This has been a stressful year, what with Covid-19 lockdowns, violence and a tough economy, making many nostalgic for happier times. This week, I’m spotlighting a couple of highly enjoyable viewing options that recall escapist, 1980s-style entertainment.
First up, Netflix has just started streaming the first two seasons of the YouTube Red platform series Cobra Kai, which revisits the two main rivals of the 1984 pop classic The Karate Kid–good-natured hero Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and rough-edged villain Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka)–35 years later. It instantly shot to the top spot on Netflix’s most-watched list, a reflection of the enduring popularity of the movie that inspired it.
Since it hit YouTube in 2018, Cobra has been widely admired with a sky-high 8.8/10 rating on IMDB. That number is richly deserved, since the series scores on several levels, meeting and far transcending the hopes of the movie’s fans. Johnny now is a hard-drinking loser drifting through life while bitterly observing Daniel’s huge success as a car dealer; the show follows their conflicts triggered by Johnny’s decision to relaunch the Cobra Kai karate dojo he trained in as a youth.
Cobra Kai had a notoriously ruthless reputation thanks to its motto of “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy,” but Johnny has learned that that philosophy leads only to destruction and sadness outside the ring. He strives to bring a more balanced approach to karate to his new students, a well-drawn band of weaklings and losers whom he transforms into badass fighting machines.
When Daniel sees that Johnny is back, he launches his own karate school teaching a karate as a defensive practice, as he learned from his old mentor, Mr. Miyagi. The two groups become bitter rivals, leading to a fun and unpredictable array of showdowns in and out of the ring, between both the leaders and their charges.
Yet Cobra Kai stands out because it is about much more than a bunch of battles. Zabka gives an outstanding central performance as a man beaten down by life, who tries over and over to redeem himself on myriad levels but finds that he keeps getting kicked by fate. Macchio maintains the same lovable charisma he had as a teen, and when Johnny’s evil former sensei, Kreese (Martin Kove), shows up, there’s plenty of menace to go around.
At just 30 minutes, Cobra episodes are unusually short for a drama, but that makes them all the more addictive. Each episode has plenty of fun for both the movie’s original fans and a new generation of viewers who have several outstanding new teen characters to follow as well. Mixing a surprisingly complex tales of midlife crises and teen angst with excellent performances and incredible action sequences, Cobra Kai is one of the most entertaining series in the current golden age of television known as Peak TV.
My other recommendation is the Amazon Prime Video action movie Final Score, a movie I expected nothing from when I streamed it but which turned out to be a wildly entertaining throwback to the ’80s era of Die Hard-style action blockbusters with some superbly done action sequences. The movie stars Dave Bautista (the giant Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies) as a retired American special forces soldier named Michael Knox, who must save a packed soccer stadium from being blown sky-high by a ruthless group of Eastern European terrorists before the game’s 90 minutes are up.
The terrorists want to get their hands on their former leader Dimitri (Pierce Brosnan) who’s attending the game, hoping that they can force him to relaunch a revolution that was aborted when he went into hiding 17 years before. Knox has to find Dimitri first and keep him away the bad guys while preventing the stadium’s destruction–a situation compounded by the presence of his 15-year-old niece in the crowd as well.
Of course, the plot is ridiculous, but that’s what made the era of blow-’em-up action movies such escapist fun. Score has plenty of terrific action sequences, including a two-against-one fight in a kitchen that’s absurd fun, unlikely weapons from giant steel pans to a deep fryer, and an insane motorcycle chase through the stadium’s concourses that climaxes in a 60-foot jump from one roof to another.
Final Score manages to ground all the fun in a solid star turn by Bautista, the rare pro wrestler-turned-actor who can express deeper emotions than macho posturing. There are probably plenty of you who would love to see a few crazy action scenes and massive explosions to take your mind off a rough day in the meat grinder that is 2020. Well, this movie does the trick.