I remember when Cobra first came out there were posters for it all over
the place. I was mesmerized by the simplicity and suggestive nature of
them. Stallone, against a red background, chewing a match, with his
custom-made pistol tucked under his belt. I'd never seen anyone chew a
matchstick before, I'd never seen a laser-targeting machine gun, and
the idea of a cop associating himself with an animal was intriguing.
In 1988 I rented the VHS tape from the local store. It was one of those old, massive, clamshell cases with the old Warner logo on the side. That night, at the age of 7, I was left alone for a few hours and the movie was merely to keep me amused and out of trouble. It didn't so much amuse me as it did terrify me. For any action-junkie kid born in the 80s the words 'Night Slasher' will be forever carved into your consciousness. This guy, to me, at that age, was the ultimate villain, and pushed the movie out of the action genre and into horror. I developed a fear of strange men driving around in unassuming vans, which I still have. Brian Thompson is utterly bone-chilling in the role.
Marion 'Cobra' Cobretti is part of the 'zombie squad', a group of LAPD cops who are the absolute bottom line and will do the jobs that no one else wants. The movie opens with some random psycho holding hostages in a supermarket. 'Call the Cobra' the normal, useless cops say. Cobra arrives in his muscle car and calmly enters the store, sipping some free beer and taunting the psycho before obliterating him, much to the distaste of the wimpy, bleeding-heart liberal media circus who have invaded the scene.
Cobra believes that the supermarket psycho is part of a bigger gang, an axe-clanking cult in which members from every facet of society gather in a sewer to clank axes over their heads. Their leader is the Night Slasher, a man who's head is 95% cheekbone and 5% staring, staring, staring eyes. He believes in creating a New World, not the Aldous Huxley kind but the kind which can be achieved, somehow, by murdering random blondes. His latest target is Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen in a so very not Oscar-winning role), a model who towers over Cobra by a full 4 inches, but she needs his protection and he needs to keep her alive as a witness. Not taking too kindly to having people being able to identify him the Night Slasher rounds up all of his fellow psychos and unleashes World War 3 on California, thus creating thousands more witness in the process, but logic is not this film's strong point.
After finding success with Rocky and Rambo, Stallone was clearing trying to create his own spin on Dirty Harry here (the Dirty Harry villain Scorpio even features here as an unhelpful Detective constantly berating Cobra). There is a strong right-wing theme of fighting fire with fire, and that with psychos as utterly demented as the Night Slasher you need someone just as unsympathetic and daring on the right side of the law to combat him. It's so far-fetched, and filled with dozens of logical and physical impossibilities that it makes Commando look like a freakin' documentary. But while Commando was cheerful, upbeat and self-aware, Cobra is deadly, deadly serious and believes itself to be making a serious point of how close society can come to complete anarchy if the Police were not there to keep the psychos off the streets.
This would be a fine message for an action picture, but there is a air of sleaziness to the production that spoils it. Many scenes are set in oppressive environments such as parking lots or concrete underpasses which give it a cold, alienating feel more like early James Glickenhaus or Joseph Zito films. Cobra is also produced by the notorious Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and directed, mostly, like a pop music video by George Pan Cosmatos. There are lots of quick cuts and fish-eye lens shots. Cosmatos overdoes it with these gimmicks in a few scenes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. If there was a little more elegance to the production then perhaps the critics might not have been so merciless and it might have aged a bit better too. I realize that this not a Kenneth Branagh film, but it's still too mainstream to be outright exploitation and too sleazy to deliver the conservative message it so desperately wants us to believe in.
These days few movies are as straight-up and to-the-point as Cobra. The one-man army theme was the 80s zeitgeist. Before John McClane came along and made the vulnerable hero fashionable audiences preferred the bulletproof, genuine, straight-up tough guy. Cobra has endured a lasting cult following thanks to its undeniable 80s mentality. A film like this would be very, very quickly forgotten in modern times. If you want 87 minutes of entertainment it works, if you want to look beneath the surface at a possibly deeper message, Cobra almost, just barely has one.
This film is basically Stallone's Beverly Hills Cop. When he was attached to star as Axel Foley he wanted to make the film more action-orientated. Paramount didn't want to spend so much money on the project so he left, and took his ideas with him. Those ideas were turned into Cobra, despite an on screen credit for 'Based on the novel Fair Game, by Paula Gosling', a novel it bears little resemblance to, which was later turned into its own movie in 1995 (starring Steven Berkoff as the villain, who was also the villain in Beverly Hills Cop and Rambo 2) which is absolutely nothing like Beverly Hills Cop or Cobra. And on top of all that a poster for Cobra can be seen in Beverly Hills Cop 2, which stars Brigitte Nielsen.
Try getting your head around that.
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