Cobra Kai (2018) – Episodes 1 & 2 – Review.

Neil Gaskin and Skye Wingfield act as tournament adjudicators on the first two (freely available) episodes of YouTube Red’s hotly anticipated series.

If you are of a certain age then there’s a fair chance that John G. Avildsen’s 1984 film, The Karate Kid holds a special place in your heart. If we’re right, there’s also a fair chance that you may not have seen it for years but if we were to sit you in front of a showing of it right now, we’d wager that you would find yourself transported back to the days of VHS rental shops and repeated viewings with friends. If we were to shout a throwaway line from the film such as, “Get him a body bag!“, you would instantly know where that line came from.

The film’s success produced a duo of sequels which sadly, but expectedly, suffered from the law of diminishing returns. A reboot of sorts with a young Hilary Swank taking on the lead and a scandalously bad remake starring Jayden Smith in the lead role of Daniel and Jackie Chan taking on the role of his mentor Mr Miyagi, who taught his student Kung Fu! Surely the clue as to the correct form of martial arts was in the title?

The one good thing that seems to have come from that particular disaster is that Jayden’s father probably realised that although he still owned the rights to the title, there wasn’t any point in pursuing any further films in this new incarnation and one could presume that he’s attempted to recoup some of his investment, as Will Smith is credited with a producers role on this new YouTube Red TV spin-off.

*** Warning Minor Spoilers Ahead ***

Cobra Kai is the long awaited and much deserved sequel to what has become a beloved ‘80’s favourite and is set 34 years after the events of the original film, which is currently being aired exclusively on YouTube Red. Having seen only the first two episodes so far (they’re free to view – no subscription required), the story seems to mainly concentrate on the original film’s two main characters, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his former arch enemy Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and shows us where the two have ended up in life in 2018.

Episode One plays exactly to the impression given from the couple of trailers that have graced social media over the last few months and is told pretty much exclusively from Johnny’s point of view. Now a dead beat, absent father working in a menial job, and with very little self respect, he is still haunted by the loss to Daniel in the All Valley 1984 Karate Championship and seemingly stuck in the same time period, with both his choice in music and his car (a gorgeous but somewhat beat-up red Pontiac Firebird), a relic of the past, much like its owner.

The former bully, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, now finds himself broke and living in an apartment complex very reminiscent of the building we first see Daniel’s and his mother move into in the original film. Johnny works as a handyman for the wealthy elite he once was part of. Cleaning their gutters and fixing up huge TVs to the walls of their elaborate abodes, only to come home at night to see TV ads for his nemesis LaRusso’s successful chain of car dealerships.

A chance encounter with a new young tenant in his building leads to Johnny having to step in to a situation when the boy is being bullied, not because he’s concerned about the boy’s safety, but more because he’s concerned that the group of bullies will damage his parked car. But this isn’t the ‘80s and after taking out the thugs with some old-school Karate, Johnny finds himself on the wrong side of the law and bailed out by his disapproving step-father.

Now jobless and reluctantly having to accept a hand-out from his step-dad to get out of his life once and for all, he embarks upon a night time drive, inspired by the sage words of Louis Gossett Jnr. (he’d just watched another ‘80s classic, Iron Eagle) and his car ride becomes a perfect homage to Rocky IV’s now legendary early montage, showing flashbacks to the original film, scored perfectly to some moody ‘80s rock. Upon his arrival at his destination, which just happens to be the venue where the original fight took place, we are treated to one of the only nods to the first Karate Kid sequel (although Daniel does reference one of his many trips to Okinawa in a fleeting line during Episode Two) as we see the flashback of his then-disgraced Sensei Kreese and his reaction to Johnny’s loss.

Another chance encounter for Johnny with some more teens leads to a far more costly result this time, and an unfortunate and unwanted reunion with LaRusso himself. Daniel is now in the complete role reversal of their youth. Cocky, somewhat brash and with a clear air of arrogance, Daniel has the upper hand in their conversation, his every word striking Johnny with far more force than Daniel’s “Crane Kick” ever did. But as the conversation mellows somewhat, you actually get the impression that the two may finally bury the hatchet, save for a chance remark from Daniel that then, once again, sparks off their long-standing rivalry.

Now more fired up than any Poison or Guns ‘n’ Roses track could ever get him, Johnny finally has a plan. He’s going to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo! And that’s where this review was going to end except during the end credits, Macchio appears to inform the viewer that Episode Two of Cobra Kai would tell the story from Daniel’s perspective! Too intrigued not to sample this, we moved on to Episode Two.

Daniel-San seemingly has it all. A loving family, a beautiful home and a successful business. The opening montage of his wonderful life sets a beat that could be seen as cheesy and a little on the nose, but as the episode progresses, it is perhaps more symbolic of the persona he has created. On the surface he appears to have it all and yet as the story unfolds, we begin to see that the effects of his traumatic youth leading up to him being entered into the fight by Miyagi, have had as much of an impact on him as the loss in the tournament and it’s aftermath has had on Johnny.

