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‘Cobra Kai’ review: ‘Back in Black’

COBRA KAI
Season 2, Episode 2
“Back in Black”
Available on YouTube Premium
GRADE: B-

Johnny (William Zabka) has paid off a cement truck driver to allow him to use his cement truck for an awfully dangerous exercise. He demands that his students get inside the mixer and use their combined strength to spin it by hand. Even Kreese (Martin Kove) who wrote the book on how to abuse students, looks incredulous and uncomfortable. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” Johnny assures him as Kreese eyeballs him. Johnny’s behavior shouldn’t surprise us. Last season, he nearly drowned Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) in a swimming pool while teaching him about leg strength, so…on the other side of things, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) teaches his daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) and his prize student Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) about doing moves at the same time while maintaining balance. He does this by making them stand on a wooden raft in the middle of a pond and has them kick and punch and “sense each other’s movements”.

The second episode of “Cobra Kai” eschews the heavy emotional stuff seen in the first episode and goes for a lighter tone, churning out a pretty silly second episode that’s here to say “Why train in a dojo when you can just make your students do mostly ineffective, borderline illegal stuff that looks like it was lifted from ‘No Retreat, No Surrender’?” The entire episode feels like one huge training montage, starting with a montage of Miguel and Johnny working on Johnny’s badass Dodge Challenger set to, if the title of the episode was any indication, AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. This is off-set by the aforementioned cement truck exercise which is followed by a scene where LaRusso’s automotive competitors are “starting to catch up” since Daniel has been devoting attention to Miyagi-Do Karate. So, it’s off to the dealership for Daniel and his wife so we can have a montage about selling cars, which is nice, but doesn’t add up to anything beyond giving Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) something to do besides come along for the ride and occasionally play devil’s advocate to Daniel’s endless enthusiasm.

Luckily, there are bits of characterization thrown in to remind everyone what the show was built on and the episode is only so happy to tick all the boxes on the checklist: Robby’s mom, Shannon (Diora Baird), is running off to Mexico with a guy who’s gonna pay her rent…and not much else. When the electricity goes out in their place, Robby simply buys a lantern and attempts to eat cereal with water since the milk in the fridge has spoiled. This doesn’t sit well with Daniel who, like Mr. Miyagi before him, can’t let someone suffer. This ties into the first showdown between Johnny and Daniel since the first season and it’s a lot of fun to watch, for what there is of it when Daniel verbally spars with Kreese for the first time since “The Karate Kid, Part III”:

KREESE: Well, what do ya’ know? The gang’s all back together…well, almost all of us…
(Daniel looks pensive at Kreese’s backhanded remark about Miyagi no longer being alive.)
KREESE (semi-sarcastically): My condolences…
DANIEL: You’re lucky he’s not here…how’re your knuckles doing there, Kreese?
(We get a flashback from the 80’s of Kreese attempting to punch Mr. Miyagi and missing, smashing a car window instead. Back in the present, Kreese balls his fist, then puts it at his side. He grimaces and glares at Daniel.)

Sheer brilliance.

The problem with it is that it’s immediately snuffed out by characterizations that make little sense. When Johnny asks Daniel what he’s doing at the strip mall where Cobra Kai is located, Daniel simply walks away saying he got an answer to a question he was going to ask. To review: Daniel’s mission was to go to Johnny to tell him that Robby is living in virtual squalor — but can’t because he saw Kreese? Shouldn’t the well being of Johnny’s son be a higher priority? It makes for interesting melodrama, sure, but it also makes Daniel look incredibly bitter for somebody who won this fight years ago and proved himself to both Johnny and Kreese. Then again, like that raft in the middle of the pond at Miyagi’s, balance is always key and giving up Robby to Johnny might upset that balance.

The final scene is the ultimate tease and works so well due to the sheer amount of history and chemistry between the three original film leads. Don’t get me wrong, I like Robbie and Sam and Amanda but they’re so squeaky clean that when they’re on screen, it feels like we’re watching a Karate Kid off-shoot on the Disney Channel. This show is a fairly well-managed dance card of entertaining moments and characters but it’s Macchio, Kove and Zabka who provide the glue that holds it all together.

I just wish there was more of them.

OTHER STUFF THAT EXISTS IN THIS DOJO

  • In the final scene, Kreese tries to put up a united front when he puts his hand on Johnny’s shoulder while telling Daniel he’s about to witness the rise of Cobra Kai — only to see Johnny forcefully pull his shoulder away from Kreese. It’s a small moment. but one that tells us that Johnny has not fully accepted Kreese back into his life and is torn between his old ways and the angel on his shoulder who is pushing him to be better.
  • This is also hammered home when Johnny tells his students that they can “go to places they never dreamed of” if they keep pushing forward. It’s far too positive coming from somebody like Johnny and it’s in contrast with Kreese’s menacing tone and demeanor, telling Johnny’s students that they better listen to what he has to say for their own sakes.
  • Look, all I’m saying is that all the wannabe Mortal Kombat music in the world isn’t going to help two actors look good kicking and punching on a goddamn raft. When Robby kicks, he looks exactly how I look when I kick: knee bent with the other leg wobbling under my old, fat body. Even as Sam and Robby make progress, it’s unimpressive. Hopefully, it leads somewhere.
  • Man, the line about Miyagi not being there is legit sad. It’s meant to be a meta-tribute, one of several that we get, per episode. I often wonder what Pat Morita would have thought about this show or if he would have been on it if he was still alive. 
  • While I’m at it…do we need to have Johnny and Kreese keep using the word “pussy” to describe everyone they don’t like or think is soft? Call me what you will. Every single time I want to like Johnny, that resets each time he calls his students a derogatory name and it’s even more unbelievable that his female students don’t say anything about it. I get they’re just actors reciting lines from a script but there’s a sense that when the heels say this stuff (including Kreese throwing Conservative MAGA rhetoric at the Mexican clerk at the convenience store next to Cobra Kai) that the writers actually legitimately think like that in real life and Johnny and Kreese are just outlets for their misogyny and are attempting to cater to that audience. Just a thought.

About Matt Perri

Matt Perri
Matt Perri is one of those literary Ronin you’ve never heard of until he shows up and tells you he’s a literary Ronin. He’s a native Californian, a film buff, old school gamer geek, and a sports/entertainment fan. A lifelong Giants, 49ers and Sharks fan, he also covers the world of pro-wrestling, writing recaps for WWE Monday Night RAW and Total Divas at Scott’s Blog of Doom. You can follow the guy on Twitter via @PerriTheSmark as well as here at The Workprint and his own blog, We Hate Your Gimmick.

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