Cobra Kai should not be as good as it is. The Karate Kid spin-off series updates the rivalry between 1980’s underdog Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and the blondie bad boy Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) — and might seem like the revival nobody asked for. But anyone with even a passing familiarity with the original franchise can find something to enjoy in this funny, cross-generational Netflix comeback.
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Our favorite part? Billy Zabka’s hilarious portrayal of Johnny Lawrence. The bully has grown into a misunderstood misanthrope with some killer lines.
Looking Back to ‘The Karate Kid’
Cobra Kai surprised viewers from the get-go by with the POV from anti-hero Johnny Lawrence over Daniel LaRusso, the famed Karate Kid. The last time we saw Johnny, in 1984, he was deservedly getting his ass kicked at the All Valley Karate Tournament. Evil sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) had ordered his impressionable student to “Sweep the leg,” a cruel attack which inspired Daniel’s enlightened crane kick — right to Johnny’s face. For anyone that can’t quite remember, don’t worry: there are lots of flashbacks in Cobra Kai.
But what many fans missed in 1984 was that Johnny was a victim too: of Kreese’s mind games, of a toxic culture that glorified masculine violence, and wait… didn’t Daniel technically steal Johnny’s girlfriend Ali (Elizabeth Shue)? And hold on… what if Daniel’s high kick was actually an illegal move?!
This is the alternate narrative put forth in Cobra Kai. In season one, we meet Johnny Lawrence as a self-pitying handyman. He lives in a dumpy Reseda apartment, drinking away the pain of his great karate failure with tall cans of Coors Banquet. That is, until a scrawny boy (this time named named Miguel Diaz, played by Xolo Maridueña) moves into the complex, in desperate need of self-defense training. Sound familiar? Mr. Lawrence is no Mr. Miyagi. His tactics are as messy and unprofessional as he is, drawing knowledge from his days back at John Kreese’s barbaric Cobra Kai dojo. Mantras like “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy” have not aged particularly will.
Still, Johnny is a committed mentor for Miguel. Soon, he gains a following of geeks, desperate to prove themselves against the timeless brutality of American high school: the new Cobra Kai.
As the reinvented dojo makes a name for itself around L.A., Daniel LaRusso — who totes a fairly obvious hero complex — forms his own karate dojo, the mindful Miyagi-Do, to keep aggressive Cobra Kai students at bay. Daniel’s own teenage daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) is the star disciple. A fairly obvious romance blooms between Sam and Miguel. Soapy twists reveal new characters: Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and Tory (Peyton List), the transfer student with a violent streak. Naturally, these teen characters hook up, take part in large-scale stylized martial arts brawls, and in general, completely warp the honorable tenets of martial arts. It all makes for amusing television. But it’s the hilariously overgrown feud between Johnny and Daniel that will keep loyal Karate Kid fans binging.
Reprising his most famous role, Ralph Macchio inspires natural nostalgia. But it’s William Zabka’s careful understanding of Johnny that imbues Cobra Kai with fresh vitality. Quite literally stuck in the 1980s, Johnny can barely work a smart phone. He calls hashtags “hashbrowns.” He eats Slim Jims for dinner and talks down to his dojo like he’s still the same angry teen bully. But compared to golden boy Daniel, who now runs a successful car dealership, Johnny’s flaws feel natural. Daniel is boring! Daniel did his growing up in 1984. Now, it’s Johnny’s turn. And along the way, the gruff alcoholic is supremely lovable.
The warring dojos present ample opportunity to take sides, but we are Team Johnny all the way.
Five Reasons We Are Still Team Johnny
1. Johnny is absolutely savage
“You can leave your asthma and your peanut allergies and all that other made-up bull**** at the door,” says Sensei Lawrence.
2. When Johnny (occasionally) bonds with Daniel
Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka are so cute as drinking buddies. Lucky for us, season five includes some more great partying scenes with the pair.
3. But also when Johnny lets Daniel have it
Courtney Henggeler, who plays Daniel’s no-nonsense wife, is also always treat.
4. Johnny Lawrence: World’s Worst Uber Driver
In season five, Johnny Lawrence takes up a new side gig: driving Uber. And he is predictably terrible at it. From his shattered smart phone to his penchant for Coors Light, thank you, Netflix, for this glorious ride share montage. I wish Billy Zabka was my ride.
5. SPOILER ALERT: Johnny’s Baby Fever
Since coupling up with Miguel’s mom, Carmen (Vanessa Rubio) last season, we’ve seen a softer side of Johnny Lawrence. And it became especially mushy once Johnny learned that Carmen is pregnant! Wanting to be better father than he was to his first biological son, Robby, Johnny is preparing this time around. He’s taking to the internet. He’s swaddling six-packs. He’s even taking the naked lady posters off the wall! We love to see it.
As the Cobra Kai narrative expands to follow new storylines, I could honestly do with more Johnny Lawrence. Hashbrown Team Johnny forever.
The fifth season of Cobra Kai is streaming now on Netflix.