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Looking at the 56-year-old Ralph Macchio’s baby face, you’d be forgiven for thinking not much time had passed since he crane-kicked Johnny Lawrence in his face as martial arts wunderkind Daniel LaRusso. It’s been 34 years since the release of The Karate Kid and Macchio, reprising his role in the new YouTube Red original series Cobra Kai, has hardly aged. But you can’t say the same of the movie’s premise, which is more or less reconstructed piece-by-piece in the reboot, one of many new shows arriving on YouTube’s new streaming platform.
For 1980s nostalgics, the experience of watching Cobra Kai will be like rummaging through the attic to find a relic you didn’t know you missed: besides the reappearance of Macchio as LaRusso and Billy Zabka as former-bully-now-lowlife Lawrence, there are copious flashbacks to the original film, references both subtle and overt to the sage-like Mr Miyagi, and a throbbing 80s soundtrack including Poison and the Human League.
Like Glow and The Americans, two other shows that make use of that decade’s greatest hits, Cobra Kai hopes the music operates as a kind of sonic time machine. But unlike those shows, Cobra Kai takes place in 2018, in a world where particularly woke teenagers take umbrage at being called a “pussy”. The result, then, is a reasonably charming, often corny and ultimately anachronistic show, presumably willed into unnecessary existence by the recent spate of 80s reboots, from Roseanne to Dynasty to Cagney & Lacey.
Lawrence, the boorish antagonist of the original film, got what he deserved: he’s now an angry, hapless middle-aged man living in a ramshackle Reseda apartment. In the opening minutes of the pilot, written by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald, he loses his job in construction after insulting a client and has his Pontiac nearly wrecked by a group of teens. Things lock into place, though, when he sees his immigrant neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) getting bullied outside the local corner store, leading him to beat the absolute crap out of the bullies and take Miguel under his wing. From here on out, Johnny will be known as Sensei, and Miguel as his pupil. On the wall of his dojo, the karate studio he opens without a license, famous lines from The Karate Kid paint the wall: “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.”
Over in Encino, LaRusso lives in far fancier dwellings. He’s now a wealthy luxury car salesman with a happy family. His face, seen frequently in hokey local TV ads where he karate-chops the prices of automobiles in half, haunts his old nemesis Lawrence. A series of plot points contrive to bring the two together, like the nearly totaled car, which finds Lawrence at LaRusso’s shop, and the fact that Miguel attends school with LaRusso’s popular teenage daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), ostensibly building to a rematch of that All Valley Karate Tournament, fought this time, perhaps, with teenage proxies.
There’s a meta-sentimentality to Cobra Kai – an awareness of its appeal and what it’s trying to do – that has eluded this year’s other 80s reboots, particularly Roseanne. Where that show seems to have forgotten why it was so popular in the first place, Cobra Kai is keenly aware that nostalgia is its biggest draw. But not all of it works.
In one scene, Lawrence tells Miguel, who can barely throw a punch: “You don’t want to be a pussy, you want to have balls!” “Don’t you think you’re doing a lot of genderizing?” Miguel replies, adding something about how words perpetuate “sexist” world views before trailing off. That the character of Miguel – a lanky and timid boy who nurses his asthma on the karate mat – would never say that to his “sensei” is apparently no matter; the show would rather inject its source material with belabored contemporariness than attempt to genuinely update its premise.
YouTube, though, is expecting big things from Cobra Kai, the most high-profile show yet to debut on its new paid subscription service. With 10 half-hour episodes, the show is compact if not bingeable, and its conceit alone should bring eyeballs. But despite its sentimental appeal and a mostly impressive cast, the sheer volume of shows available now makes it hard to see Cobra Kai getting its feet off the mat.
- Cobrak Kai is now available to watch on YouTube Red
Source: The Guardian
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