YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Dead Pool 2 / Cobra Kai (Season 1)
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
by Derek May:
Yin: Deadpool 2
This is a movie franchise that shouldn’t be. No one outside of the fans wanted it - for years no studio exec would touch it. Who could blame them? I mean, superheroes don’t use their cunning linguistics for hard-R cursing (see what I did there); they don’t hack, slash, chop, and aerate enemies with orgasmic glee; and because of that, kids that go back to the theatre over and over to provide studios with the revenue needed to cover these films’ ungodly budgets are gonna be either sitting at home pouting they’re not allowed to go or sneaking in without paying. It was a no-brainer for TPTB - until the test footage leaked.
The Internet went ballistic. The movie was greenlit. The release was epic. The grosses were record-breaking. The movie was amaze-balls. And a franchise was born.
But then there was a new hurdle to overcome—sequelitis—a debilitating affliction even Iron Man, Thor, and the entire Avengers team couldn’t escape in their sophomore efforts. So how did DP do in deux?
While many lamented the loss of original film director Tim Miller, his absence goes mostly unmissed. JOHN WICK and ATOMIC BLONDE director, David Leitch, slipped into the chair as effortlessly as a greased-up Ryan Reynolds into red spandex. Leitch continues to cement his status as an elite filmmaker, bringing his keen visual eye and lifetime of stunt knowledge to deliver spectacular, visceral action sequences as well as delicate, emotional drama. It helps to have original writing partners Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick behind him, not to mention Reynolds himself, who adds a writing credit because he apparently doesn’t do enough for the franchise already.
But let’s talk turkey. Mr. Pool made good on his promise to bring reluctant-yet-frequent 'teammate,' Cable, into the sequel.
Josh Brolin pulls MCU double duty here (hardly a unique occurrence) after having killed it—figuratively and literally— as Thanos. He continues his spree here as the hard-nosed cybernetic mutant from the future. In the comics, Cable is surly, abrasive, tough-as-nails, yet somehow (especially when around ‘Pool) able to deliver timely bon mots and zingers with ease. All of which are highlighted in Brolin’s take.
It’d be simple to play it totally straight—just another tragic, wounded, less-fuchsia villain—but Brolin knows how to walk the line. He’s absolutely perfect for the role, providing the physical presence alongside old-school gravitas, and has the charm to diffuse his more violent and seemingly despicable acts, imbuing his 'villain' with genuine humanity and empathy.
I put 'villain' in quotes because while Cable is rightly touted as the antagonist, he’s got a very legitimate and arguably heroic reason for doing what he’s doing, which in this case means hunting down a young mutant boy. That’s right, they threw a kid into the movie; and that’s where my red flags initially popped.
Kids can be the death of action movies (despite how Shane Black seems to get away with it). And having our Merc with a Mouth on babysitting detail for 2 hours didn’t exactly scream thrills.
But luckily, the filmmakers recognized the potential trap, and deftly skirted it.
Julian Dennison broke out in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (directed by THOR: RAGNAROK director, Taika Waititi). Having enjoyed the hell out of him in that film, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As with Cable, Dennison’s Russell is dealing with a lot of layers. Dealing not only with his devastating mutant abilities, his horrific circumstances, and his lack of adult guidance, he’s also chubby, insecure, needy, and desperate. All serve as relatable entries for the audience to sympathize with the poor child - until we don’t. Once again, the character isn’t quite what you think. Without spoiling too much, there’s a very good reason Cable is after him, and what may be the biggest coup of the film is that as it goes along, we start to root for Cable, and feel less and less for poor Russell (to a point). It’s a deft sleight of hand that really ends up elevating the sequel over its predecessor in terms of characterization.
But really, the focus is, and should be, on the main man himself, and DP2 really starts to peel away at poor Wade Wilson, layer by sarcastic layer. While the first film showed how the Regenerating Degenerate came to be and saw him single-mindedly focused on revenge and saving his beloved, this time we branch out into previously unexplored territory.
The story continues to revolve around Wade’s relationship with Vanessa, seemingly the one and only thing that can calm his mind, his heart, and his mouth. But as is wont to happen, tragedy strikes, and strikes hard, sending Wade into an emotional spiral. Original favorites Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead return in full glory try to help him through his grief (as at least one of them tries), and it goes about the way you might expect.
