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‘Cobra Kai’ strikes hard and renews old conflicts

Arts & Entertainment

The theories are floating around out there. I’m not sure how they started or how long they’ve been out there. But all you need to do is Google “Johnny Lawrence is the real Karate Kid” and you can disappear down a rabbit hole chock full of analysis and breakdowns that prove that Daniel LaRusso is the real bully and Lawrence is the real hero of “The Karate Kid.” YouTube Red had taken this idea and run with it, giving us “Cobra Kai”, a series that reopens old wounds and continues the major conflicts from the classic 1984 film.

“Cobra Kai” picks up 30-plus years after the events of the original “Karate Kid” movie, and life has NOT been kind to Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). He’s broke, has a crummy, dead-end job and is haunted by his loss to Daniel (Ralph Macchio) at the All-Valley Karate Tournament all those years ago. An encounter with a group of punks at a mini-mall sets Johnny on a path that will lead him to open his own dojo and bring him face to face with Daniel once again.

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William Zabka, left, and Ralph Macchio in ‘Cobra Kai.’

“Cobra Kai” is a show I didn’t know I wanted to see until I actually watched it. But after watching the first two episodes, I’m all in, and here are the three biggest reasons:

  1. Zabka kills it as Johnny. Johnny Lawrence is beat-down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, yet there’s still pride, still a warrior inside him. Zabka completely embodies those qualities. He’s not afraid to play up the humor of his situation, but you can also really empathize with him, too.

    But you also get to see the fire light up in his eyes when he finds his purpose. He really comes to life when he’s drilling the Cobra Kai philosophy into his students. And by the end of the second episode, when it becomes clear that Daniel-san is going to be a thorn in his side, the look of stoicism and resolve on Zabka’a face totally sells you on wanting to see what comes next.

  2. Macchio is the perfect uncool dad. If Zabka’s Johnny is the perfect outsider anti-hero, Macchio is equally great as the totally square parental figure most of us hope we never grow up to be. Daniel is a successful car salesman who still trades on his reputation as a karate master. But his home life is fairly mundane. He has a beautiful wife, a son who ignores him, and a daughter who’s struggling through the obstacle course known as the teenage years. Pretty standard stuff.

    So it’s no surprise that he gets swallowed back into his conflict with Johnny so easily. His sense of duty demands that he put Cobra Kai out of business before it can spawn more creeps and bullies like Johnny. Like Johnny, this conflict gives Daniel a chance to serve some higher purpose, and Macchio is completely believable as a guy jumping into a situation due to his sense of duty. Only thing is …

  3. The show flips the script. Daniel’s not really justified here, and this gets into what “Cobra Kai” does best. The show flips the story around so Daniel is a bully and Johnny is a victim. While the writers give Daniel all the oppressive power due to his status in the community, they’re also careful to give him an understandable motive and set things up so that he’s not an out-and-out bad guy.

    But, by having Johnny take nerds and outcasts under his wing and digging into the damage his loss to Daniel did to him (and is still doing to him), they also show us that his side of the conflict is justified. It’s hard to pull against Daniel LaRusso, but the folks behind “Cobra Kai” find a way to make you do it.

I don’t know exactly where “Cobra Kai” is headed, but I’m excited to find out. The show is a funny, endearing reintroduction to some beloved characters that also manages to do some deconstruction on the subject of what makes a hero. It’s neither a silly nostalgic revisitation or dark reimagining. Somehow, “Cobra Kai” manages to be an engrossing fusion of the two.

You can stream the first two episodes of “Cobra Kai” on YouTube for free. After that, you’ll need to get a subscription to YouTube Red. Fortunately, they are currently offering a 30-day free trial, and that’s plenty of time to binge all 10 Season One episodes.

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