Kevin: While “Karate Kid” fever is again sweeping the nation like it’s 1984, I remained wary of the new “Cobra Kai” television series mainly because any time Hollywood tries to revisit a beloved decades-old property, it almost always turns out badly (e.g. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Tron: Legacy,” “Independence Day: Resurgence”). Then there was the fact that while a number of people I talked to enjoyed the show, they complained about the unnecessarily annoying and cumbersome process for signing up to watch the entire series on the YouTube Red platform.
But since the first two episodes are available for free, I figured I’d see if the continued rivalry between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence was so compelling that I’d immediately rush to give YouTube my credit card number, or if the $10/month subscription fee (following a free trial period) outweighed my desire to see the planned Season 2. Let’s find out (spoilers to follow):
Not surprisingly, the first episode begins with footage of the climactic showdown between Daniel and Johnny in “The Karate Kid,” including Daniel’s famous “crane” finishing move when he kicks Johnny square in the face and gives him a bloody nose. Now while Johnny does not exactly have a leg to stand on regarding the rules, considering how many times he tried to break Daniel’s leg in the tournament, when he brought this up later I was glad someone in this series finally noted that Daniel won on a blatantly illegal move.
Now you may have scoffed at those online theories about how Johnny is the real hero of “The Karate Kid” and Daniel is the villain trying to steal his girl, but if nothing else “Cobra Kai” proves that who is seen as the hero or the villain of any particular story usually comes down to who’s perspective that story is told from (Except Terry Silver, he’d be the greatest friend alive even if “Karate Kid III” was told from the perspective of Daniel’s diseased relative Uncle Lou).
Because as soon as Johnny gets hit in the face, “Cobra Kai” immediately shifts to his perspective for the rest of the episode, during which we discover Johnny is a much more sympathetic and layered character than we would have expected in 1984. Much of this comes down to William Zabka, who gives a genuinely compelling and endearing performance, and it just goes to show the power of persistence in Hollywood, since his most notable role in the last 30 years before this was as himself on a few episodes of “How I Met Your Mother.”
We then quickly cut from 1984 to present day, and you know Johnny has hit rock bottom since he wakes up and immediately drinks a Coor’s beer sitting next to his bed (I’m not passing judgment on the drinking, just his taste in beer). He also listens to Poison on his drive to his construction job, and while you could see this as another indication he is living in the ‘80s, I see it as having great taste in music. Unfortunately something else that peaked in the ‘80s – Ralph Macchio – soon makes an appearance, as Johnny spots a billboard for Daniel’s apparently thriving car dealership chain:
Now anyone who has lived in a big college football town is familiar with the star player who maybe didn’t make it in the NFL, but can still leverage his notoriety and goodwill for whatever restaurant/real estate business/car dealership he is fronting. But I refuse to believe that Daniel winning the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Tournament twice in front of a crowd of dozens has made him a beloved local hero.
Either way, Johnny officially captures our hearts by beating the shit out of some high schoolers who were harassing a kid from his apartment building named Miguel. After getting released from jail, Johnny shows that his taste in movies is just as good as his taste in music, as we see him watching “Iron Eagle” late at night while drinking whiskey out of an RC Cola can (coincidentally, all of these are things I did last weekend as well). Specifically he’s watching the scene where a tape from a seemingly deceased Louis Gossett Jr. gives Jason Gedrick the courage and self-confidence to blow up Iran or Libya or whatever Mideast shithole we had a problem with at the time.
Now I never thought I’d see the day when “Iron Eagle” would serve as the epiphany for a character to improve their lives, but here we are. Johnny seems to be taking Gossett’s words to heart until the movie cuts to a commercial for LaRusso Auto Group, in which we also discover that Daniel gives every customer a free bonsai tree, so I guess the business with Miyagi that Daniel started with the college savings he kept in a roll in his pocket really paid off.
Unfortunately whatever life lessons “Iron Eagle” could impart are now lost on Johnny, who drives around drinking straight from a bottle and remembering scenes from “The Karate Kid,” which is something I’ve done while driving drunk as well (weirdly Johnny also remembers scenes he could not have been around to witness). Ironically, he also gets his car totaled but not because of his drunk driving, but because some dumb teenage girls accidentally smash into it and drive off.
Now wouldn’t you know it, after having to pick up his car from LaRusso Auto Group, Johnny and Daniel run into each other and exchange a few pleasantries before reverting back to their high school drama. For instance, Johnny – having obviously read the click-bait posts about how he was the hero of “Karate Kid” – brings up the fact that Daniel was trying to steal his girl, while Daniel does the “she was never your girl” thing. Of course Johnny could have brought up how Elizabeth Shue’s character dumped Daniel’s ass shortly thereafter, and if he was really a dick he could pointed out that Robyn Lively immediately put him in the friend zone in “Karate Kid III.”
Either way, after being passive-aggressively shamed by the much more successful Daniel, Johnny – perhaps after watching “Iron Eagle” again – decides to use some money given to him by his stepdad to re-open the old “Cobra Kai” dojo and start by training the bullied Miguel in “a method of fighting your pussy generation desperately needs.” The second episode picks up not surprisingly with more of a focus on Daniel, although we also find out – in a “Crash”-level pile-up of unlikely coincidences – that his daughter is one of the girls who totaled Johnny’s car, and her new boyfriend is one of the teens who got beat up by Johnny.
While talking to the boyfriend Daniel finds out about the assault, and not knowing they were bullying Miguel, goes to confront Johnny at the dojo. Now I normally hate when major story beats are prompted by simple misunderstandings, but I at least found this to be a better justification for renewing their rivalry than Daniel just being upset at Cobra Kai being re-opened (although I still want to know what happened to all those other dojos Terry opened across the state in part 3).
The second episode is not as good as the first, since Daniel is not as compelling a character as Johnny just yet, but so far “Cobra Kai” is taking the “Karate Kid” story in some unexpected places. It also has some interesting thoughts on redemption and the roles of boys and men in today’s society, with Johnny attempting to toughen Miguel up in a world of peanut allergies and “non-genderizing.”
Either way I like the show so far, but I’m not sure if it’s so good that I’m willing to add another subscription service to my list. Maybe at some point down the road … whoa hold the phone for second. I just found out that SPOILER ALERT, a very important character in the “Karate Kid” universe makes an appearance in the last episode, setting up Season 2. No not zombie Miyagi, but the founder of Cobra Kai, the U.S. Army’s Karate Champion from 1970-1972, a guy who is not afraid to strangle a teenage student in the parking lot in front of all the parents just to teach him a lesson: John Kreese!
Forget $10 a month, if Season 2 provides a similar Johnny-like image rehabilitation that a certified badass war hero like Kreese deserves, YouTube Red could charge $100 a month and it would be worth it. Semper Fi sensei Kreese, and bring Terry with you!