Cobra Kai, review: fans of Karate Kid will get a nostalgic kick from this spin-off

William Zabka returns as Johnny Lawrence  - Netflix
William Zabka returns as Johnny Lawrence - Netflix

In the 1980s, young people didn’t have TikTok, Snapchat or phones that tracked their every thought and movement. But they did have generation-defining coming-of-age movies, of which 1984’s the Karate Kid was among the most iconic.

Now this teen classic has been resurrected as a silly, self-aware and deeply watchable series that arrives on Netflix two years after debuting on YouTube (which briefly sought to challenge the streaming giants at their own game). It’s an ingenious act of reinvention. Cobra Kai is faithful to its cinematic big brother. But it is aware, too, that times have changed and that in the grown-up world there are problems that can’t be solved by a punch to the solar plexus or a sneaky scissor kick.

The original Karate Kid was a cockle-warming caper, albeit with the slightly worrying message that the best way to deal with bullies is to beat lumps out of them. And it gave us one of cinema’s great protégé-mentor relationships. Tousle-haired Ralph Macchio charmed as weedy new kid in town Daniel LaRusso while Pat Morita carved out a corner of teen flick immortality as mysterious karate guru Mr Miyagi (receiving an Oscar nomination in the process).

Daniel’s arch-enemy was blond thug Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who Daniel beats in the All Valley Under-18 Karate Championships tournament at the end of the first film. Cobra Kai’s mission is to answer a question nobody has asked once in the intervening 34 years. What happened to bad boy Johnny after the end credits rolled?

Macchio and Zabka are both in their fifties, though the former appears to have been working out at the gym of eternal youth. Latter-day Danielowns a cheesy karate-themed car dealership with outlets across Los Angeles. The embittered Lawrence, for his part, lives alone in a depressing apartment, drifting from job to job and is estranged from his delinquent son.

Ralph Macchio and William Zabka revive their Karate Kid characters - Netflix
Ralph Macchio and William Zabka revive their Karate Kid characters - Netflix

This switch from bully to under-achiever is a clever pivot. It soon proves typical of a comedy-drama that leans into the audience’s fond memories of the Karate Kid and then pulls away the rug again and again.

Nostalgia is the obvious appeal here but Cobra Kai is sparing in how it deploys it and is explicit that nobody from the 1984 movie went on to live a fairytale life. If anything, it is just as eager to critique the yearning for youth that manifests, like aching limbs or excess nostril hair, as we reach a certain age. It also has fun comparing and contrasting the rough-and-ready childhoods of the 1980s generation with the more pampered and curated upbringing of kids today.

Johnny reconnects with his martial arts past after a bunch of privileged adolescents beat up his nerdy new neighbour, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña). Resolving to show Miguel how to stand up for himself, he reestablishes the Cobra Kai school where he studied karate as a teenager.

Meanwhile, Daniel’s perfect life is quietly flaking at the edges. His daughter (Mary Mouser) has fallen in with a bad crowd – the same crowd that attacked Miguel, in fact. This sets him on course for a face-off with Johnny, their rivalry still bubbling over after all these decades. The twist is that now Johnny is on the side of the underdogs while Daniel is the all-powerful hotshot.

The notable absence, of course, is Morita, who passed away in 2005. Daniel, however, visits his instructor’s grave and we see Miyagi in cutaways to the original Karate Kid. There are also extensive flashbacks to a teenage Elisabeth Shue, Karate Kid’s love interest and the cause of the Johnny-Daniel feud. She has almost as much screen-time as in the actual movie – despite the actress not returning for Cobra Kai.

Jumping around the timelines is usually a bad idea unless you’re Christopher Nolan and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. But Cobra Kai, which returns for a third season later this year, skates by on charm and chutzpah (and a zinging retro soundtrack). If Mr Miyagi’s catchphrase of “wax on / wax off” sets your ancient heart aflutter, you’ll get a huge kick from it.

Cobra Kai is available on Netflix from today