YouTube's 'Karate Kid' sequel is back for another round
The new season of Cobra Kai is about a dojo-vs.-dojo rivalry. Let me assure you, I feel stupid even typing the words “dojo-vs.-dojo rivalry.” But that is the beauty and the mystery of Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid sequel series takes wispy notions like “’80s nostalgia” and “love triangles” and transforms them into a substantive, wildly enjoyable saga of redemption, humanity, and the creeping ennui of middle age. The new episodes, premiering April 24 on YouTube Premium, expand the rivalry between Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) from a skirmish over petty high school grievances to a battle between very different — and very current — life philosophies. And when it’s not making you contemplate your mortality, season 2 of Cobra Kai delivers sun-drenched teen drama and what will likely go down as 2019’s best karate smackdown in a mall food court.
Exactly no time has passed since the season 1 finale, which found villain-turned-underdog Johnny brooding in his dojo after his star Cobra Kai student, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), won the All Valley championship by fighting dirty. (The tainted victory was a cheeky callback to Daniel’s original crane-kick triumph, which spawned an endless fandom debate about its legality.) Out of the shadows emerges John Kreese (Martin Kove, as craggily sinister as ever), founder of Cobra Kai and architect of the No Mercy ideology that Johnny is slowly beginning to doubt. Sensei Kreese claims to be seeking nothing but redemption and forgiveness, so Johnny — who wants to believe people can change — agrees to give his mentor/tormentor another chance.
Over on the other side of the 101, meanwhile, one-percenter Daniel makes good on his promise to stop Cobra Kai from taking over karate in the Valley — a concern that the show treats with wonderfully earnest gravity — by opening up a kinder, gentler dojo called Miyagi-Do. “There are no enemies,” Daniel tells his student (and Johnny’s estranged son) Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan). “The goal of Miyagi-Do karate isn’t to fight [Cobra Kai], it’s to show them… a better way.” And thus, we have Cobra Kai as metaphor for our divided nation: no mercy vs. non-violence. Badass vs. balance. “Us and them” vs. “all for one.” Who will win the hearts and minds of the Valley’s youth — and by extension, our nation’s future?
Don’t worry, nothing about Cobra Kai is as overwrought as my previous paragraph. Each episode is a tight 30 minutes of fun, unapologetically deploying ’80s tropes — training montages! dojo-building montages! car-painting montages! car-selling montages! — and Karate Kid flashbacks to wonderful effect. But Cobra Kai doesn’t live in the past; instead it hits viewers with bursts of nostalgia endorphins, leaving us giddy and defenseless against the next emotional wallop. Former ’80s teen bully-throb Zabka continues to give an Emmy-worthy performance, segueing seamlessly from poignant drama — as when Johnny confesses to Miguel that he missed Robby’s birth (“I failed my kid on his very first day in this world, and I’ve been failing him every day since”) — to steroid action, like the moment he steals Miyagi-Do’s thunder at a local fair by chopping a stack of flaming cement blocks in half. (How’s that for redemption, universe?)
Though Macchio is the de facto face of the Karate Kid franchise, the actor has the quieter role in Cobra Kai. Daniel struggles to interest prospective pupils in Miyagi-Do’s decidedly unflashy ideals — inner peace is boring, dude — but Macchio has (barely) aged into a warm onscreen father figure. His scenes with the younger actors — including Mary Mouser as Daniel’s kindhearted daughter, Sam, and Gianni Decenzo, a standout as brainy uber-wimp Demetri — are sweet and authentic. As for those precious moments when Zabka and Macchio share the screen, they are few but intensely gratifying — especially when Johnny and Daniel are on the verge of (gasp!) getting along.
Naturally, the action all leads to a Cobra Kai-vs.-Miyagi-Do finale showdown, an elaborate 10-minute karate-gasm that reinforces the season’s primary theme — is mercy equivalent to weakness? — and sets up a series of shocking, scorched-earth cliffhangers. While there are a few missteps throughout the 10 episodes — Miguel’s love interest, Tory (Peyton List), has little to do besides scowl through heavy eyeliner, and there’s too much time spent with Johnny’s buffoonish new student “Stingray” (Paul Walter Hauser) — Cobra Kai remains more entertaining and well-executed than it has any right to be. “The only way to end a rivalry is for someone to rise above it,” Miguel’s mom, Carmen (Vanessa Rubio), tells Johnny. “You have to be the bigger man.” It’s great advice… but let’s hope he doesn’t take it for at least one more season. B+