“I don’t deal with psychos. I put 'em away”
“I ain’t no psycho, man! I’m a hero. You're lookin' at a f*ckin' hunter! I’m a hero of the new world!”
“You’re a disease. And I’m the cure.”
Stallone’s campaign to get seemingly all his films onto Blu-ray continues unabated with the recent releases of Assassins, The Specialist, Demolition Man (review coming soon) and this most dubious guilty pleasures, 1986’s cop thriller, Cobra.
After taking on the might of the Soviet Union in the previous year’s thunderclap double-whammy of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV, and winning, Sly found himself in the unique position of being both idolised by fans and ridiculed by critics, lefties and incensed moral guardians. His monosyllabic underdog heroes acted both as inspirational tools for the downtrodden and dark avengers for a society that was still reeling, and attempting to hide away from past indiscretions that it still refused to properly acknowledge. He was canny enough to dress up his epic righting of wrongs in audience-pleasing blockbuster action movies, literally bringing his message to the masses in the most immediately bombastic and in-yer-face fashion possible. Stallone was holding a mirror up to the world and showing it all its woes before smashing the thing over its head. “Behave!” he was ordering it. “Or I’ll come and sort you out.” Interestingly, of course, he applied the same moral-message-disguised-with-bullets in Rambo IV as well.
With Chuck Norris quietly toiling-away in the sidelines of the genre, but still delivering consistently good work at the same time, and Arnie Schwarzenegger muscling-in on territory that was once his, and his alone, Stallone was eager for new projects, new battlefields … and new heroes to embody.
Thus, we had to “Call the Cobra” … the strong arm of the law.
And so his next step – tackling the rise in urban crime and attempting to show a sick society just how the law should be enforced - was not altogether unexpected and, indeed, positively welcomed in many quarters. However, the end result, as directed by his Rambo pal, George P. Cosmatos and very loosely adapted from the novel “Fair Game” by Paula Gosling and written for the screen by Stallone, himself, and starring his then-wife, Brigitte Nielson, was a pathetically inept and cinematically hollow hunk of testosteronal claptrap that sought rather too obviously to emulate the exploits and attitude of the great Dirty Harry. Shamefully, it even featured two of the stars of that classic film – Andy Robinson, who had played the most convincing psycho ever in the savage Scorpio, and Reni Santoni who’d had the misfortune to portray Harry’s latest partner, Hispanic detective Gonzalez. Here, Robinson switches sides and becomes the grey raincoat-wearing bureaucratic thorn in Cobra’s side, Monte, whilst Santoni gets to play another unfortunate Hispanic detective partner … also called Gonzales.
Crime is on the increase and the innocent are like sitting ducks in an LA that has become terrorised by a sadistic and indiscriminate gang of axe-wielding cut-throats. Witnessing (well, almost) their latest atrocity is model, Ingrid (Nielsen), who is forced into police custody when it becomes apparent that she may be able to identify the leader of the cult. As the loonies come for her, her only protection comes in the form of Stallone’s super-cop, Marion Cobretti (yep, Marion!), notorious member of the, ahem, Zombie Squad of ruthless new-breed cops. Together with the “Cobra” as he is known, Gonzales and a dodgy female detective, the star witness hits the road, bedevilled by the gang every step of the way until a final, guns-blazing confrontation has the hero meting-out his own kind of savage justice. Car-chases and shoot-outs abound … and, for many, Cobra was the Zeitgeist of mindless 80's action starring the muscle-man of the moment. After a slew of Rockys and couple of Rambos, Stallone could do no wrong in a genre he had made his own.
Or could he?
Funnily enough, at the time of the film’s UK release, the press were unbelievably kind towards it. Right-wing stances were all the rage and the cinematic payback for a lost and lawless generation was gathering speed and momentum. The one-man vengeance machine was swiftly becoming box office and pop-cultural currency. We’d had the urbanised machismo of 48 Hrs and the smash-hit of Commando, and the likes of Lethal Weapon, Red Heat, and Die Hard were just around the corner. Heroic, take-no-prisoners killer-cops and one-man-armies were all the rage. A brow-beaten and scum-bullied society couldn’t get enough of these celluloid avengers. Big screen cathartic release was about all the genuinely victimised had going for them. Stallone had already gone to war with First Blood and, of course, Rambo, and now it seemed he was going to bring justice to the beleaguered streets. Whilst there were some outcries being heard about the violence and the ethics of Johnny Rambo, politicians actually harnessed his crusade for their own campaigns. And it seemed that if the solutions to spiralling crime couldn't be found in real-life, then maybe the answer lay in reel-life. And a weird dichotomy of opinions struck with the arrival of Cobra. Whilst people who knew Gosling's book struggled to find any of it in Stallone’s interpretation, I can recall the fervour with which the film was received in the wake of Rambo. There was a big pull-out feature from one newspaper (and it wouldn’t take much imagination to work out which one it was) that was devoted to Cobra. It quoted him liberally and basically agreed with his no-nonsense/no mercy approach – and there’s nothing wrong with that, actually – but it also went into massive detail regarding the weaponry being utilised in the film. Cobra’s serpent-engraved automatic and his laser-sighted submachine-gun were a couple of obvious things to drool over, but the feature also went to town on glorifying the killer’s distinctive knife – a wicked, chrome-shiny, scimitar-shaped blade that could probably hack clean-through a tree, and with a hand-guard designed as a spiked knuckle-duster to maximise its lethal propensities – which, even before the streets became the hunting ground for a stab-happy youth culture, was surely sending out the wrong message. And I say that even though I, myself, had already obtained official versions of the first two original Rambo knives and would soon add the third’s film’s awesome variation to my collection!
