Wax on, wax off ... again
Cobra Kai is a clever reboot winning over audiences
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It’s a Cinderella story worthy of any cheesy sports movie. A few years ago, YouTube made a late, halfhearted attempt to enter the streaming game. Most of its scripted series were flops. But it gambled with a reboot of the 1984 film The Karate Kid with the original two stars (whom America had barely heard from in decades). The show became a sleeper hit and eventually landed a lucrative Netflix sale.
Once Cobra Kai hit that platform, it officially became the most popular show in the United States.
It would be hard to find another ’80s update that’s even half as clever. We catch up with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the high-school bully who inspired a thousand tousled-blond copycats, in middle age. He might’ve been the big man on campus at 17, but at 50 he spends his days in an alcoholic haze, zoning out on Reagan-era macho movies, trying to block out the fact that his nemesis, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), now owns a successful car dealership.
About as elegant and introspective as the heavy metal he blares from the subwoofers of his cherry Pontiac Firebird, Johnny couldn’t be a further cry from Mr. Miyagi. Yet when a nerdy immigrant teen moves into the run-down apartment next door, he starts to think he may still have something to offer and decides to resurrect Cobra Kai dojo.
Living well may be the best revenge, but the Karate Kid isn’t content to let his opulent house, beautiful wife, and thriving business speak for themselves. When he gets wind of Johnny’s plans, he, too, decides to return to the ring. Then it’s on like Godzilla vs. King Kong.
Daniel-san isn’t the bad guy by a long shot, but he’s a lot less lovable than has-been Johnny, who makes us laugh out loud with his throwback attitude. Unlike Daniel, who’s the very model of a modern major-domo, Johnny didn’t get the memo that it’s no longer acceptable to call women “babes” or hang massive American flags on his wall. He’s today’s underdog—a working-class junkyard mutt who gets kicked around by his (supposed) intellectual and ethical betters, yet still has enough spirit to haul himself out of a tangle of greasy sheets every morning and snarl in the face of safe spaces. When someone phones asking if he accepts gender-nonconforming students, a confused Johnny wonders if it’s a prank call.
Is it only nostalgia and weariness with a world that suddenly feels overrun with hall monitors that’s won Cobra Kai legions of fans? No doubt that’s a significant factor. But the show isn’t politically incorrect just for political incorrectness’s sake. Cobra Kai weighs what it means to be a man in a world that no longer seems to have any use for them. It looks at how fathers, both biological and adopted, shape their sons, and how growing up without them is leading to extremes of aggression and helplessness.
It would be hard to find another ’80s update that’s even half as clever.
Take the scene where an athlete at a martial arts competition feels he has to give a virtue-signaling speech condemning toxic masculinity before he can compete. A viewer can’t miss the irony that the woke adults in these young men’s lives demand a conformity and submission far more pitiless than anything a high-school clique could come up with.
The most frustrating thing about Cobra Kai is that for a series so well tailored to watch with tweens and teens, it includes a hefty amount of language and crude humor. Thankfully, VidAngel has the show on its service too, so families have the option to enjoy the fun and thoughtful themes while filtering out what’s truly toxic.
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