Back in 1984 - otherwise know as the peak of Western Civilization to all who were fortunate enough to experience it - the world was three movies into the "Rocky" franchise and the human race was longing for the next best thing. Another inspirational story of a down and out underdog who was able to dig deep down inside himself, overcome his self-doubt and find the inner strength he didn't know he possessed. All thanks to the support of a wise old mentor and the girl he loved. And who better to bring us this new telling than the man who brought us the original "Rocky," director John G. Avildsen?
In lesser hands, "The Karate Kid" might have been just another recycled Hollywood ripoff. The twice-baked potato of an elevator pitch that goes, "What if Rocky was in high school and fought with martial arts instead of boxing?" Avildsen turned it into a timeless classic. The sort of hero's journey that goes back to the ancient storytellers and not just Sylvester Stallone. Starring the wacky guy who owned the diner Richie and Fonzie hung out in "Happy Days," America's teen sweetheart, an unknown child actor, and the kid who ended up being one of the quintessential 80s movie villains. Pat Morita is no longer with us. Elizabeth Shue is starting her fifth decade of making every guy in my demographic group wish they were married to her. And Ralph Macchio and William Zabka the stars and co-executive producers of "Cobra Kai," which launched its third season on Netflix on New Year's Day.
I swear that No Spoilers is a sacred trust and I'll die before I destroy your faith in me by violating it. I was barely into the afternoon on January 1st and my brother started a sentence that I knew was going to reveal plot points and I cut him right the hell off like a telemarketer. But just to repeat what I said about S1 and S2, "Cobra Kai" is more than just a nostalgia trip. It's not mere fan service, like it would be in the hands of say, JJ Abrams. There are moments that call back to "Karate Kid" and "Karate Kid II." But it's not just "OMG, Chewbacca gets a medal? Remember when he didn't get a medal?!? Now he's got one!" This is these characters and their stories updated by people who care about them and appreciate what they've meant to those of us who's spent 35 years rewatching them.
More to the point, Macchio and Zabka have stayed true to the source material while still managing to surprise us. To subvert expectations. Right from the beginning of Season 1 they managed to make Zabka's unfailingly doochey Johnny Lawrence sympathetic by showing us that being the rich kid from the great neighborhood who drove the best car in school came at a cost. And by taking Macchio's Danny Larusso and making him a bit of a dick who rode his victory in the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament into semi-obnoxious success.
Season 3 dives into other familiar movie characters' back stories in ways that give them depth you never thought possible. There are surprise returns that are way more than just stunt casting (like the post-credit scene in "Wonder Woman '84), but move the plot forward in astonishing ways. And I'm not ashamed to say there is stuff in the middle of the season about Mr. Miyagi that had me crying single, manly, Spartacus-like tears.
But it's also funny as hell. Maybe because I'm a guy stuck in the '80s the way Johnny is or what, but least a third of the lines that come out of his mouth are comedy grand slams. And yet he never lapses into one-dimensional caricature, either. Zabka's a good actor playing a sympathetic guy who's still trying to figure out what the right thing is and how to do it. And the part where he goes to a Dee Snider concert seems like a one-off joke but turns into a plot point I'm still smiling about as I write this.
If I have a criticism, it's that there is so much going on with the high school kids who belong to the competing dojos, Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do. Subplots involving minor characters who switch loyalties and classmates who form alliances and then turn on each other. I can remember every small role in the Avildsen movies with detailed accuracy, but can't keep straight which attractive cheerleader type was the nice one or the bitchy one last season. But that's what you can expect from episodic television. I guess the best thing to do is go back and start the series over again.
The best compliment I can give "Cobra Kai" is that it is that 1984 inspirational karate movies are not the Irish Rose's jam and she had zero interest in diving into a sequel series. (She's more wired for period pieces/costume dramas about royal families living in castles and worrying about who's getting pregnant or whatever.) But halfway through Season 3 she jumped in to see why the manchild she married was enjoying it so much. And she got hooked. That's high praise indeed.
The OK Boomer Grade: A-.