Julien Neaves – Editor
Now dear reader you be wondering why I am now reviewing action comedy drama web series Cobra Kai when the second season ended almost a year and a half ago. Well, said episodes were on YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) and I wasn’t about that paying-for-YouTube-Red life.
So when the two seasons dropped on Netflix (which I already pay for) Friday I binged on those episodes like Wimpy at all-you-can-eat Burger Tuesdays. Look it up young-uns! So those who caught Cobra Kai it when it first came out can call me and other new fans “posers”; morning I call us economical.
The series is a direct sequel to the Karate Kid film series and is set 34 years after the massively successful first film, which came out way back in 1984. So far the series has referenced the original trilogy but not the craptastic The Next Karate Kid, which is only interesting for having future Oscar winner Hilary Swank in it. And it is highly unlikely it will be referencing the 2010 remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, which really should have been called “The Kung Fu Kid.” Returning to Cobra Kai, Ralph Macchio and William Zabka reprise their roles as karate rivals Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence respectively, and the duo also serve as executive producers together with Will Smith. The rivalry between the two rekindles when Johnny decides to reopen his old karate dojo Cobra Kai.
Now I had heard great things about the show, but could it be as good as people were making it out to be? It wasn’t. It was better. In fact, it was freaking awesome! With a giant cobra-sized SPOILER ALERT here’s my review of the first two seasons in three matches. Begin!
Match 1 – Past Vs Present
The overarching theme of the series is the importance of moving forward. Of the two main characters Johnny is the one more stuck in the past. He is still haunted by his loss to Daniel in the All Valley finals, and losing his girlfriend Ali (Elizabeth Shue, who we see along with Mr Miyagi in many scenes from the first film). Johnny never really moved forward from that point and is a walking anachronism in the 2010s. When we meet him he has a dead end job, no functioning relationships, is a borderline alcoholic (Coors Banquet if you please), and spends his nights rewatching 1986 action film Iron Eagle. Restarting Cobra Kai may begin as a way to get back at Daniel, but it becomes his means for finding purpose and redemption in life.
Macchio may get top billing but Zabrak’s Johnny is the central character, and the more interesting one. This older version feels like a natural progression from the violent bully of the first film, as time and life has weathered him like his faded red Pontiac Firebird. Visual metaphors. Gotta love ‘em. He’s rude, crude and aggressive but there is a caveman charm to him, and a genuine desire to change and be better. And most of the show’s humour comes from his complete lack of political correctness and ignorance of modern technology. #hashbrown. Johnny is the heart of the series and I was cheering for him through every small victory and messy defeat. And Zabka’s performance is simply phenomenal.
Daniel LaRusso may have the “perfect life” – successful car dealership, smart and beautiful wife and 2.5 kids – but he is also stuck in the past as well. His ridiculous karate-themed car commercials and bonsai tree gifts are his way of keeping a link to his past. When we meet him he has long given up on karate and still mourns Mr Miyagi (the late great Pat Morita). And he still sees Johnny as the teenage bully who made his life a living hell.
And grown up Danny is a bit of douche. He’s cocky, whiny and the super nice guy attitude is kind of annoying. But he gets more interesting when he puts back on his karate gi and opens his own dojo, Miyagi-Do. His family and wife drama also feel very 80s sitcom and hey, who didn’t love 80s sitcoms. But Daniel is at his best with Johnny, whether they are pretending to be civil, throwing insults, reluctantly enjoying each other’s company, or throwing punches and kicks. What I most enjoyed was that both Danny and Johnny alternate as the “good guy“ and the “bad guy”, and you realise both are just flawed characters trying to be less flawed. That’s some deep stuff man.
Match 2 – Cobra Kai Vs Miyagi-Do
But Johnny and Daniel aren’t the only rivals in the series. On the Cobra Kai side we have Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) who goes from bullied nerd to karate hero to conflicted and darker karate champ. He is joined by bullied nerd turned punk bully Eli/Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), butt kicking Aisha (Nichole Brown) and the ill tempered, street hardened Tory (Peyton List).
Miguel has a similar arc to young Daniel’s (learn karate, beat the bullies, get the girl) and it was easy to get behind him, but this became less so as he started internalising more of Cobra Kai’s “no mercy” philosophy. Initially Eli’s transformation to Hawk was fun but then he became even worse than the people bullying him. Talk about a role reversal. Aisha had one of the more straighter arcs and I just loved her throughout. Tory, well, she’s the kind of girl mother warned you to stay away from. She doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder; she has the Grand Canyon.
On the Miyagi-Do side we have Johnny’s estranged and troubled son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), Daniel’s assertive daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser), and super nerd Demetri (Gianni Decenzo). And yeah, things are way less interesting on this side. Robby is just kind of flat and he is never believable as the former small time criminal. Demetri is your generic trivia spouting nerd which makes for cool geek references but we have seen this kind of character before. The best is easily Samantha who is a great mix of sweet and strong, thoughtful and butt kicking.
Though I preferred the kids of Cobra Kai the performances by all the young actors are generally good and entertaining to watch. And speaking of entertaining I thought the fight scenes were pretty good. My martial arts experience is limited to Street Fighter II and old school kick-ups but I found the fight choreography fluid, hard hitting and stylish. So my action craving was satisfied and then some.
Match 3 – Season 1 Vs Season 2
And now time for the finals ladies and gentlemen! Season 1 versus Season 2! But before that match can I say that I love the 30 minute-ish format. It lends itself to tight storytelling with less filler. Like a beastly cold Coors Banquet. I have never had a Coors Banquet so I’m just speculating. Anywho, the first season is Johnny and Miguel’s story. We see Johnny trying to get his life together and make Cobra Kai a success despite Daniel fighting him at every turn, and we have Miguel learning karate, gaining self-confidence and wooing Samantha. Johnny and Miguel had strong chemistry and each took turns lifting the other up.
And the tournament finale was the longest page of this series’ love letter to the original film and franchise. There is just something clean and streamlined about this season which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Season 2 is a little messy. The Cobra Kai stories are dominated by the return of the sociopathic John Kreese (the mighty eyebrows of Martin Kove). We see Johnny struggle to honour his sensei while crafting a better, more evolved Cobra Kai, but it was easy to telegraph where that was heading. Johnny still had some great moments hanging out and fighting Daniel, romancing Miguel’s mum (and btw his outspoken grandmother is just hilarious) and his touching road trip with his former Cobra Kai buddies. Pour one out for Tommy. The Coyote Creek training exercise was cool too. Go Stingray!
The season has a greater focus on Robby, Sam and the Miyagi-Do students, which was okay but it was kind of waiting to get back to the cooler Cobra Kai stuff. That final school battle was insane though. I don’t think I’ve caught my breath yet. But in a match up between Season 1 and 2 I think the first season takes it by a couple points.
So despite a slight drop in quality in Season 2 this show is still 12 flavours of awesome sauce, and my body is more than ready for whenever Season 3 drops in 2021. Will Miguel be okay? Where is Robby? Will Ali return? Will Johnny and Danny team up to take down Creese? Will Hawk change his hair colour again? We need these questions answered! Until then remember to love first, hug hard and show mercy. You see what I did there, and you liked it!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film, creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”.
I can also be found posting on Instagram as redmanwriter and talking about TV and movie stuff on Facebook at Movieville