The Karate Kid has kids of his own.
But they are among the least interesting aspects of “Cobra Kai,” the YouTube Premium series, returning Wednesday, that continues the decadeslong rivalry between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
“The Karate Kid” turns 35 next month, and there’s something eternal about the story of the bullied outsider who stands up to his persecutor and, in the process, helps restore a sense of pride and purpose in his mentor.
Or maybe it’s a generational thing. “Why’s the kid still listening to that crazy old man?” Dylan (Reid Ewing) wonders while watching the movie during a March episode of “Modern Family.” “Oh, God. He’s doing that scarecrow move again,” Luke (Nolan Gould) chimes in, dismissing the legendary crane technique. “Why? It’s completely wobbly, and you can’t get any leverage.”
Or maybe — just maybe — that isn’t the actual story of “The Karate Kid” after all. Seen through the eyes of Johnny in “Cobra Kai,” the movie’s events are the depressing tale of a lovestruck teenager and the new kid who moves to town, starts flirting with his girlfriend, sucker punches him on the beach and douses him with water at the Halloween dance before some full-grown handyman jumps in and beats him and his friends to a pulp.
“I think my buddy Tommy got brain damage because of that fight,” Johnny laments.
The years since the infamous Under 18 All Valley Karate Championship haven’t been kind to Johnny. Life has kicked him in the face more times than Daniel ever did.
When “Cobra Kai” began, he too was a handyman living in a dumpy apartment when he met a young neighbor clearly in need of a male role model. Living on Coors, beef jerky and “Iron Eagle,” Johnny is clearly no Mr. Miyagi, the role that earned longtime Las Vegan Pat Morita an Oscar nomination. Still, after a run-in with his old nemesis, who’s living the good life Johnny once had, he reopens the Cobra Kai dojo with mixed results.
There’s something weirdly charming about a series that takes place in a world where it’s perfectly normal that Daniel is trading on his victory three decades ago at a local martial arts competition to draw customers to his luxury car dealerships. LaRusso Auto Group’s slogan? “We kick the competition.” And there’s a free bonsai with every purchase.
But “Cobra Kai’s” tone is all over the place. At times, Daniel’s kind of a tool, and the very specific ways he has a young employee perform tasks, from mopping floors to stapling papers, falls somewhere between Mr. Miyagi-style training and anal retention. Then he cleans up his late mentor’s home and opens a dojo just to train that same kid.
Johnny, meanwhile, vacillates between a safer version of “Eastbound &Down’s” Kenny Powers and a (semi)softie who realizes he’s the way he is because of the childhood abuse heaped on him by his stepfather (Ed Asner) and sensei (Martin Kove).
“Cobra Kai” isn’t even all that novel. Back in 2009, “How I Met Your Mother’s” Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) professed his love for “The Karate Kid” and the movie’s true hero. “It’s the story of a hopeful young karate enthusiast whose dreams and moxie take him all the way to the All Valley Karate Championship. Of course, sadly, he loses in the final round to that nerd kid.” Asked if he really roots for Johnny, Barney scoffs, “No, I root for the scrawny loser from New Jersey who barely even knows karate.”
There’s still a lot to like about “Cobra Kai.”
It kicks circles around “The Karate Kid’s” second sequel, the Hilary Swank reboot and that misbegotten Jaden Smith remake.
Even though it’s hard not to wish the series would embrace its bad boy potential and go out there and sweep the leg.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.