Netflix UK TV review: Cobra Kai Season 2
James R | On 28, Aug 2020
This review was originally published in May 2019.
“The goal of Miyagi-Do isn’t to fight Cobra Kai. It’s to show them a better way.” That’s Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Mr. Karate Kid himself, in Season 2 of Cobra Kai. It sets the stage for the YouTube Premium series’ return, as the show escalates its initial tale of two old rivals unable to let go of a grudge into a full-on war of ideologies. On the one hand, Cobra Kai’s motto of No Mercy; on the other hand, Miyagi-Do’s defence-first philosophy. It’s a scaling up that allows the show to boost its action quota, widen its scope and raise its stakes – even if it doesn’t always break new ground.
Season 1 of Cobra Kai was an unexpected delight, as it flipped The Karate Kid franchise on its head by taking Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) as its hero, now grown up into a loser who’s seeking some kind of redemption. And so he winds up starting a dojo back in his All Valley home, taking on a young pupil, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), and leading him to success by fighting dirty. At the same time, his estranged son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), has been taken under the wing of Daniel and his daughter, Samantha (the excellent Mary Mouser).
That theme of generations passing down legacies and morals is given an added boost by the arrival of John Kreese (Martin Kove, completing a trio of reprised roles from the films), who popped up at the end of Season 1 to reclaim Cobra Kai for himself. It’s a smart move, teasing out the moral complexities of the karate movement sweeping the valley; within no time at all, Cobra Kai is packed with students, each one being nurtured by Kreese’s brutal, unforgiving tutor and his questionable ethics.
Kove is as craggy and cruel as you’d expect, enjoying the chance to play the villain, but it’s Zabka who really shines, as he comes to an understanding that mercy and weakness aren’t the same thing. It’s a welcome chance for him to bring some depth and growth to the part of Johnny, who didn’t get much of an arc in Season 1. LaRusso, too, is fleshed out to become a co-lead, rather than a supporting player, as we see the impact his decision to start a dojo has upon his marriage to Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) and upon his car-dealing business. Both Macchio and Zabka have a subtle ability to switch from comedy to fisticuffs to sincere emotional beats, and it’s one that elevates the series to, at its best moments, a thoughtful study of ageing and maturity. (One of the standout scenes, tellingly, involves them getting on during an unplanned restaurant double-booking.)
But there’s a fine line between revisiting nostalgia and retreading old territory, and Season 2 of Cobra Kai spends so long going over and over the same ideas and themes that the fast-paced momentum of Season 1 begins to flag; Kreese and Johnny’s conflict is resolved then unresolved so it can stretch out for more episodes, while there are only so many times we can watch Daniel teach another new pupil by getting them to paint his fence again.
As a result of that backward-looking focus, the talented young cast aren’t as well served as the grown-ups. Cobra Kai tries to balance its adult tensions with teen drama, but it’s mostly in the form of a generic love triangle, between Miguel, Samantha and newcomer Tory (a wasted Peyton List). Other arguments that erupt, between softly spoken geek Demetri and bully Hawk (MVP Jacob Bertrand), are entertaining and sincere, but they’re treated as padding rather than the main event, with not enough screentime to really make an impact. The unnecessary addition of older student Stingray (Paul Walter Hauser) as comic relief, on the other hand, soon grows tired.
Fortunately, any missteps are mostly covered up by the series’ increasingly impressive fight sequences. The action choreography gets better and better with each episode, from training montages and car-washing montages – Cobra Kai never met a montage it didn’t like – to an expansive punch-up in the corridors of the local high school. The latter is a genuinely thrilling climax to the season, one that brings a real sense of consequence to our characters’ decisions, and does away with Miyagi-Do’s claim to moral superiority, instead stepping back to question the encouragement of fighting among teens in the first place. It’s when Cobra Kai is moving forwards like this, using its affection for the past to look to the future, that it really clicks. The tease of a third season that will bring back yet another old face from the original movies could therefore be a blessing or a curse, but for now, this likeable remix of an 80s favourite still packs a fun punch.
Cobra Kai is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.