Daniel’s drive and determination during his training have obviously instilled in him an ethic that has been carried forward throughout his life and business success but, he is actually just as trapped in the past as Johnny is. Still constantly finding excuses to reference his former glory, whether it be through his throwing of wooden-looking Karate chops during his tacky commercials, or instantly pointing out his victory over three decades ago to his employees when finally coming face to face with Johnny.

Now finding himself growing ever distant from his teenage daughter and the frustrated father to a surly, brattish son, Daniel desperately misses the guidance of his mentor Mr Miyagi, who much like the actor who originally played him (Pat Morita) has now sadly passed away. It’s obvious that he is struggling to maintain a positive connection with his kids as they move towards the latter stages of childhood and it is perhaps telling that we never got a backstory to the absence of Daniel’s own father during the original film’s story. In many ways, he is stuck in the same time trap as Johnny as he struggles to see the world through the perspective of this new generation. This is one thing that both episodes encapsulate so effectively. Whether it’s the obvious differences to ‘80s pop culture, or the struggles of both of the now middle-aged protagonists to come to terms with the more politically correct thinking of their younger counterparts. Through this younger cast, the two rivals find themselves once again heading towards an inevitable showdown and the closing scene of the second episode seemingly confirms that a rematch of sorts is imminent.

The feel of the show and the performances aren’t too far away from the style of acting of the original. This show isn’t going to win many Emmy nominations but it all feels like a fluid continuation of the original film but with a Cobra’s bite as there’s a satisfying edge to Cobra Kai that keeps it hovering comfortably above being just a cheesy retread.

Whilst we’re reluctant to provide a rating for Cobra Kai after only two episodes of the ten episode series, this show has taken us totally by surprise here at Film ‘89 Towers. A follow-up show to the original two films shouldn’t really work on any level but the approach that the 5 man writing team have taken on a conceptual level, i.e. swapping the protagonist/antagonist roles from the original is a bold but perfectly fitting move, giving the story being told here a very organic feel.

Cobra Kai has also managed to perfectly tap into the nostalgia of fans of the original film, whilst seemingly providing both a social commentary and viable story for today’s youth. This is best encapsulated in the exchanges of dialogue between Johnny and his new pupil Robby (Tanner Buchanan) where he outlines his plan to teach the same style of karate he was taught to Robby’s “pussy generation”, something it desperately needs. Johnny can hide neither his confusion nor his disgust at a generation where everyone is easily offended, makes much of their allergies and ailments that he refuses to acknowledge and would never dream of takin up a pastime that involved the application of physical violence in spite of the greater philosophical teachings that such an art form can bring.

Writing from the perspective of people who come from the Karate Kid generation but who are now fathers of children who are part of this current generation, Cobra Kai comes as a breath of fresh air, a slap in the face, a wake-up call of sorts to a youth that feels it’s entitled to take offence to everything and take a stand and make a crusade as warriors of social justice against… against what exactly? Is this Social Justice Warrior movement (and lets make it clear, that isn’t a label that is exclusive to the youth of today) the modern equivalent of the youth trends seen in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s with its counter-culture revolution? Take heed of Johnny’s take no shit attitude because whilst the Cobra Kai mantra of ‘No Mercy’ isn’t one we should be teaching to our children, somewhere in between that mantra and the one espoused by Mr Miyagi, lies an acceptable balance.

Ultimately, from these first two episodes, it appears that the writers are clever enough not to just do a complete, and therefore unnaturally abrupt, about-turn on the original story as Johnny is still kind of a dick and Daniel is still, at heart, a nice guy. Where we are likely to side with Johnny over Daniel early on is due to their change in position and circumstance, for whilst Johnny isn’t exactly a positive role model, he’s at least willing to stand up to bullies of the same kind that he once was. He’s already been redeemed in his fall from grace. Now that he’s willing to put his mistakes behind him, he is also willing to push himself to teach others to fight for themselves, not behind the shield of social media, but face-to-face with a confidence based on the teachings of and respect for, a past generation. We’d wager that Cobra Kai’s ultimate message going forward will be one not of preaching violence and aggression, but to teach its audience that attacking others with tweets and posts, condemning their opposing views makes you no better than a bully who uses their fists in the same way. Either way, this is a promising start to the series.

One can only commend the approach that Cobra Kai has taken and it is with high expectations that we look forward to seeing how this all pans out in future episodes, because on the strength of these first two episodes, we’ll certainly be getting a subscription to YouTube Red to see how the rest of this story unfolds. Very highly recommended.

The complete series of Cobra Kai is available on YouTube Red now.