Cobra Kai Season 4

Dr. Craig’s Martial Arts Movie Lounge

When I started martial arts in 1973, from Bruce Lee, I learned that it’s about training not to fight, and from Shaolin history, I learned that it’s about healing rather than hurting.

Bruce Lee said that to appreciate jeet kune do, one should learn a classical style. While at Cornell University, I stumbled upon a dojo run by Nantambu Bomani, a student of Miyazato Eiichi, the man who became the head instructor after Miyagi Chojun, founder of Okinawan goju-ryu karate. Part of our traditional training included running barefoot in deep snow dressed in nothing but a gi. If we got in a fight, dismissal from the dojo followed.


After watching The Karate Kid (1984), how could I not connect with Pat Morita’s “Mr. Miyagi”? His role was the first in an American martial arts film that had the teacher also being a healer, which is something I learned to do via chi kung.Though the fights in Karate Kid were minimal and ended with a hokey move that’s not part of goju-ryu’s hung gar crane repertoire or pa kua Chinese kung fu influences, I still have a strong emotional and physical vested interest in Karate Kid and Cobra Kai. As it turns out, Cobra Kai is a martial art founded by Vietnam vet Steve Abbate in 1971 that supposedly includes Northern-style praying mantis and snake kung fu skills.

Kreese (Martin Cove) has usurped Cobra Kai, and his students have become blindly reverent to his pervasive “No mercy”philosophy. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) counters by creating a spinoff dojo called Eagle Fang. When Johnny and archenemy Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) form a shaky partnership to take down Kreese at the next All Valley tournament, Kreese connivingly convinces his psychotically dangerous Vietnam buddy Terry Silver from The Karate Kid Part III (1989) to help him do his dirty deeds. The tournament becomes a contest between Miyagi-Do, Eagle Fang and Cobra Kai, and the losers agree to shut down their dojo.

The interactions of the main characters in the opening episode are dangerous tidal waves of gaslighting, guilt tripping, throwing each other under the bus, victim mindsets laced with entitlement issues, blame games, bullying and backstabbing. The resulting chaos threatens friendships, families and martial arts values such as loyalty, kindness, honor, respect, honesty and peace. Cobra Kai becomes a searching examination of martial arts fair play that challenges the existence of virtue and redemption and the historical notions of martial lore.

Regarding Season 4’s fight choreography and martial arts action, I had high expectations because I remembered how the fights got increasingly better from season to season, which included two riveting oners. Furthermore, the stakes for the three main karate schools are higher because the prize is now about survival of the fittest, a Darwinian battle between three animal-based karate styles — which opens a wealth of possible fight-choreography opportunities and skills available to the new fight coordinator Don L. Lee, known for his dynamic work in Jennifer Garner’s Peppermint (2018).

Furthermore, the main actors have now had four to five years of martial arts training and experience with fight choreography covering a show that has a three-year timelined storyline. Interestingly, the unwritten goal of Chinese martial arts is to attain five-year kung fu in three years.

When it comes to the amount of martial arts action in Cobra Kai’s first three seasons, based on fights and dojo sparring (not including training sequences), here are the rounded-up fight minutes per season:

Season 1: 6 minutes from five episodes

Season 2: 24 minutes from seven episodes and a 77-second oner

Season 3: 26 minutes from six episodes and a 112-second oner

The gauntlet for Season 4 has been laid down as each season successfully upped the fight ante. I thought, it’s going to be a tough task for the fourth season to outdo the first three.

In the opening episode (E1), there’s only one fight: Robby (Tanner Buchanan) takes on nine Cobra Kai villains. I was happily surprised as the fight sensibility is completely different from the first three seasons. Due to the setup and stakes of the fight, it is measurably and visually more vicious as Buchanan’s ability shines with increased intention behind each technique delivery. Also, the stuntmen have better timing, especially in selling Robby’s kicks.

The overhead camera shot gives the fight a different flow, and the speed of flipping the opponents adds to the emotional intensity — along with how certain camera pans accentuate his speed and power as he looks like he’s kicking them rather than placing his foot on their incoming bodies.

