Netflix review: Engaging 'Cobra Kai' makes you all nostalgic for the '80s

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 06 2020 06:10 AM

Netflix review: Engaging 'Cobra Kai' makes you all nostalgic for the '80s 1
William Zabka returns as Johnny Lawrence in 'Cobra Kai'

It had already been two years since I saw a number of people posting on social media about a web series streaming online on YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) which reunites rivals Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence from the film "The Karate Kid" (1984). The series was generating a lot of buzz back then but I never got to check that streaming site at all. Fortunately, last week this spin-off series made its debut on Netflix.

The original "Karate Kid" was set in 1984. Teenager Daniel LaRusso and his mother Lucille had just moved from Newark, New Jersey to Reseda, California. Working as the handyman in their apartment was a middle-age Japanese man from Okinawa named Mr. Miyagi. When he was being bullied by brutish jock Johnny Lawrence over the attention of a girl Ali Mills, Daniel requested Mr. Miyagi to train him in karate in order to defend himself. 

Mr. Miyagi's training had Daniel doing chores like waxing cars and painting walls, all of which turned out to be teaching him vital defense moves during fights. In the climactic All-Valley Karate Championships finals, Daniel faced Johnny (who was representing the vicious fight philosophy espoused by the Cobra Kai dojo headed by their merciless sensei John Kreese). Injured with an illegal chop to the knee by Johnny, Daniel used a "crane-style" kick to his opponent's head, to win the competition. 

In Season 1 of the current "Cobra Kai" series, we fast forward to 2018, 34 years after the events of the first film. Johnny was a down-and-out handyman. Daniel was a successful car dealer. Johnny decided to reopen his old dojo Cobra Kai, with its "Strike First. Strike Hard. No mercy" philosophy intact. When Daniel found out about Cobra Kai, he opposed it, but it led to his rediscovery of his old passion for karate. 

Johnny's first student was his awkward neighbor Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), who was being harassed by bullies in school. Daniel's ward was Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), Johnny's estranged son who decided to train with Daniel in secret to spite his absentee father. Caught in the crossfire was Daniel's spirited daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser). Daniel and Johnny's rivalry will again reach its climax as their students face off in the finals of the All-Valley Karate Championships.

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Season 1 was practically a remake of the original film -- from the cruel bullying at school, to the menial chores in training, to the contrasting karate philosophies, the '80s pop rock soundtrack all the way to the final karate tournament. 

Season 2 was more about the toxic competition between Johnny's Cobra Kai dojo with the Miyagi-Do dojo that Daniel opened to give kids an alternative way to learn karate. The intense rivalry would extend to affect the dynamics of their families and their relationships with other people. 

Ralph Macchio and William Zabka (who were both executive producers of this project) were obviously middle-aged men now (Macchio was 56 in 2018, and Zabka, 52). However, their general acting styles was pretty much as cheesy as how they acted as teenagers in the first film. The martial arts moves were still there of course for both guys, but may not always be as smooth-looking as before. As the role of the unabashedly un-PC and tech ignorant Johnny is now more complex than it ever was before, Zabka got to show off more acting range for both drama and comedy.

Excellent support were lent by Courtney Henggeler as Daniel's generous wife Amanda, and Vanessa Rubio as Miguel's protective mother Carmen. Randee Heller reprised her original role as Lucille, Daniel's mother, as did Martin Kove as Johnny's sinister sensei John Kreese. Ron Thomas (as Bobby), Rob Garrison (as Tommy) and Tony O'Dell (as Jimmy) guested in one episode featuring a reunion of the original '84 Cobra Kai boys.

The other main teenage characters caught up in the power play between the two dojos were played by Nichole Brown (as Samantha's former best friend Aisha), Jacob Bertrand (as insecure nerd with a cleft lip Eli and his new alpha-male persona Hawk), Gianni Decenzo (as Eli's annoying neurotic whiner best buddy Demetri) and Peyton List (as the rough kickass girl Tory Schwarber who gets involved with Miguel).

The cliffhanger ending of Season 2 clearly pointed to a Season 3, which is set for release on Netflix next year. Like it was in the first season, the final scene of Season 2 also teased the return of another key character from the original film. 

If you've seen the 1984 film, you can foresee how this series will go. With its light, breezy, nostalgic '80s-style vibe, the series (with its compact 30 minute episodes) is easily engaging and very binge-able.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."