“How does second place feel now?” That was the question posed to Johnny (William Zabka) by his domineering sensei, Kreese (Martin Cove), following a devastating loss in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. It’s a scene we witness as 1986’s sequel The Karate Kid Part II opens. And now, lo and behold, it’s a question that powers Cobra Kai, a multi-part YouTube Red serial that catches up with the key players from the original Karate Kid series 34 years after the first movie made its debut. How does second place feel for Johnny? And what effect did winning have on Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio)?
You read that correctly. YouTube Red, the paid streaming subscription service, lured original Karate Kid stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka back for a sequel that is decades in the making. Created by Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, Cobra Kai takes the Karate Kid formula and reverse engineers it with some interesting and unexpected tweaks. Brimming with just enough nostalgic callbacks to the first two movies in this franchise, Cobra Kai also sets up enough interest in a fresh generation of characters that help make the 10-episode YouTube Red series funny, interesting and contemporary enough for a new audience base.
Losing to Daniel in the All-Valley Karate Championship took an enormous toll on Johnny (William Zabka). If that final confrontation from 1984’s The Karate Kid was a proverbial fork in the road, Johnny ended up on the path to Loserville, where he’s the deadbeat mayor. A divorced alcoholic who’s on the outs with his own son, Johnny actually works as the super at the apartment complex where Daniel and his mom moved in the original movie — the first of many callbacks that fans will giddily recognize and chuckle over.
Daniel, meantime, haunts Johnny’s every move. The kid from Jersey who had to learn how to fight has become the very successful owner of a series of car dealerships in and around Southern California, and everywhere Johnny turns, he has Daniel’s success rubbed in his face. One night, while choking down a slice of pizza he buys at a gas station, Johnny happens to see a teenager named Miguel Diaz (Xolo Mariduena) getting bullied. Johnny intervenes, and a mentorship is formed.
Only, Johnny’s no Mr. Miyagi. And Miguel’s no Daniel-san. Cobra Kai wisely flips the script on the familiar Karate Kid scenario and wonders what would have happened if an impressionable, bullied young man like Daniel had landed under the tutelage of the mean-spirited and spiteful Kreese instead of the guiding hand of Miyagi?
Cobra Kai is a strange yet fascinating experiment. Granted, we live in an age where everything old is being repackaged and repurposed for consumption by a nostalgia-craving streaming audience — which explains why Netflix makes hits out of vintage properties like Full House or Lost in Space. And convincing original stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka to reprise their roles is an absolute coup for YouTube Red. I had no clue how much I needed to see what had become of these iconic characters from my youth until I sat through the first few episodes of Cobra Kai. Three episodes in, and I was hooked on what proves to be a completely bingeworthy 10-episode storyline.
And yet, because of mid-level production values and a tongue-in-cheek approach to some of Cobra Kai‘s establishing scenes (of course Johnny still listens to 1980s hair metal as he drives around in his Pontiac Firebird), it really feels like a slight turn of the dial to either the left or the right could easily morph Cobra Kai into a clever but spoofy Funny or Die segment that just happens to last for 10 episodes. The creators of the new series clearly know and understand these characters, but there are times I was laughing with Cobra Kai, and a few moments when I was chuckling at it.
What sells it, ultimately, are some winning performances by William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in roles that made them worldwide sensations. Zabka embraces every seedy, sleazy layer of Johnny, making him the “Ace Degenerate” that serves as the title of the debut episode. (Note that the language and violence are mature in this series, making it more R-rated than the PG-rated Karate Kid movies ever were.) And Macchio slips comfortably into the role of an older Daniel, blessed with some success but still struggling to find balance as his family life endures a few body blows courtesy of his rebellious teen daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser). Also, having Macchio casually drop lines that reference back to the Karate Kid movies — like “I was pushed off a cliff on my bike!” or “My mom drove me on dates!” — never gets old.
Cobra Kai has a lot of fun returning to the Karate Kid movies, showing that 34 years isn’t too long to wait to pick up a story tread and explore where it might go. It’s better than most Karate Kid sequels that ever made it to a movie theater, and if it produces a few more seasons, I’ll be first in line, with my bansai-trimming scissors in hand.
Cobra Kai is currently available on YouTube Red, the paid streaming subscription service that’s available exclusively in the U.S., Australia, Mexico, New Zealand and South Korea. The first two episodes are available here for free. To see what other new and returning shows are on the way, hop over to our summer premiere schedule.