YouTube Red’s Cobra Kai premiered on May 2 and, just a week later, earned an order for a second season. I tried to write up a review of it but, one, I love the whole thing, so there’s your review. Two, I realized what I really want to talk about is all spoiler material. It’s very hard to walk around the edges of something like Cobra Kai, in which the best parts honor the sentiment and affection people have for the original Karate Kid and then update that film’s message for a new and younger audience in terms they will understand.
There is never anything as good as the first time, and for me, it was in a movie theater in 1984, grabbing my big brother’s arm as Daniel (Ralph Macchio) put everything he learned into practice. Somehow, Cobra Kai, which follows washed-up badass Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) as he reboots his dojo and its spirit, is just as good, just as round-hearted, just as fun and memorable as its forebear. Any of its 10 best scenes could anchor the feel-good hit of the summer in present day. So here are 11.
[Warning: The rest of this post contains major spoilers for Cobra Kai season one]
10. Daniel sees his poster at the tournament
Cobra Kai worked overtime to connect the viewer to 1984, as if the world of The Karate Kid has believably persisted in the 34 years since its premiere. The series finale goes all out to sell this idea. In 2018, the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship is celebrating its 50th year, and the show revisits the scene of the original showdown: Matador Gymnasium, on the campus of Cal State Northridge.
Nothing resonated for me more than Daniel LaRusso, a two-time champion of this tournament, seeing himself on the banner for 1984. The pride on his face is genuine. That’s Ralph Macchio smiling. He kept the headband, the 1948 Ford Super De Luxe and every other prop from the first movie. I hope he has this one, too. He earned it.
9. Robbie synthesizes the impenetrable defense
”God, I love this part,” Daniel says, in episode 7’s fan-servicing opening. And God I love it, too. This is the timeless appeal of The Karate Kid, the muscle memory of menial chores forming a combat purpose, and the idea that, within our everyday lives, there is some training that will raise us from victimhood to fighter.
8. Bert gets his ass kicked
Bespectacled Bert (Owen Morgan) is the smallest and objectively weakest member of the new Cobra Kai. Still, he survives Johnny’s weed-out training and goes full bore to the final day, earning the black and gold competition gi. Bert shows no mercy, and neither does this scene in episode 10. In the tournament, he is demolished in one kick, as well he should be.
7. Lip transforms into Hawk
Born with a cleft lip, Eli Moskowitz’s condition renders him effectively mute and removed from his emotional reference group. When he joins Cobra Kai, Johnny picks on Eli, giving him the “Lip” moniker, which drives him off, along with Crater-Face, Nose Ring, Slingshot and the multitude of rejects. But Eli (Jacob Bertrand) returns with a purple punk-rock mohawk, and then a shoulder-to-shoulder back tattoo of a hawk, which he makes fly after crashing a superman punch in the All-Valley tournament. Reborn as Hawk, Eli takes on the berserker role that Dutch held in the first flick. His new power is so supreme it swoons Moon (Hannah Kepple) into a tongue-tangling make-out session at the canyon party.
6. Daniel visits Mr. Miyagi’s grave
Actor Pat Morita died in 2005. Very few movie characters are as enduring and loved in present day as Mr. Miyagi, a role that earned Morita an Oscar nomination at the end of 1984. So this is our trip to pay respect to him, too.
In this scene, Daniel has regressed to who he was before finding Miyagi in 1984; mouthy, chippy, his own worst enemy. He goes to his mentor’s resting place, and remembers the lesson about balance in life. It culminates in a demonstration of the pensive, defense-oriented, graceful Miyagi-do way of karate, contrasting hard against the brutal, suspicious, merciless Way of the Fist taught by Johnny.
