Cobra Kai/YOUTUBE
Kristen Baldwin
April 24, 2018 at 07:00 AM EDT

What happens when a bully grows up? For Johnny Lawrence, the answer is nothing good.

Once the popular, flaxen-haired meanie who terrorized new kid Daniel Larusso with his “no mercy” martial arts moves in The Karate Kid, today Johnny is himself a beaten man — broke, alone, eating fried baloney and ketchup in his crappy Reseda apartment. Even worse, Johnny lives in the shadow — almost literally — of his former rival, whose face smiles down at him from billboards for Larusso Auto Group.

But Cobra Kai — YouTube Red’s Karate Kid spin-off series (launching May 2), which reunites Johnny (William Zabka) and Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) 34 years after their “sweep the leg” showdown — is not so much a tale of revenge as it is redemption. As both men rediscover what drew them to karate in the first place, they inspire (and in Johnny’s case, insult) a new generation of bullied kids. The result is an entertaining dramedy that mixes nostalgia and teen angst with an interesting meditation on the ever-shifting definition of masculinity.

We meet Johnny at the beginning of what will turn out to be a rock-bottom day in his already depressing life. He loses his job, his Pontiac Firebird is nearly totaled by a distracted teen driver, and he’s drawn into a parking lot throwdown with some local ruffians harassing his young neighbor Miguel (Parenthood‘s Xolo Maridueña). After Johnny dusts off his karate to dispatch the jerks, Miguel begs him to teach him some moves (sound familiar?) — but Johnny has no interest in revisiting the sport of his youth. That is, until a humiliating chance encounter with Daniel spurs him to open his own Cobra Kai dojo. “I’m gonna teach you the style of karate that was taught to me,” Johnny growls at Miguel. “A method of fighting your p—y generation desperately needs.”

Though Daniel is now ensconced in Encino with a big house and a happy family, the reemergence of Cobra Kai — and the sinister, “strike first” style of karate that Johnny and his buddies used to brutalize him back in the day — shatters his placid suburban existence, and he’s flooded with decades-old feelings of anger and helplessness. But the situation also reminds Daniel of the martial art that saved him — which he hasn’t practiced in years — and the man who taught him that karate was about finding inner balance, not kicking the stuffing out of your enemies. (Pour one out for Pat Morita and his beloved Mr. Miyagi, who is honored in many small ways throughout the series.)

Even at 56, Macchio still boasts the boyish looks and affable charm of his youth, and he infuses just enough gravity into the role as Elder Daniel, both a protective father to a teen girl (Mary Mouser) — she’s also a karate whiz, by the way — and a successful middle-age guy whose life, nonetheless, feels a little empty. Macchio’s scenes with Zabka are funny, tense, and deeply satisfying — but the main thrust of Cobra Kai’s action comes from Johnny’s interactions with the assemblage of teenage “losers” under his tutelage at the dojo. The writers have a tremendous amount of fun viewing the old-school machismo of the original Cobra Kai through the lens of Johnny’s Gen Z students. (“You don’t want to be a p—y — you want to have balls!” barks Sensei Lawrence, prompting Miguel to ask earnestly, “Don’t you think you’re doing a lot of genderizing?”)

As Johnny, Zabka brings the same sharp comic timing and self-deprecating humor he displayed when playing himself on How I Met Your Mother, but there’s a surprising depth to his performance as well. Adult Johnny is no longer a 2-D ‘80s movie villain, he’s a guy whose shoulders slump with a lifetime of disappointment. Though he’s capable of Learning Lessons — including the limited value of aggression — Cobra Kai never tries to rehabilitate Johnny into a nice guy. It’s simply too much fun to hear him say things like “Kick that pansy bitch in the face.”

One word of warning: Cobra Kai knows we want to see a rematch on the mat between Johnny and Daniel, but the showdown it delivers is more of a meeting of the minds than the fists. (That said, it does feature a brief but brilliant homage to Tommy Boy.) Naturally, the season builds up to the fabled All-Valley Karate Championships, where two students, representing the next generation in the Larusso-Lawrence beef, face off for that gaudy trophy. It’s one of the many ways Cobra Kai manages to give Karate Kid fans exactly what they want, while using the template of the original to launch new characters aimed at younger viewers. (A note for parents: Everybody swears, sometimes a lot.) But it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying this show as much as those of us who grew up on the original. From the ‘80s hair-metal soundtrack to the frequent Karate Kid callbacks, when it comes to aiming for our nostalgia sweet spot, Cobra Kai shows no mercy. Grade: B+

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