How does Cobra Kai revitalise a (nearly forty-year old) franchise for a new generation?
By giving it a fresh perspective, that’s how.
Johnny Lawrence is now a struggling handyman with a broken family and an alcohol problem, whereas two-time karate champion Daniel LaRusso owns a big car dealership with his very happy family. When Lawrence finds himself a new teenage neighbour to mentor, he brings back the dojo that once set him down the wrong path — Cobra Kai.
In the height of the original Karate Kid’s success, many took up karate lessons and copied the crane stance wherever they went. Karate was the next biggest thing in the 80’s.
I can only assume a lot of fences got painted along the way too.
In the midst of the 80’s renaissance, it only seemed fair that we’d also be getting another shot at the Karate Kid franchise. After the very average 2010 Karate Kid remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith (it wasn’t even karate), the franchise died off and the world moved on.
But Youtube Red (and later, Netflix) committed to bringing the franchise back, and revitalising the classic LaRusso versus Lawrence narrative in a way that no one could have anticipated.
A story with rivalling protagonists
With the story being flipped to Johnny Lawrence’s perspective, many assumed the show would do a complete 180 and make LaRusso the antagonist that Lawrence has to combat. To an extent, that is true.
But the genius of the show’s writing lies in the nuances that they are able to bring to the characters.
Johnny Lawrence is still as much of an asshole as he was, but under all the insults and name-calling, we are also rooting for a character who wants to redeem himself by being a better father-figure for his new students.
Daniel LaRusso lives as a successful car salesman and family man, but after the death of his mentor Mr Miyagi, Daniel still struggles to do what’s right and be the bigger man.
The result? A really compelling rivalry between two characters we are both rooting for.
In my opinion, the show highlighted this dynamic really well in the Karate Tournament finale of Season 1. With relationships falling apart and people reaching their breaking point, the tournament showcased not just the moves and the kicks, but also the emotional impact behind every win and loss.
At the end of the finale, every character went home a loser, even though some of them won. And that’s the most compelling nuance that Cobra Kai has to offer.
Despite some cheesy dialogue that sounds straight out of an 80’s teen film, the script also humanises every character and gives them all a level of depth and nuance that I simply was not expecting.
An action series that “kicks the competition”
As far as teen action goes, Cobra Kai has by far some of the most intense and well-choreographed stunts in recent years. It’s fast, brutal but also very cleanly coordinated. The camerawork accentuates this frequently by utilising long takes throughout, placing audiences in the centre of an all-out brawl between karate factions.
It’s even better seeing all the young actors step up to the challenge and perform their own stunts. I can only imagine the amount of intensive training and preparation that they must’ve gone through to pull the sequences off.
And that’s not to forget karate icons Ralph Macchio and William Zabka who, forty years ago, first put karate on the big screen. They play off each other very well, and the script frequently teases skirmishes between them throughout the series.
Honouring the past, enjoying the present
If you’re keen on fan-service, Cobra Kai offers plenty of flashbacks from previous films, edited into the show at important moments. While a little blunt at times, the flashbacks are incorporated to either bring newer audiences up to speed, or remind characters about important life lessons learnt.
We see this best in the relationship between Daniel LaRusso who is still struggling with the loss of his sensei and father-figure Mr Miyagi. Often, Daniel tries to do what is right, but fails many times to be the bigger man and reach a peaceful resolution. When he loses his way, Daniel has to look inside and find advice from the Mr Miyagi in his memories.
Flashbacks aside, the show offers plenty more sets, props and returning cast cameos from the original series. It’s astounding that the show creators were that dedicated to bringing back specific cast members, even though they may not have initially had an integral role to the original franchise.
Looking to the future
With season three being a huge hit after being released just weeks ago, Netflix has already locked in another season of Cobra Kai. Where the next season takes the students and teachers of Cobra Kai, we can only wait and find out.
As for the endgame of Cobra Kai, the writers have mentioned that Season 4 won’t be the final season as there are more twists and turns to be had. It’s good to hear that they already have an ending in mind, as a lot of show writers like to take their stories one season at a time, but having an endgame planned for Cobra Kai means the script can develop as planned.
Cobra Kai is definitely a great binge-watch. Check it out on Netflix!