5. Miguel beats ass galore in the lunchroom
This is the keynote action scene of Cobra Kai. After Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) breaks up with Kyler (Joe Seo), he lies about her promiscuity, ostracizing Sam from every table in the lunchroom. Sam confronts her ex, and things rapidly heat up. Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) steps in, ready for his rubber match with Kyler, his original tormentor. Miguel makes it count. Kyler gets punched through the face and his stooges get worse, especially a shit-talking John C. Reilly lookalike, who takes a knee in the liver and eats a lunch tray. It is classic single combat in the teenage exploitation genre. The beatified look on Samantha’s face as Miguel is hauled to the principal’s office, to the fanfare of their classmates and a fuck-yeah guitar, is worth the whole show.
4, Aisha destroys Miguel
Aisha Robinson (Nichole Brown), daughter of an NFL offensive lineman, gives Yasmine (Annalisa Cochrane) a brutal front wedgie at the canyon party, and that’s awesome. But this scene establishes that Aisha officially does not mess around. She’s been betrayed by her best friend, bullied for her weight, orphaned for her intelligence and her love of science. All of that hurt and resentment slams knee-first into Miguel’s ribcage. “Girl’s a natural Cobra,” Johnny says, admiringly, as Miguel croaks and writhes on the mat. No mercy.
3. Miguel sends a message in the semifinals
The beauty of Cobra Kai is how effortlessly, and by example, it sends the message for inclusion and against bullying, without resorting to preaching, tokenism or other hamfisted narrative devices. In the finale, Xander Stone (Talin Chat), the reigning All-Valley champ from Topanga Karate, grabs the mike before the semifinals and launches into a grandstanding, virtue-signaling sermon about tolerance and acceptance, obligating the crowd into a moment of silence. Johnny, whose dojo practices diversity and inclusion, rather than talk about it, turns to his star pupil, Miguel, and issues the death sentence: “Kick that pansy bitch in the face.” He and Miguel are shouldering a particular eye-rolling disdain for pop culture’s insistence on making everything into a sociology 201 lecture. The fighting that follows is intense, and satisfying.
2. Samantha makes the move on Miguel
Cobra Kai only strays when it bites too hard on the original flick, and some of its recreations and callbacks are a little telegraphed. But I’ll forgive Sam and Miguel’s date at Golf & Stuff, which echoes Daniel and Ali’s at the same place from the 1984 movie, and is set to the original music, even. It is pupil-dilatingly sweet. It does what every matchmaking scene should do, make the viewer root like hell for the hook up. And when Sam reverses Miguel, throws him to the ground and mounts him, to plant the show’s first kiss, it is Cobra Kai’s most sensual moment, sealing the Romeo-and-Juliet conflict that burns inside every Karate Kid.
1. You-know-who shows up
”John Kreese is dead,” Johnny tells the tournament board in episode 7. My heart sank when I heard that. I can understand Elisabeth Shue wanting out of this altogether. She’s an Oscar-nominated actor, who did her time as the pop culture trophy girl in a teensploitation flick 34 years ago. (And her character, Ali Mills, is given a good send-off. She’s now a pediatric surgeon in Colorado.) But a living Martin Kove? There’s no understandable way a Karate Kid get-together with William Zabka and Ralph Macchio could go on without him. What a shame. I guess he cost too much or had creative disagreements or something ...
Then, like Old Scratch, Kreese/Kove appears in the doorway the night after the championship, smoking a cigar and speaking in a strangely modulated voice. I was waiting for him to laugh and disappear in a puff of brimstone and for Johnny to awaken on his floor from another drunken slumber. But this is for real. So is Johnny’s horrified reckoning, that he has become what he hates. Fear exists in his dojo.
1. (tie) Johnny’s flashbacks
In two minutes, these scenes do more to make me ache for the 1980s than Ready Player One ever could. Any overgrown kid who remembers having a bicycle and an untethered Saturday morning is going to catch a lump in their throat on this one, especially if they’re over 40. Set to Boston’s “Don’t Look Back,” the pie-eyed, gap-toothed adolescent Johnny descends from the Encino hills to discover the Cobra Kai dojo in the valley, and returns from his daylong adventure to tell his mother and hateful stepfather of the new thing he found. This is what he wants, really. Not like the drum set, or the roller skates or the magic kit. This will be different.
This is the origin story behind the greatest action/coming-of-age/sports movie of all time.