaltziness will make the Cobra Kai viewing experience more fulfilling. For instance, if you don’t know what “wax on, wax off” and “sand the floor” mean, you’re going to miss reams of jokes, as well as all the early acknowledgments of the show’s major theme, which is that there is a right way and a wrong way to teach karate. Daniel learned the Miyagi way, which means that karate is used for self-defense, and it’s a practice of the mind more than the fists. Johnny learned a more militant style as a teenager at Cobra Kai, where the motto is “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.” These philosophies extend into the way their students and the senseis interact with others.
In the series, the boys have grown up. Johnny is a bitter, racist, alcoholic handyman who still drives a muscle car and listens to hard rock. Daniel runs a car dealership and is well-off with a nice family, but he’s overly attached to his high-school karate champ days. Their rivalry reignites through an almost Shakespearean series of intersecting plots involving their teenage children and their friends, complete with shifting loyalties and hidden identities.
Cobra Kai is genuinely about karate. Anyone looking for fight scenes won’t be disappointed, and there is a dangerous edge in having such violence occur between teenagers. The show’s message often seems to be that it’s OK to learn to take a punch, but that aggression shouldn’t be rewarded. There’s cheesy dialogue, tongue-in-cheek musical choices, and some forced acting (although Zabka is terrific as a worn-out sad-sack). But Cobra Kai surprises with its skillful mix of comedy, drama, winking references to the movie, multiple complicated character arcs, and lots of really satisfying flying roundhouse kicks. — Jennifer Levin