Fast-forwarding, we ultimately see Wade grow from caring only about one other person (Vanessa) to learning to care about others, or at least those in his immediate orbit. For a guy like Pool, that’s a huge step, and once again gives the sequel a hearty and honest emotional weight.
Each character, in turn, is taken to new heights and in unexpected directions. Each in their own way plays against expectation, and ends up dealing with the thematic repercussions of loss, anger, and fellowship to a surprisingly mature degree. But stepping out of the mush for moment, the film is right on point with the same irreverent, intelligently juvenile humor from the first film. Several jokes are even skillfully recycled (including a clever play on the opening credits). The movie hits you with witticisms, gags, zingers, and subverted musical choices as fast as bullets from Cable’s gun (which Deadpool will tell you are really fast). As with the characters, every time you think the film is taking you one direction, it takes a hard left, constantly keeping you on your toes - especially for the hilarious cameos injected throughout. If you loved the first film, DP2 definitely delivers bigger, better, and Poolier.
The inevitable sequel to the film that was never to be slices through the sequelitis curse with mercenary precision. A new, talented up-and-coming director delivered the action and the heart. The old hat writers set up a worthy journey, smart and well-rounded characters, and a Comedy Store’s worth of side-splitting humor.
The actors nailed their respective roles (including Zazie Beetz nailing it as the tough, sweet, and capable Domino we look forward to seeing next in X-FORCE). And a bigger, badder budget means we got the effects to expand DP’s world outside its original three locations and showcase unique characters from the X-men universe we’d otherwise never have seen.
If there’s one thing DEADPOOL knows how to do, it’s kill. And kill it they did.
Yang: Cobra Kai (Season 1)
There are literally thousands of martial arts movies out there. I’ve probably seen half of them, and blissfully allowed at least half of those to fade from memory. But there are a few that always stay with you, and for me, as for millions of others, The Karate Kid is one of those rare exceptions.
Why, though, has it endured for so long? It’s not the karate itself—that was always a bit stilted, especially delivered by actors with limited training. And sure, Pat Morita delivered an iconic performance that created an enduring cultural touchstone of a character. But at its heart, it is the strong and varied themes that elevate it from an average entry in the pantheon of chop-socky theatre to one that has stood the test of time. But is it really worth revisiting 30 years later in a new, expanded television format?
The biggest theme in the original film, for me, centered on the contrasting philosophies of the martial arts. Mr. Miyagi took hot-headed young punk Daniel Laruso and imbued him with the truth that karate, when used for self-defense and personal cultivation, not only made you a better fighter, but a better person. Winning was a byproduct of a clear mind and an open heart. The rival perspective, embodied by Laruso’s tormentor Johnny Lawrence of the Cobra Kai, bypassed this mental discipline and philosophical foundation in favor of a physical regime meant only for combat, winning, and domination of anything and anyone in one’s path.
Thus explains my initial trepidation at a series focusing on the bully from the film reviving the dojo that eschewed everything noble about the martial arts. Yes, at the end of the original (and beginning of the sequel) Johnny does make the classy move of congratulating Laruso, and begins to second-guess his loyalty to his own despicable sensei, who pummels him in the parking lot afterwards for his defiance until Mr. Miyagi interferes. And yes, there have been a few theories and videos over the years claiming Johnny was actually the hero of the films and that Daniel was the jerk who had it all coming. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but every villain is certainly the hero of their own story. So, maybe there’s some room here to explore …
But as we start the first episode of Cobra Kai, I’m all the more concerned my fears were well-founded. Johnny has turned out about as well as we might have expected. He’s loses his shit job because of his shit attitude. He’s neglecting his son and piece-of-work ex-wife, and drinking himself into an early grave. He’s a dick to just about everyone he encounters, even other dicks who find the wrong end of his aged but still very capable foot of fury. It all seems to add up to the conclusion that Johnny is still a product of his Cobra Kai indoctrination. He has the physicality, but never learned the lessons that would carry him through a positive and successful life.
Laruso, on the other hand, turned out pretty ok. He’s got a successful string of car dealerships (a nice carryover from the original film), a smart, beautiful wife and partner, a lovely if wayward daughter and a halfway-decent son. The contrasts between Daniel and Johnny are immediate and obvious—nature vs nurture at finest. And it’s a clever role reversal from the first film. But while a good start, it’s not enough to drive a series, and to the creators’ credit, we quickly begin to dig deeper and deeper into the characters while reviving some of those classic themes of the original.
