September 1, 2020 (NY, NY)- Is Cobra Kai worth watching? Cobra Kai was the flagship, “originally scripted” program that launched YouTube’s premium streaming service in 2018. It made a significant splash upon its premiere, with Cinema Blend noting, “YouTube Red’s new series debuted to numbers that should make rival streaming services take notice“. In 2020 Netflix announced that it had purchased the series from YouTube, that it would release Seasons 1 and 2 in August, 2020, and that Season 3 would premiere on the streaming service in 2021. By the first weekend of its release, it hit #1 on Netflx. While there is tremendous excitement around this 34 year follow up to the beloved John Avildsen film, The Karate Kid (1984), is it actually worth investing your time in watching it?
The simple answer is, yes.
On the surface it appears all the odds were against Cobra Kai being worthy of watching. The Karate Kid is a beloved, classic, underdog story that, statistically, did more to increase enrollment in martial arts Dojangs in the United States than any other film aside from Bruce Lee’s epic, Enter the Dragon. That threshold of expectation is so high that, almost, any related project would seem to pale in comparison; that is, partially, why all of the sequels to the film were met with such less excitement. Additionally, even the most casual observer understands that the success of the first film was driven by the love of Pat Morita and his portrayal of the Japanese handyman/Karate Master, Mr. Miyagi.
What chance would a Karate Kid property have in the era after Morita’s passing? What were the odds that a 34 year reboot, in the post Morita era, focused, largely, around one of the most hated characters of the original, Johnny Lawrence, have a chance to make it past the pilot episode? Very, very slim. However, Cobra Kai works. It really works. It is highly engaging and entertaining.
The story picks up the very different lives of Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence in the modern era. All Valley Karate Champion, LaRusso, has gone on to be a highly successful business and family man, while William Zabka’s Lawrence is a struggling “has been” who is down on his luck. As Lawrence decides to breathe life back into the Cobra Kai Dojo, the rivalry between these two 50 year old men and martial artists heats up as the catalyst for the series’ story. However, the series is much more than a modern “Hatfield-McCoy” story. It introduces an ensemble cast of young actors that really make the series fun to engage in. Introducing their relative martial arts Dojo rivalries into the normal chaos of teen existence makes the characters fun to root for and against.
The heart of the series is the portrayal of Johnny Lawrence by William Zabka. He manages to transform one of the most hated and two dimensional characters of 1980s cinema into a complex and sympathetic character that you can’t seem to help rooting for, even as he regresses, at times, in his journey to overcome his struggles. Unlike Macchio, whose emotional gravitas seems not to have developed in 34 years, Zabka’s performance is rich and interesting. His performance is the foundation upon which the show is built.
The show’s young ensemble is very interesting and appealing. Unlike the portrayals of the original film’s character, these characters are not black, or white, but live in the complex gray area in-between. There are also appearances by some of the original cast in important roles, and while not in the series (yet), Elisabeth Shue’s presence looms large.
As for the fighting- it, certainly, is an elevation from the martial arts style of the original film, as well as the action cinematography. Taekwondo Master, Simon Rhee, and others in the fight choreography department, did a good job making the numerous training and fight sequences interesting and engaging. While, for some of the actors, there are still visible stunt extras doing the heavy lifting, for others there is good use of martial arts as a component of the story, not merely an aside. The show does do a good job of addressing Macchio’s feelings of insecurity over being a Sensei in the shadow of the great Nariyoshi Miyagi, as he tries to find his own style of developing true martial artists.
Cobra Kai is worth watching, whether you know the story of the Karate Kid, or not. I highly recommend it, and look forward to the third season.
-by Marc Zirogiannis