Realizing a successful film and television adaptation is a tricky business. While television series such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “M * A * S * H *” are outstanding examples of TV adaptations that have expanded and even improved their film origins, there have also been forgetful failures such as “Dirty Dancing” (1998) and “Ferris Bueller” (1990). In the case of “Cobra Kai”, which is returning for its fourth season on Netflix, we are treated to a series that faithfully honors its roots and at the same time manages to tell new and compelling stories through its two main protagonists, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) . and Daniel “Danny” LaRusso (Ralph Macchio).
Cobra Kai is an expansion of the 1984 film The Karate Kid, which tells the story of Danny LaRusso, a shy teenager who moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles and who soon becomes the target of wealthy golden boy Johnny Lawrence. when they both vie for the affection of Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue). After Danny is brutally beaten up by Johnny, who is part of the dreaded martial arts team, Cobra Kai, Danny trains under the friendly and wise Mr. Valley Karate Championship. “The Karate Kid” was to produce several sequels and a remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan in 2010.
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Cobra Kai picks up on the rivalry between Danny and Johnny (with Zabka and Macchio repeating their roles), but cleverly undermines audience expectations by telling the story from Johnny’s point of view. 34 years later, life wasn’t good for Johnny – he’s a drained, middle-aged man who has subordinate jobs and a contentious relationship with his teenage son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). After seeing Danny in a commercial for his dealership, Johnny decides to reopen the Cobra Kai Dojo and accepts his neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) as his first student. What’s old is new again as Danny recruits his own students to teach the lessons he learned from Miyagi-san, and restores a similar rivalry between the Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do from the original film.
The story goes on
What “Cobra Kai” really does is deal with bullying and violence and how these trauma manifest themselves in each of the characters. Years later we find that the bruises Danny and Johnny wear are more than just superficial and shape the way they interact with each other and with their loved ones. At Johnny, we understand that his mistreatment of Danny was based on his own low self-esteem that he had neglected from his mother and emotionally abusive stepfather. For Daniel, his petty bourgeois upbringing motivated him to give his wife Amanda and their children the regalia of the upper class that he had never experienced as a child. We see the same themes in the younger cast’s storylines as well. The love triangle between Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser), Tory (Peyton List), Miguel and Robby escalated into a violent showdown that resulted in Miguel becoming paralyzed at the end of season two. The conflict between Sam and Tory shows that violence doesn’t matter – it’s not just reserved for the boys – female anger can be just as brutal and toxic.
Season 4 begins with Danny and Johnny combining their respective dojos to defeat Johnny’s former Sensei Cobra Kai, John Kreese. Kreese is determined to take out Danny and Johnny, so he turns to his former partner Terry Silver, one of the antagonists from “Karate Kid III”. What Cobra Kai did so well is bringing in characters from the previous films to help move the story forward. For Danny, Silver is a painful reminder of his rejection of Miyagi’s teachings and, briefly, of Cobra Kai. We also find out that Kreese and Silver’s friendship is much more than meets the eye.
This season also brings new talent in the form of Dallas Young Dupree, who plays Kenny, a bullied teenager who turns to Robby for help with self-defense. Dupree is fantastic for the role, and his story arc serves as a cautionary example of how easily the line between hero and villain can be blurred.
This season, alliances and loyalties change as Danny and Johnny are forced to rethink their fighting philosophies. Daniel, who has adamantly maintained Miyagi’s defensive approach to karate, is beginning to realize that this may not be the only way if Johnny challenges him by saying, “Just because something has been around for a while doesn’t make it any better.” Johnny also realizes that the “no mercy” approach Kreese taught him isn’t always beneficial for his students. The relationship between Johnny and Danny is fraught with tension, fueled by past injuries, and the authors wisely show that reconciliation is hard to earn and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
The crowning two-part season finale culminates in the annual All Valley Championship, which tests Johnny and Daniel’s newfound knowledge, as well as some surprising wins and losses that will keep the audience in suspense. There’s also a luscious betrayal starting new alliances and rivalries for Season 5. As Silver Kreese warns, “If we rehash the past, history will repeat itself all over again.”
Season 4 of “Cobra Kai” is now streamed on Netflix.
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