I’m going to come right out and say it:
Cobra Kai is the best reinvention/sequel of a beloved media property ever, with the possible exception of BattleStar Galactica.
The Karate Kid is one of the most timeless 80’s classics in existence. To even toy with the notion of a direct, modern-day sequel is flirting with a disaster of the highest order. Many have tried, and many have failed to re-capture that 80’s magic: Fame, Footloose, Ghostbusters, Red Dawn, Robocop, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, Conan, and yes, even the Jaden Smith Karate Kid remake. (Which isn’t terrible by the way) Every single one of them not only failed but did so in devastating manner. As a 40 year old that grew up with the late 70’s and early 80’s movies, I think I speak for everyone my age when I say we absolutely hate it when studios try to reinvent the wheel on our childhood films. It is almost an impossible task, to take something so beloved and nostalgic, and reinvent it for the modern era.
And yet, Cobra Kai does just that, in spectacular fashion.
For those unaware, the show is ten episodes and is a direct sequel to the events of the original film. It takes place in the current year and features almost the entire cast (RIP Pat Morita) as we see how the events of the first movie shaped how things turned out. Johnny, the antagonist from the first movie, is a down on his luck handyman, while Daniel is a wildly successful businessman who gives away Bonsai trees with every car his dealership sells. Their lives are mostly a metaphor for how the first movie ended: Johnny the loser, and Daniel, the heroic winner. Johnny has no money, an estranged family, a drinking problem, and is a generally reprehensible guy. Daniel, on the other hand, has it all: money, great family, successful business, and great friends. The only similarity they share is that they have both lost connection with the thing that made them who they are: Karate.
It is impossible to overstate how much I enjoyed the character development and portrayal of both men, but the real surprise was how amazing the Johnny Lawrence character was written and portrayed. Given his actions in the original film, he should be the least sympathetic character of all time, and yet we find ourselves sympathizing with him for how his life has played out. As we join Johnny in the present day, he is exactly the 80’s throwback you’d envision. Driving the beat up Firebird, blasting 80’s rock, ultra politically incorrect, and blaming everyone else for his problems. He finally catches a break, and through his interaction with a neighbor, Miguel, he takes the plunge and makes a big move: Restarting the Cobra Kai dojo with a single student. Over the course of the show, Johnny somehow retains the “asshole factor,” and yet becomes incredibly likable, which is a challenging characterization to execute for the writers.
Meanwhile, Daniel Larusso is doing the exact opposite, becoming something of a snob, and has several moments where he’s toeing the line of being an outright asshole. As his life has progressed, he has given up karate, and as a result, his life becomes materially worse. In the absence of the harmony of karate, we watch as he becomes a different person. His relationships begin to fracture, his attitude worsens, and although he is still a good man, he’s clearly not the same without the focus karate brought to his life. We watch the two men ride a parallel track; as Johnny becomes better, Daniel becomes worse. In the same way that Johnny’s student gets him on the right track, so too does Robby, a teenager from a broken family, do the same for Daniel. The two men, in rediscovering karate, become better versions of themselves.
We also get an incredible lesson on the power of perspective, and how each man viewed the events of the past. As they flashback to the events of the first movie, we see how things weren’t as cut and dry as we thought. In real life, our perspectives are shaped by our own biases and worldviews. We can go to a movie with a friend and see the same film and come away with vastly different perspectives on what we saw. Also, even eyewitnesses to a crime can rarely agree on the sequencing of events, because the event they witnessed was filtered through two completely different lives and experiences. The way Johnny perceived the events of the first movie is a fascinating window into the power of perspective, and how it shapes everything around us, and even influences the direction of our lives. The show executes on this brilliantly and reinterprets and gives context to everything from Johnny’s point of view.
The most interesting part of the series is how both men reconnect with their Karate roots and evolve through the interactions with their students. Robby and Miguel both make their teachers better men, and we see how the influence of the teachers shape the lives of the students. As Johnny takes on more students, we meet several great characters, which I won’t spoil here, but suffice it say are some of the stars of the show. Johnny’s complete lack of political correctness in dealing with his students makes for incredible scenes, and I have to give kudos to both the writers and actors for delivering incredibly complex scenes that address bullying to an extent few shows will. And, as expected, there is a Karate tournament, and though this was an element I was quite sure was going to be included, it still managed to surprise me on several levels and wasn’t entirely as predictable as one might imagine.
Overall, this show is a masterpiece. I’m utterly shocked that a modern sequel to a beloved movie managed to be this exceptional on as many levels as it was. Whether it be acting, writing, themes, or choreography, every element of the show comes together perfectly. It isn’t too long, or too short; too emotional or not emotional enough. Every chord it strikes is precisely the right tone and immediately cements itself into the pantheon of my favorite shows.
10/10 -Magnificent, a classic.
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Steve is the author of Forging the Iron Mind, and is the founder and CEO of Americana Prime.