‘Cobra Kai’ Review: ‘Karate Kid’ Sequel Series Is Still the Best Around at Channeling That ‘80s Machismo (2023)

In Season 2, the YouTube Premium series escalates into a full-blown, rib-cracking conflagration of flying fists and bruised egos.

[Editor’s Note The first episode of “Cobra Kai” Season 2 is available to watch for free at the bottom of this review. The full 10-episode season is available on YouTube Premium.]

“Cobra Kai” burst through the YouTube Premium offerings to become the paid streaming service’s first true breakout hit, with its first episode – which was offered for free – garnering over 60 million views. The sequel series to 1984’s “Karate Kid” somehow did the impossible, bringing back two of the film’s main characters 30-odd years later and recapturing the energy and heart of ‘80s underdog cinema.

Now “Cobra Kai” is back for a second round in the YouTube dojo to deliver another swift kick of ‘80s nostalgia in all of its blustering and boisterous glory. Appealing to aging Gen-Xers and their kids alike, this multi-generational crowd pleaser continues to explore themes of redemption, forgiveness, mentorship, and acceptance with confidence but not an ounce of subtlety. And that’s OK. It’s this simplicity that is part of its earnest appeal, and creators Josh Heald (“Hot Tub Time Machine”) and duo Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (“Harold and Kumar”) save the series from self-seriousness with their considerable comedic savvy.

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The series picks up directly with the cliffhanger from last season, when the original battle-hardened sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) shows up at the Cobra Kai dojo that’s been resurrected by his old student Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Fresh from a victory over childhood rival Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his protege at the All-Valley Karate Tournament, Johnny intends to usher his own students toward a more ethical way of karate to make up for the brutal ways he learned from Kreese.

As Johnny struggles with entering the 21 century – both technologically and socially – Daniel is realizing that he’s not a natural teacher like his mentor, the late Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Nevertheless, he’s determined to get his Miyagi-Do Karate dojo up and running to take on Cobra Kai. If only he didn’t feel like he was failing his family and work in order to accomplish this task.

Meanwhile, Season 2 has expanded the focus on its roster of teenagers, who bring a fresh and energetic immediacy to the conflicts. Their passions and pains are palpable, and therefore when they lose their tempers and lash out – often physically – it’s regrettable yet understandable (at least moreso than when their grown teachers use karate irresponsibly.)

‘Cobra Kai’ Review: ‘Karate Kid’ Sequel Series Is Still the Best Around at Channeling That ‘80s Machismo (1)

Peyton List, “Cobra Kai”

YouTube Premium

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While the focus is still on its main three teens — Johnny’s protege Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), his estranged son/Daniel’s protege Robby (Tanner Buchanan), and Daniel’s daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) — the series also takes the time to flesh out Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) and Eli/Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) a little more. Of the new batch of teenagers, the standout is Disney Channel star Peyton List who is ferocious as Tory, an underprivileged girl seething with anger and resentment.

Children of the ‘80s will have plenty to scratch that nostalgic itch with numerous callbacks to the “Karate Kid” films. There’s a flashback featuring Morita that’s so joyous that it’s heartbreaking to watch because of his absence, and Johnny reuniting with his old Cobra Kai chums is bittersweet given the inexorable march of time. Even the teenage characters have embraced the ‘80s in fun and surprising ways. What’s old is new (and cool) again.

Although backstories are sketched rather than explored fully, that makes more time for the over-the-top karate scenarios, which is frankly what the viewers want. Going beyond mere wax on/wax off chores, Daniel and Johnny find creative and entertaining ways to train their students into suddenly learning to block and execute a roundhouse kick.

The series does well in doling out the smaller karate skirmishes to keep the audience keen, but two rival dojos full of disaffected teens who know how to throw a punch will eventually escalate their conflict. The result is a full-blown, rib-cracking, conflagration of a battle that is breathtaking in its length and brutality. All credit to the young actors — most of whom didn’t have any significant martial arts training before the show — for learning their moves to appear swift and effortless, as well as stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman for creating the melee. Although not as sophisticated as the fantastical martial arts seen in “Into the Badlands” or Cinemax’s ultra-violent “Warrior,” the fights in “Cobra Kai” feel more grounded and therefore more dangerous.

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A few quibbles: The portrayal of girls and women is still rather limited, with Tory being the most interesting and complex of the bunch. The rest are more often than not only concerned with their relationship to boys/men or being involved with karate, which of course is conducive to romance on this show. One of the reasons behind a significant girl rivalry is one of the most depressing cliches in storytelling.

As for the inclusivity on the show, it still hasn’t improved significantly from Season 1, despite the show taking place in Los Angeles’ diverse San Fernando Valley. Miguel and his mother continue to be the most significant people of color on the show, although a few more tokens have been sprinkled in for tertiary supporting roles.

‘Cobra Kai’ Review: ‘Karate Kid’ Sequel Series Is Still the Best Around at Channeling That ‘80s Machismo (2)

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Ralph Macchio, “Cobra Kai”

Guy D'Alema/YouTube/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

Meanwhile, the karate teachings remain fairly surface-level without delving into Japanese culture or the philosophies behind it. The loss of Mr. Miyagi is still painful, no matter how much Daniel continues to pay homage to his old teacher. Perhaps part of the issue is that his own instruction was based solely on this one amazing, but ultimately imperfect man. With so much of Daniel’s training in the rear view, he really has no business instructing anyone in martial arts, at least not without continuing his own education. That said, the show is aware enough of his shortcomings and makes a few pointed jabs at this Italian guy teaching karate, citing whitewashing and cultural appropriation in one amusing scene.

One could wax on (wax off) about these representation issues, but the show’s strength is also its weakness. “Cobra Kai” is simply too accurately a product of that specific ‘80s franchise. Sure, it could change, but why should it? The series remains entertaining despite its flaws, and fortunately it has a hero that negotiates this disconnect between retro mindset and contemporary consciousness.

“Cobra Kai” is ultimately Johnny’s story. How he fumbles to find the right words to express his newfound morality, yet still reveals his old-school outlook is both hilarious and endearing. His poor parenting history wars with his burgeoning mentoring instincts. He’s well past middle age and yet is making delightful discoveries about the world and himself right alongside his students. The ‘80s might be back in style, but Johnny is evolving, “good, all-American karate” and all. Intent matters. And therein lies the “Cobra Kai’s” secret weapon that’s more potent than any crane kick.

Grade: B-

”Cobra Kai” Season 2 is currently available to stream on YouTube Premium. The first episode, “Mercy Part II,” is available to watch for free below.

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