Cobra Kai: Season Three Review
Coming in the middle of a sea of bland sequels and reboots that didn't understand why the original was popular, Cobra Kai was a breath of fresh air. Not only did it get why The Karate Kid was a cultural milestone, but it understood how you can't just repeat that and rely on nostalgia to sell the product. The way it took a step back and thought realistically about how these characters might have evolved in the decades since, should be the template that every long-awaited sequel follows. Cobra Kai walks the tightrope between 80s movie and modern TV show, and most of the time gets the balance exactly right.
Season three continues the great work the show has done so far. It mainly avoids the pitfalls that can come with a show of this sort: an over-reliance on nostalgia, a repetitive or stagnating story. Cobra Kai achieves this through a level of self-awareness that is badly lacking in other action series. It knows the idea of a 35-year karate rivalry is inherently ridiculous, and it's not afraid to have characters point that out. By doing this it allows the more grounded and realistic moments to stand side by side with with the soapy moments and dumb karate fun.
That doesn't mean the show is not afraid to lean into nostalgia when it needs to, and some contrived car dealership drama has to be introduced to give Daniel an excuse to visit Yokohama, the scene of The Karate Kid Part II. Anyone who has seen the trailers will know that this leads to guest star cameos, although several others have been kept under wraps. One was entirely expected after the closing shot of season two, whilst another came completely out of the blue (and genuinely surprised me).
A show about martial arts is nothing without its fight sequences, and Cobra Kai continues to deliver the punches with style. There isn’t anything that quite matches up to season two’s epic high school battle, but there are still some fantastically choreographed brawls, not least the one that takes up the majority of the season finale. It’s good that the show continues to resist quick cuts in favour of tracking shots that move between multiple fighters and mini combats. It must be an absolute hell to film, but it’s a joy to watch.
The adult actors continue to put in strong performances. Ralph Macchio and William Zabka continue to shine in their roles of Daniel and Johnny. The show only works because of their layered performances, featuring just enough of their 80s caricature characters to seem like realistic evolutions. Their different ways of dealing with the guilt stemming from last season’s events are played perfectly. It also helps that they look exactly right, from Macchio’s baby face (I can’t believe he is going to be 60 in 2021) to Zabka’s scruffy unshaven look. An unsung hero in the cast is Courtney Henggeler as Amanda LaRusso, who is the main voice of the rational centre, surrounded by karate hijinks. She has a great rapport with everyone she shares the screen with, particularly Macchio and a certain finale guest star. This guest star also puts in an accomplished turn, picking up exactly where they left off when we last saw them.
The younger actors are all doing a great job as well, although it's clear that some of them have been chosen for their acting and some for their physicality, and they unfortunately come up a little short in the other skill. Thankfully some of the major players are able to do both. Xolo Maridueña as Miguel Diaz is one. It's a shame he spends most of the season recovering from last season’s injury, but I’m certain he will get to do a lot more karate next season. Another standout amongst the youngsters is Peyton List's Tory Nichols, particularly in the more domestic scenes where she is trying to look after her family whilst dodging the unwanted advances of the creepy landlord. On the whole she manages to strike a good balance between sympathetic and reprehensible, even if she does occasionally become a little hammy with the villainy.
If I had a criticism of the season, it’s that sometimes the motivations of the characters are not clear. There are often moments when I just didn’t believe a character would take a particular course of action (they’re too spoilery to be specific I’m afraid). Friends become enemies and enemies become friends back and forth, and a number of these about turns seemed unrealistic. In particular there is some repetition creeping into Daniel and Johnny's relationship. I've lost count of the number of times they've put their grudges aside and worked together, only to fall out again at the drop of the hat. Here’s hoping that where they get to by the end of this season remains the status quo for a while.
Ironically these problems are as a result of the series’ 80s movie DNA, where character motivations and about turns don’t necessarily need solid explanation when you need to fit everything in to 90 minutes. I mentioned Cobra Kai’s main strength is its ability to mix the Karate Kid cheese with a more grounded world, but sometimes it doesn’t get the balance quite right. Nowhere is this made more obvious than in the character of Kreese. This season attempts to provide an explanation for his actions as a sensei through flashbacks to his time in Vietnam, but personally I didn’t buy it as a realistic motivation for Kreese wanting to see children beat each other senseless. It totally works as an 80s sports/action movie origin story, but Kreese’s one-dimensional villain is a little out of place compared to the very human Danny and Johnny.
Cobra Kai is therefore not without flaws, but these are minor quibbles that I can overlook, and overall the show continues to be a delight. With season four already confirmed there is more to come from these characters, and I can’t wait to see where the series takes them next.