Now Streaming - Cobra Kai (2018) - Reviewed

For many children of the '80s, The Karate Kid is a classic.  A tried and true martial arts story that continues to persevere because of its underlying message of hope and decency as well as Pat Morita's legendary performance.  Robert Mark Kamen's new television series, Cobra Kai, catapults the characters from the original film into 2018, eschewing the black and white notions of the film in favor of a candidly human exploration of two men who approach the world differently and how their respective philosophies impact the next generation.

Johnny Lawrence's life was forever altered after losing the All Valley Martial Arts Tournament to underdog Daniel LaRusso.  34 years later, a chance encounter inspires Johnny to turn his life around and reopen the Cobra Kai dojo, much to the chagrin of the wealthy, but unsatisfied LaRusso.  Going into this series, it is important to remember several key truths: First, this is a Youtube Red original and despite the overwhelming love its creators have for the material, the budget shows throughout, particularly with respect to production design.  Secondly, every cheesy element from the film is present, and more so, is worshipped.  Famous lines and unforgettable scenes are dappled throughout, almost to the point of saturation.  Finally, this show has absolutely no business being as good as it is.  

The most remarkable aspect of Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg's story is how no one is a true hero or a villain.  William Zabka gives a career defining performance as Johnny.  He begins as a repulsive cynic, a drunk who destroys everything around him and yet, underneath the bravado lies a wounded soul searching for redemption.  His arc is easily the most interesting, as it is the heart of the narrative, but Zabka's willing embrace of Johnny's flaws is admirable.  His chemistry with Ralph Macchio feels forced for the first few episodes, however, once these two old rivals settle into each other, Cobra Kai really finds itself.  The wonder of the show is in how archetypes are both reversed and adhered to, playing with expectations while also delivering satisfying, crowd pleasing confrontations.

The second-generation plotline is another marvel.  Ignoring the stumbles of the The Next Karate Kid and the remake, Cobra Kai chooses to deal with the torch passing in an organic, hilarious fashion that emulates everything about the original that viewers fell in love with.  The kids are worth rooting for and their tragic arcs arc are both telegraphed and pleasantly surprising, as they allow the story to go on far beyond the expected resolution.  There are notes of sadness and darkness at the edges as Johnny struggles with his flawed, even heartless demeanor.  This is a man who is trying to prove himself wrong and overcome past discretions only to come perilously close to repeating them.  Child abuse is a theme as well, showing how the sins of the past define the present.  Daniel's storyline feels slightly tacked on with respect to the endgame, however, after the end of the final episode, everything makes sense as the seeds for a second season have been planted.  Much like life, the conclusions are bittersweet and friends, lovers, and enemies switch identities throughout.


Cameron Duncan's single camera cinematography has a gentle, luminous quality that both mimics the punchy visuals of the '80s and keeps everything playful.  While there are moments of sadness and memories of torment, the sun always shines above the strip mall Shakespearean drama, complete with its own Romeo and Juliet.  The world of Cobra Kai is a magical place of memories and dreams that are made tangible through Duncan's patient realization of Kamen's vision.  

The series is now streaming on Youtube Red and can be accessed for free by signing up for a month-long trial.   Cobra Kai is an exhilarating, and downright wonderful way to spend an afternoon binging.  While not everything works, when it does, this is an exceptional example of how to revisit a treasured childhood experience respectfully, while also offering something new.  Poignant, mature, and refreshingly hopeful, this is one of the best televised experiences of the year   

--Kyle Jonathan