At the end of E2, it’s time for Daniel to prove his worth and mettle to Johnny when Johnny deliberately chides four burly rough-and-tumble hockey players to attack Daniel. Apart from the music being a key component of the fight’s emotion, Macchio’s tussle delivers his best combat sequence to date, using more skills (traps, flips, hockey-stick techniques, slams) than usual. The action uses flash pans, quick edits, shakes and rollercoaster tilt camera movements that add intensity to the combat rather than cheapening the fight effects or shortchanging the actor’s effort.

Cobra Kai fight scene

Netflix / Cobra Kai

The next fight occurs in E5, which changes the direction, tone and strangely enough the show’s fight choreography perhaps because it’s now more about the young ’uns and students. Johnny and Daniel square up for a five-round awkward rematch, shot in low light (night) as the camera jumps from far wide angles to closeups to create speed and quasi-excitement — and it’s easier to insert doubles. Fists held close to their bodies yield tightened punches that lack extension, as do the kicks. It looks like neither actor wants to accidentally hit the other, which is OK because now it’s not about them fighting. The nostalgia is slightly tempered as due to age, Daniel does a milder rendition of his signature kick.

Yet the whole point of Season 4 is the tournament that takes up the last two episodes as it widens the competition to 10 teams. It begins with an iffy three-minute montage of noncombative skills, followed by a prosaic 66-second montage that uses intercut shots of varying degrees of effective and ineffective few-second snippets of 17 qualifying matches interspersed with the show’s guest star Carrie Underwood singing Moment of Truth.

For the remaining bouts, the choreography tries too hard to delineate the karate styles by using simplified, uncomplicated combat scenes modeled after yakusoku kumite training, the kind of pre-arranged, straight-line attacks and retreats used during the few-step karate sparring forms one sees in demonstrations wherein the moves look more robotic than free-flowing. Using differing camera angles doesn’t hide the intent; adjusting camera speeds would solve this problem. Cobra Kai’s use of takedowns and foot sweeps is a welcome change.

The boys’ final match uses too much slow motion that is applied to minor skills, something Chuck Norris did in Breaker! Breaker! (1977), a film that had barely four minutes of fighting. So Norris’ final duel was completely shot in slow motion to make it seem like there were more fights than there really were. Yet in Cobra Kai, the pace does eventually pick up, and the choreography becomes more intricate than all the previous tournament bouts.

For the girls’ final match — Tory (Peyton List) vs. Sam (Mary Mouser) — the choreography is beautifully and visually different. Though their stances are unsteady and, during their kicks, their hands are awkwardly held too high and close to the body, which doesn’t look good on camera, each actor’s repertoire keenly increases, making their duel unique. The girls’ final actually overshadows the boys’ final of Robby vs. Eli (Jacob Bertrand).

For Season 4 overall, the progress of the fights is steady and satisfying, though not spectacular. Final statistics? From seven episodes, not including the training sequences, there are 22 minutes of fights. In E9 and E10, which focus on the tournament, fights take up 12 minutes of that time, and there is no oner. Yet if you think something feels fishy, holy mackerel, you’re right! There are a few well-orchestrated bamboozling red-herring moments, and something akin to but not as peaceful as the Indian Ocean’s mantra-ray shows up. As most of you probably know, Season 5 is already in the can. It will be interesting to see who is the Chozen one to save the day.

Cobra Kai fight scene

Netflix / Cobra Kai

For the girls’ final match — Tory (Peyton List) vs. Sam (Mary Mouser) — the choreography is beautifully and visually different. Though their stances are unsteady and, during their kicks, their hands are awkwardly held too high and close to the body, which doesn’t look good on camera, each actor’s repertoire keenly increases, making their duel unique. The girls’ final actually overshadows the boys’ final of Robby vs. Eli (Jacob Bertrand).

For Season 4 overall, the progress of the fights is steady and satisfying, though not spectacular. Final statistics? From seven episodes, not including the training sequences, there are 22 minutes of fights. In E9 and E10, which focus on the tournament, fights take up 12 minutes of that time, and there is no oner. Yet if you think something feels fishy, holy mackerel, you’re right! There are a few well-orchestrated bamboozling red-herring moments, and something akin to but not as peaceful as the Indian Ocean’s mantra-ray shows up. As most of you probably know, Season 5 is already in the can. It will be interesting to see who is the Chozen one to save the day.

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