As always, I’ll avoid too many specifics so as not to spoil anything, but over the course of the season we not only see how Laruso and Lawrence have changed (or will change), but also how their lives have and do affect those of the next generation.
Johnny quickly decides to reopen a Cobra Kai dojo after years of absence and disgrace. He initially has but one student, a somewhat geeky, bullied young high schooler named Miguel. The irony of a former bully teaching a young boy how to stand up to bullies is lost on no one, the writers in particular. And despite walking on water in Miguel’s eyes, Johnny’s not a huge step up from the bullies he’s already facing. As is both sad and inevitable, Johnny only knows one way to teach, and without blinking revives all the old lessons and methods of his style. While Miguel is doe-eyed enough to take it, the abusive and degrading approach doesn’t sit well with the other students, and despite the obvious physical progressions of Miguel and several other young outcasts, most simply peace out.
Laruso takes the reemergence of the snake exactly as you’d expect. And really, he seems completely justified. Cobra Kai’s students gain physical confidence at the expense of a moral guidance that Johnny just isn’t able to provide. And as such, we really start to feel sorry for these kids and the path they begin to take. The absence of Miyagi is deeply felt, and not just by those who never knew him. For all of Laruso’s success, he’s veered off the path himself, using his karate as a gimmick to sell cars. And as the old rivalry with Johnny escalates, the mature, level-headed family man reverts right back to the eye-for-eye pettiness of his youth that caused so many viewers to wonder if he really was the bad guy. Johnny even has a lovely moment where he recounts the original story from his own perspective, with Daniel a pretty believable villain.
As such, it is in teaching the next generation that the old guard are forced to come to terms with where they are in their lives and how they choose to live it. It’s a masterful way to pass the torch without feeling trite or gimmicky. Daniel had already tried before to impart his knowledge, and while his daughter trained for a time, she eventually moved on, and his young son holds no interest in anything more physical that tapping a remote. So when Johnny’s estranged son, Robby, works his way into Daniel’s life, as well as his dojo, it’s a great opportunity not only to turn a troubled teen around but to steer Daniel back onto Miyagi’s path.
One of the most brilliant reversals of the series is in the two young students. Miguel starts out as “the Daniel,” a bullied young man with a good heart eager to learn and in desperate need of a father figure. By the end though, he’s evolved (or devolved as the case may be) into “the Johnny,” over-confident in his devastating physicality, jealous and cruel and pushing away those around him. Robby on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Starting out much like his absentee father, he is a petty little criminal, scamming his way through life for the attention of ne’er-do-wells. As Daniel trains him along the true path, he evolves into “the Daniel,” learning his own worth, to believe in himself, and to find the father in Laruso that Daniel found in Miyagi. It’s an extremely well-developed arc, and despite seeming so obvious never feels heavy-handed.
What we’re left with is a fascinating journey of all the characters, major and minor. In Daniel we see a man who had begun to lose his way right himself in passing along his wisdom (and that of Miyagi’s) to another troubled boy, while also learning to empathize more with Johnny’s perspective. On the other side, Johnny finds that repeating the formula of the past rears the same results. As with Laruso, teaching helped slowly pull Johnny out of his slump, and brought him a better life. But by the end he’s realized that it’s come at the expense of the people he was trying to help. My concerns that we would be glorifying a negative and destructive perspective are greatly alieved by having Johnny finally understand just how much he is missing, how far away from the path he has been. The pain of seeing his students follow in the footsteps of his old sensei is heartbreaking, as much or more so as seeing how the Miyagi/Laruso Way has transformed his own son into a better person.
All of this leads into what will surely be a fascinating and emotional season 2. The stage has been set to elevate the conflict of ideologies between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do. Can the newest generation find the proper balance within themselves, to both be confident and self-assured, but also humble and open to the rest of the world? Will Johnny learn this for himself, and thus be able to pass it on, and continue his growth as a teacher, a father, and a human being?
Having been converted from skeptic to a full-blown believer in the Cobra Kai series, I cannot wait to see where the creators take this story that seemed to have been resolved (several times over) decades ago, but somehow feels as fresh and relevant as the day it premiered. It’s rare to find a revival that has both faithfully continued the story of the original characters while seamlessly bringing in a completely new generation to both reflect and exceed those classic themes that cemented the franchise’s status as a cultural phenomenon.