Cobra Kai sounds like it belongs to what has become a dismaying trend—apparently terrified of risking money on original content, entertainment has resorted to rehashing, remaking, and dragging an endless number of sequels out of ideas that should have been allowed to die many iterations ago.
Instead, this continuation of The Karate Kid feels remarkably fresh and is shockingly well written. The original film was a classic coming of age story. Cobra Kai is a more complicated affair, following both a younger generation as they try to find themselves and the original characters as they cope with success and failure in middle age. The result is a surprisingly funny and nuanced meditation on personal transformation set within the world of martial arts.
Ralph Macchio and William Zabka reprise their roles as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence to great effect. The creators have flipped the script, putting Johnny forward as a down-on-his-luck underdog protagonist, and Daniel as his successful adversary. The key to what makes Cobra Kai work is the well-rendered theme of father/son relationships. Daniel’s father died when he was a child, while Johnny had an abusive stepfather. Both came to see their sensei as a surrogate father figure, and now both men are fathers themselves, and failing in that role to more or less of an extent. Importantly, both Daniel and Johnny find it much easier to mentor boys who are not their own sons.
This is an awful lot of dramatic punch for a show that gets plenty of mileage out of the comedic impact of the word “pussy.” (Successfully, I should add.)
Cobra Kai is an ambitious project that combines 80’s nostalgia, Generation Z angst, family drama, comedy, and an increasing amount of action. On the surface, it seems surprising that the show is on YouTube Red. Though owned by Google, YouTube Red has only 1.5 million paid subscribers, in comparison to 125 million for Netflix, 100 million for Amazon Prime, and 20 million for Hulu.
Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, creative partners since their days at Randolph High School in New Jersey (and best known for the Harold & Kumar movies), teamed with Josh Heald to create Cobra Kai. When they shopped the project they had a pitch and nothing else. No pilot, no scripts, just a vision for the entire first season.
YouTube Red may not have had much of an audience, but it was willing to give them two things—creative freedom and more money than anybody else. Thanks to that creative freedom, it is unlikely that Cobra Kai could exist in its current form anywhere other than YouTube Red. Because the creators were allowed to make a great show, it racked up the views on YouTube. With that success, YouTube brokered a deal with Amazon Prime, where Cobra Kai is now also available.
The creators rolled the dice on the smaller audience and won.
While Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald hammered out the story, they turned to veteran stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman to bring the karate in this The Karate Kid reboot to life.
Huge fans of the original film, the husband and wife team jumped at the chance to work on the show. Hiro Koda got his SAG card at age 12. Not long after, a family friend brought him to the set of Lethal Weapon, and from that point forward he knew he wanted to be a stuntman.
Koda first worked on Roger Corman films before spending seven years on the set of Power Rangers. His stunt work resume is both long and impressive. Now a fourth degree black belt and Shihan in U.S. Yukoshai Karate, he has notched many championship wins and national first places in the NASKA, NBA and USYKA circuits. Already an Emmy Award-winning stunt coordinator, Koda was nominated for Cobra Kai as well.
Curfman, also nominated for Cobrai Kai, originally came from the world of dance. She spent three years as a stuntwoman making Avatar with James Cameron, and from there developed her martial arts training, becoming an accomplished fight choreographer in her own right.
For Koda and Curfman, the Cobra Kai cast has been an easy one to work with. They single out Jacob Bertrand, who plays Eli “Hawk” Moskowitz, as a naturally gifted athlete who they suspect wants to be a stunt man more than an actor. Although the cast spends much of their free time training, it remains the work of the stunt men and women to do the majority of the significant fight work.
Koda, who is also a member of the Director’s Guild, helps the director and cinematographer line up shots in order to get maximum impact from each punch. Their due diligence is well rewarded with quality action sequences.
Crucial to the central conflict of the show are two different schools of thought on martial arts. Daniel, a practitioner of Miyago-do, represents the soft power approach—violence as a last resort and used only as self-defense. Johnny, a student of the vicious John Kreese, has adopted his motto: Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy. Daniel and Johnny take on students who absorb these lessons, and then go out into the world with real life consequences.
Picked up for season three, Cobra Kai is currently shooting in Atlanta, with a likely airdate in early 2020. You have plenty of time to get caught up on seasons one and two, and can do so on Amazon Prime or YouTube Red. If you want to skip the twenty episodes, summaries of seasons one and two are coming, which will be chock-full of spoilers.