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‘Cobra Kai’: Johnny’s complex now, and ain’t that a kick in the head

Netflix’s “Karate Kid” update enters Season 3 as good escapist fun that breaks down the formerly one-dimensional villains.

Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka, from left), John Kreese (Martin Kove) and Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) remain connected on Season 3 of “Cobra Kai.”
Netflix

Some of our favorite movie characters from the 1980s and early 1990s have resurfaced in the 21st century, from the return of Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller in an ad for Honda to Bruce Willis reprising John McClain from “Die Hard” for Advance Auto Parts to Bill Murray repeating his Phil Connor from “Groundhog Day” in a commercial for Jeep to Annie Potts’ Janine Melnitz from “Ghostbusters” appearing in an ad for Quickbooks to Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo returning as the Griswolds from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in a spot for the Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Quickbooks also featured Martin Kove’s notoriously hiss-worthy villain John Kreese from “The Karate Kid” as a kinder, gentler version of himself who is now operating the “Koala Kai” dojo — but we know that’s not what REALLY happened to Kreese. Whereas all those previous examples were one- or two-minute updates on beloved characters from three decades ago, we’ve been gifted with three full seasons featuring the modern-day adventures of the surviving main players from “Karate Kid” saga in the wildly entertaining, outrageously corny and ridiculously addictive “Cobra Kai” streaming series, which played on YouTube Red for two seasons before Netflix acquired the show, with Season Three debuting Friday and a fourth season already in the works.

Who knew we were so thirsty to catch up with Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence and yes, Kove’s John Kreese some 35 years after Kreese told Lawrence to “sweep the leg”? (Sadly, the wonderful Pat Morita, who earned a best supporting Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi in the original film, has been gone since 2005 — although Mr. Miyagi looms large as the guiding influence of Daniel’s life in the streaming series.) I’ve binged the entire Season 3, and while the initial big kick of seeing the return of these characters has lessened and the soap-opera plot developments are becoming increasingly ludicrous, it’s still great escapist fun.

In the “Cobra Kai” universe, Daniel and Johnny and Kreese hadn’t crossed paths in some 35 years until they started crossing paths practically every other day. Daniel is living the country club life he once envied from the outside looking in, with a lucrative car dealership chain in the San Fernando Valley, a loving family and a beautiful home. Meanwhile, Johnny Lawrence is a divorced deadbeat dad who is estranged from his teenage son, pounds beers 24/7, lives in a shoebox apartment and still has anger management issues. As for Kreese — he literally emerged from the shadows at the end of Season 1, eventually took control over the Cobra Kai dojo and is even more of a violent sociopath than he was during the Reagan administration. (Ah, but as we learn in Season 3, the bully wasn’t always a bully. He was a teenage victim of bullying himself. And then came ... his Vietnam experience.)

One of the great things about “Cobra Kai” is how it shows us events past and present from the points of view of Johnny and Kreese, as we learn more about the back stories of these initially one-dimensional characters. As Daniel and Johnny renew their petty rivalry, with Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) and Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) getting caught up in the crossfire, it’s often Daniel who comes across as the self-righteous bully, while we begin to understand and empathize with Johnny and even Kreese (to a certain extent). The callbacks to the original films are frequent and fantastic, with a number of cast members reprising their roles. (I’ll say no more other than to note Season 3 includes Daniel returning to Mr. Miyagi’s homeland of Okinawa.) As was the case with the first two seasons, there are LOTS of karate fights once again, often staged as if the combatants have spent more time in dance classes than dojos.

Courtney Henggeler is a “Cobra Kai” standout as Daniel’s wife Amanda.
Netflix

The young actors do a fine job in their vanilla “West Side Story” universe, but it’s the adults who pack the biggest punches in “Cobra Kai.” Courtney Henggeler is terrific as Daniel’s wife Amanda, who is often the only real grown-up in the room. Martin Kove clearly relishes reprising the Kreese character, who has been through hell and is about 100 years old now but still looks like he could kick your ass. Macchio retains his youthful vigor and plays Daniel as a good guy who sometimes is a little too pleased with his good guy self. And then there’s William Zabka, who has transformed Johnny from a one-kick pony into a funny, politically incorrect, self-destructive, deeply flawed but redeemable man.

Finally, we have a Johnny Lawrence worth rooting for.