It was a movie that inspired a whole generation of kids who signed up for karate after school, sneaked into rooms where older cousins were watching Black Belt Jones on VHS, and learned to use chopsticks. So influenced were we by The Karate Kid, we called our favorite teacher Mister Miyagi under our breaths and tagged a ‘san’ to one another’s names just as Mister Miyagi called the young boy ‘Daniel san’...
The original Karate Kid was released in 1984 and it made competing at inter school sports really tough: we respected our opponents, we did not snarl at one another, we shook hands at the end of a throwball and tenecoit matches and we took pictures with one another. All because Mister Miyagi said, ‘Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?’
Cobra Kai releases 36 years later on Netflix (it was released on YouTube Red in 2018). It’s Daniel San, all grown up, busy selling used cars karate chopping prices (thank god Mister Miyagi is dead). On the other hand, the loss of that tournament is still haunting John Lawrence. He’s a beer swilling handyman who needs to find a reason to live. He finds it in Cobra Kai - the Dojo where he learnt karate where you ‘Strike First, Strike Hard (and show) No Mercy’. But life has taught him the meaning of honour. As I watched Cobra Kai like a demented fan as it released at 2pm India, I realised how much of Mister Miyagi’s life philosophy had seeped into my head.
It is a brilliant casting coup, we have the same cast as the original Karate Kid rivals continue their upmanship in Cobra Kai: Ralph Macchio and William Zabka may have grown up but their past is inches beneath the surface. The makers of this show have cleverly connected the past and woven it in the present, making changes that make you go, ‘Aaah!’ with pleasure, something you do not derive in remakes.
Will Smith is one of the producers of the show, and even though I admire his passion for the original story, he must have realised why his remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan did not work as well. I still believe that movie should have been called The Kung Fu Kid because Jackie Chan teaches Jaden Kung Fu. But that’s for the past. I have watched two seasons of Cobra Kai back to back, so I can tell you it has all the karate you have wanted to see and more.
If you have not seen the original Karate Kid movie, Cobra Kai will still work, because they lay out the past pretty well. But if you have watched the original film, boy oh boy! Are you in for a delicious irony. The good guy has become obnoxious and the bad guy earns your sympathy, your empathy because he’s trying hard to get out of the hell he has been in.
Am I giving the plot away? Nopes! There are constant such surprises all through season one, it keeps that smile plastered on your face every time you realise how they have taken a nugget from the past and turned it on its head. Imagine old rivals teaching a new generation of karatekas that should have been studying at the rival dojo.
Cobra Kai has so many ‘aha’ moments I loved how students shaped up from snotty sniveling nobodies to shining personalities like ‘Hawk’ and ‘Mitch’. But the joy of rediscovery of karate rivalry turned me into mush when they showed Daniel visiting Mister Miyagi’s grave (the legendary Pat Morita died on November 24, 2005). I still remember the gentle voice of Mister Miyagi saying, ‘First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san, not mine.’
How many hours we spent in the high school auditorium yelling, ‘Kiai!’ to scare our opponents, and when I watched Cobra Kai, it was like replaying those childhood moments on screen (except there was absolutely no kissing then because we were taught by a Ninja Nun in an all girls school!). The 2018 California setting is rather fun when you see the new generation of kids worried more about food allergies and the release of a new comic book than putting in practice.
Johnny Lawrence immediately wins your vote because he’s on the right side this time because the show talks about second chances and making things right. Now that we’re stuck inside during the pandemic, these are things many of us have thought about. In fact, when the villain from years ago shows up to disrupt Johnny’s attempt at fixing his life, you find yourself despairing at the TV screen, wanting Johnny to not stop Kreese and give him a second chance at life.
The young protagonists - Miguel, Samantha, Robby, Eli, Demetri and even Tory - are superbly cast. They seriously ‘kick butt’.
There is a quiet sense of humour that stays with you throughout the show. Especially loved to see how Johnny (still trapped in the past) learns to use the computer and discovers the ‘Internet’...
The show will also make you want to call up the person who has been a father figure in your life. Someone who guides you, and shows you right from wrong, someone who is there to put salve on wounds caused physically and to your heart.
I loved the reference to Iron Eagle in the film and I yelled, ‘Chappie!’. Thankfully, it is lockdown and no one saw my glee at seeing a childhood favourite, even as a clip within a show. Of course the kids who are learning karate will watch Bloodsport too!
Season Two begins at a high when Cobra Kai, now established as a legitimate dojo, has new recruits and the presence of a reformed Reese teaching under Johnny Lawrence. The rivalry between Daniel and Johnny becomes sharper, but this season there’s a lot ‘emotional’ or ‘soft’ stuff going on. Too many relationship matters complicating what I like best: Karate.
It’s not all couples fighting, kissing and making up, There’s some interesting training techniques as well. What one felt when one saw Daniel perform katas in the original film, is not there in the show. But the last episode of season two offers us all the eyebrow-raising, jaw dropping action that is fast and super furious.
As they used to say about the movies once, ‘Isme action hai, romance hai, drama hai…’ Cobra Kai has it all and more. It’s a cliffhanger on episode ten of season two, but the promise of a season three will make you happy. I just hope they do not make us wait too long. Until then, ‘Aits!’
Manisha Lakhe Is A Poet, Film Critic, Traveller, Founder Of Caferati — An Online Writer’s Forum, Hosts Mumbai’s Oldest Open Mic, And Teaches Advertising, Films And Communication.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.