WHAT IT’S ABOUT At the 1984 All Valley Karate Championship in Southern California, a skinny kid named Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) delivered the winning crane kick to the face of his unscrupulous opponent, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and turned “The Karate Kid” into a new American classic. The movie not only became the next “Rocky” (both were directed by the late John G. Avildsen), it created its own “Star Wars”-style mythology, with LaRusso as a suburban Luke Skywalker battling a karate empire led by the Vaderesque sensei Kreese (Martin Kove). Thirty-four years later, in the streaming series “Cobra Kai,” Macchio and Zabka return to reprise their roles and reignite their on-screen rivalry.
MY SAY “The Karate Kid” property has offered diminishing returns over two sequels, a 1994 reboot starring a young Hilary Swank (!) and a halfhearted remake with Jaden Smith in 2010. Macchio, 56, has turned down several offers to reanimate the story, but it’s easy to see why “Cobra Kai” changed his mind. Though this YouTube Red production feels rough around the edges and far below network-television quality, it has a consistent creative spark that makes it worth watching.
The series’ shrewd opening move is to switch our sympathies to one-time villain Lawrence, now a struggling handyman who can barely afford to buy his nightly six-packs. Meanwhile, he’s haunted by the face of LaRusso, which beams from billboards advertising his successful car dealership. (His tagline: “We kick the competition!”) We feel for the down-and-out Lawrence, even though he isn’t exactly Mr. Nice Guy. He greets a new-neighbor kid, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), with the line, “Great, more immigrants,” though these two will bond together later.
In a subtle twist, LaRusso is now part of the privileged Valley crowd, and his daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), is hanging out with popular mean girls and handsome bullies. When Lawrence decides to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo and teach Kreese’s aggressive tactics to young outcasts — not just Miguel but a whole slew of nerds, runts and misfits — we hear the rah-rah echoes of “The Bad News Bears” and other classic underdog tales.
LaRusso’s sensei, Mr. Miyagi, taught the importance of balance, and that’s something this series struggles to achieve. Line for line, “Cobra Kai” may not have the most stellar dialogue, but the series’ writers (including Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, of the “Harold & Kumar” movies) do an impressive job of getting us to root equally for two adversaries. The acting is mixed: Macchio is dependably likable as a suburban family man (not a stretch, perhaps, for the Huntington-born father of two), though Zabka lacks oomph in a role full of comedic and dramatic potential. The overall look of the series — a little webisode-ish — can feel endearing or exasperating, depending on the moment.
“Cobra Kai” is betting that the nostalgia factor will cover up all flaws, and it pretty much does, especially when the old All Valley Karate Championship logo shows up once again on our screen.
BOTTOM LINE This series has an underdog spirit of its own, even if it’s not quite the triumphant crane kick it could be.