Johnny Lawrence is obsessed with the 1980s, driving his old sports car from that era, watching “Iron Eagle” on television and blasting Foreigner and Poison on the stereo.
In that sense, he’s like a lot of pop culture these days. From “Ready Player One” to “Stranger Things” to the “Heathers” reboot, everybody is looking back to the ‘80s for inspiration. And, if not inspiration, at least some references that Gen-Xers can latch onto.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that YouTube Red, the pay-to-stream division of the video channel sucking up hours of your time, has gone back to 1984’s “The Karate Kid” for its new series, “Cobra Kai.” But the surprise here is that rather than recreate the show with a younger cast, “Cobra Kai” has a clever way for updating a 34-year-old movie for 2018.
The entire season premiered Wednesday on YouTube Red, with the first two episodes available for free.
John G. Avildsen’s original “Karate Kid” was an irresistible crowd-pleaser, following Jersey kid Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as he learned to beat the bullies at his new school in California with the help of his friend/sensei Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita).
So the expected idea for a reboot would be a middle-aged Danny serving as sensei for a new Karate Kid. But “Cobra Kai” flips the script. The protagonist isn’t Danny but Johnny (William Zabka), the leader of the bullies who took a snap kick to the face in the original film’s climactic moment.
Decades later, Johnny still hasn’t recovered. An alcoholic who works odd jobs, he’s haunted by memories (okay, clips) of his run-ins with Danny as a teenager. Even more galling is that Danny has grown up to become a wealthy auto dealer, “kicking the competition” in his cheesy TV commercials. Every customer gets a free bonsai tree, in homage to Mr. Miyagi’s favorite hobby.
Seething at seeing Danny living the good life, it’s Johnny who decides to go back to karate and mentor teenagers. But he’s still kind of a jerk, and the reopened Cobra Kai studio emphasizes aggression and butt-kicking over Mr. Miyagi’s gentle art of self-defense. “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy” is the mantra on the wall of the Cobra Kai studio, which is as appealing to awkward teenage boys as it was to Johnny decades ago.
When Danny learns of the rebirth of Cobra Kai, his memories of being bullied by Johnny are triggered. What’s interesting is that, although Danny is still a pretty nice guy, he’s presented as the antagonist to Johnny’s efforts to put his life back together. The entire 10-episode season is building toward a showdown between the two as in the original “Karate Kid.” The difference is that, this time, we’re actually not sure who to root for.
While a little clunky in its dialogue and workmanlike in its direction, “Cobra Kai” is a lot of fun for fans of the original “Karate Kid.” The show makes the expected nods to the original series, but making the movie’s villain the TV show’s antihero is a great idea. Zabka makes Johnny a compelling character without sanding off his rough edges, and Danny starts seeming a little smug and self-satisfied by comparison.
“Cobra Kai” is a lesson to others interested in mining the ‘80s for reboot ideas; if you’re going to rely on nostalgia, at least do something interesting with it.
Also on streaming: The second season of “Dear White People” premieres Friday on Netflix. Writer-director Justin Simien improved on his indie hit film satirizing race relationships on an Ivy League campus, sharpening the humor and the plotting. Season 2 picks up where the last one left off, with the African-American students at fictional Winchester University reeling from a failed protest.
Legendary action director John Woo makes his Netflix debut with “Manhunt,” premiering Friday. Expect lots of expertly staged gun battles, an uneasy bond between a cop and a criminal, and lots of doves flying in the air.