In Season 3, ‘Cobra Kai’ Pumps up the Nostalgia With Some Extra Depth To Its Kicks

To pull off a show like Netflix’s surprise hit “Cobra Kai” is no easy feat. It requires being able to balance a silly premise with heroes packing pathos and ‘80s nostalgia with heartfelt drama and lessons. What began as a YouTube series is now a tribute to both a classic movie franchise and a bygone action film era. Unless you’ve been living in a bunker devoid of all access to digital technology, you know the series is a sequel to “The Karate Kid” movies from the late ‘80s. Let us forget the 1994 sequel starring a pre-stardom Hilary Swank. Now in its third season, “Cobra Kai” still has bloodied fist brawls to spare, choreographed with manic glee. But there is also much deeper writing to go with its punches.

That area of Los Angeles known as The Valley is still reeling from the high school brawl that sucked in every main character. Tensions remain between the opposing dojos of Miyagi-Do, led by Daniel LaRusso (original “Karate Kid” Ralph Macchio) and the Cobra Kai dojo, run Daniel’s old rival since pretty much their own high school days, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). As the season begins, Johnny is reduced to wandering around, dazed and smelling like a bum, traumatized by what happened. The brunt of the battle’s aftershocks is most felt by the dojos’ students. Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) is now terrified of even walking into campus, who was attacked by Tory (Peyton List), Johnny’s star female protégé. On the run is Johnny’s estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who during the battle left in a comatose state his opponent Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña). This forces Daniel and Johnny to team up to find Robby and grapple with the consequences of their rivalry. Yet sensei Kreese (Martin Kove), takes advantage of the chaos to fully control the Cobra Kai dojo, training the students with a violent paramilitary style.

‘80s nostalgia has been a major current in recent pop culture, but “Cobra Kai” is not a retread to the decade. Instead what it does is bring its entertainment values to a contemporary setting. This explains its sudden mass appeal. Those who grew up with “The Karate Kid” and similar movies can bask in the return of characters like Daniel and Johnny, now older and not that much wiser, while new fans can follow what amounts to a fresh set of storylines. There are countless references to the original movies, from quotes of the late Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita in an iconic role) to inserted clips used as flashbacks. The music score has an orchestral sweep where even the goofiest martial arts battle scenes suddenly have an epic flare. But the absolute greatest wink at the original is the return of Elisabeth Shue as Ali Mills, who was Daniel’s love interest in the 1984 classic and has a wonderful episode where she again becomes a conduit for his rivalry with Johnny. Their scenes together are a tribute to what once was, but has intelligent writing in how these characters must learn to move on from the past. Johnny especially might have a new chance when he falls for Miguel’s mother, Carmen (Vanessa Rubio). Because “Karate Kid” was an action drama with a timeless romanticism, it’s easier to continue the story than what has been attempted mostly with sitcoms like “Full House.” A good action story can keep going like some pop Homeric legend.

The over-the-top standoffs involving the younger students are also not without merit. While the fight scenes require you to pause being rational, like a brawl in the finale involving a bunch of high schoolers engaging in a house-wide, blood-soaked battle that would surely send a few to the hospital, the personalities themselves deal with believable back stories. Tory may be moody, but she struggles to pay rent and is sexually harassed by a creep of a landlord. Robby falls for the temptingly savage philosophy of Kreese, but it’s only because he harbors the bitterness of Johnny being an absentee father. Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) is the shy student who is still rattled by having thrown his friend through a trophy case last season. Kreese may cackle and pose like a cartoon villain, but the season explains his own dark mind through flashbacks to his time as a POW in Vietnam. These scenes are pure ‘80s throwbacks, full of the kind of jingoistic fantasies of Vietnamese troops being sadists, making the captured Americans fight each other over a snake pit. But they also allow Kreese to be more than a vapid evil-doer. His twisted, militaristic philosophy comes from somewhere.

On the action scale “Cobra Kai” more than delivers, with little attempt at presenting anything close to believable violence. The fights are designed to inspire fist pumps and cheers. This is the kind of show where no one seems to wonder why two dojos need to descend to this level of violence, including Kreese at one point trying to end Daniel with a shard of broken window glass. The only time anyone calls the cops is to make a needless arrest in the second episode. But think about it, how many times did logic ever matter in a good ‘80s or ‘90s action movie? If you want a documentary watch a documentary, not “Lethal Weapon” or “Bloodsport.” The question is if it is made well. “Cobra Kai” is made so true to its source material that the final episode features a cover of “In the Air Tonight.” It’s nostalgia done right, because it’s fun and sincere.

Cobra Kai” season three begins streaming Jan. 1 on Netflix.