Ahhh, but times were simpler back then, of course. As Cobra clearly testifies.
Instead of analysing the type of crime that was taking place and then driving a good guy to extremes in order to deal with it, as we had seen with Dirty Harry, Sly and Cosmatos just take the concept of another iconic Stallone “hero” and try to fit the antagonists around him, bending an over-the-top scenario around his concealed but still bulging physique. Eastwood’s Harry Callaghan could still walk through the streets and blend in. He could still carry on a conversation with the Mayor, albeit one that was highly opinionated and incredibly forthright and he could still sit at a desk in the office and cobble together a set of reports that might get him out of trouble. Marion Cobretti would struggle to answer a phone without blowing holes in it first and then pricking his lip on that bloody match/toothpick that is seemingly welded to it. Now, I’m not only a massive fan of Stallone, but of dumb-ass action movies in general. Yet even I have to admit that Cobra is one truly awful example of a genre that really has to work very hard to screw things up.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a pared-to-the-bone, dyed-in-the-wool action movie. We don’t need characterisation, intelligent writing, a clever narrative and serious underlying statements or metaphors to justify their existence – although such things can certainly add a great deal. We don’t need big concepts, gorgeous girls and larger-than-life superheroes in order to enjoy them. We just need action, right? Well, ordinarily, I’d have agreed with that concept, hands down.
But Cobra takes this angle and utterly bruises and abuses it whilst only barely delivering any of the required goods.
The whole thing hinges upon the gang of killers taking out Nielsen's witness. Huh? Why bother? They send a relative army after her, fighting running battles with Stallone’s belligerent Cobra and creating a gazillion other witnesses to their deeds in the process. Are they then going to have to hunt each and every one of these people down too? They are hardly secretive in their tactics, so why is it so incredibly vital that this girl must be vanquished? The risks they take to execute her far outweigh the gains they will make if they succeed.
And just what is the point of these clowns? This new world order. “We kill the weak … so that the strong can survive,” mumbles the sweat-caked ringleader. The strong already survive. That’s why they’re strong. There’s no need for them to go around taking out the weak. The weak are … well … weak and, as such, pose no threat to them. This primal motivation is hilarious because although it heavy-handedly grasps the Darwinian code of survival of the fittest, its application here is utterly redundant. If this was some post-apocalyptic world, then such a strategy would hold water. They're doing it purely for kicks, not some lofty pretence of revolution. Now one guy might adhere to a warped practice like this … but he would have to be an incredibly charismatic leader to form an army of devoted acolytes. We are meant to shudder at the fact that their ranks are made up of people from all walks of life … hence the supposedly blood-chilling sight of businessmen and housewives clanging axes together in that 80’s pop video ritual gathering … and that this indicates that they have infiltrated all facets of society’s infrastructure. But, come on, this is about as threatening as a chimp’s tea-party. Clack-clack go the gleaming blades in the rather dumb tribal aerobic session … but just look how inept they are when going about their assassinations. The sequence when they ambush Ingrid in the underground car-park is just ludicrous. What kind of planning and training leads the hit-squad to all swing their axes continually into the overhead pipes and miss their intended targets with such monotonous regularity?
And they’ve got their own specialist sniper, as well. But, in cahoots with the ineptitude of the mad Axe Brigade, he can’t seem to hit a barn door even when standing right in front of it and using a telescopic sight. You wouldn’t think that little points like these should matter in the midst of such kinetic carnage – but they do. They conspire to derail threat and tension at every turn and, quite scornfully, give weight to the critics’ argument that action movies are just stupid, through and through.
Visually, this is so horribly self-conscious too.
We’ll get to Stallone’s anti-hero image later but, for now, let’s look at how ghastly that “pop video” angle is exploited. To the cringe-worthy electro pulse of Robert Tepper’s awful “Angel Of The City”, we see Nielsen's gangly model posing in a variety of wigs and sexy attire and embracing a trio of outsized toy robots, the sight of which would have had the one seen in Rocky IV giggling his metal nuts off. What makes this worse is the fact that it is so laboriously intercut with shots of Cobra and Gonzalez conducting snarly, pout-heavy enquiries in the sleazier parts of town … and even splices in some imagery of the big leader of the killer-cult simply walking through a sewer, brandishing his knife and looking bogusly threatening in the naffest melange of strobe and shadow. I love the 80’s. The spiky mullets, the high-lights, the music and the image-savvy awareness, and the instant-iconography that saturated the entire cultural medium …but this is pure tripe. Tepper actually contributed one of the better songs to the previous year’s Rocky IV soundtrack, the flashback-rife driving montage of “No Easy Way Out.” I know that is yet another veritable pop-video as seen in the film … but it works well in that example.
And the big man, then? Well, it seems fair to say that Sly had been watching too many George Michael videos. He eve utter, “You gotta have faith,” at one point. A New-Romantic woollen trench-coat, designer stubble, mirrored shades, tight jeans, chunky boots, jackets with sleeves that are just short enough to show off those cool-but-dainty leather gloves … whoops. They didn’t “Call the Cobra,” they called Gok Wan in a retro-mood by mistake. Miraculously, Stallone almost makes this work. But those shades coupled with the match perched on his laconic lip just go too far. He’s got some uber-cool wheels, though. A customised 1950 Mercury Monterey with more chrome than an army of skin-stripped Terminator endoskeletons. Famously Stallone’s own car, this automotive set of nitro-injected biceps is a roaring monster of spectacular road-rage. But would a detective on the Zombie Squad actually tool around LA on the hunt for perps in it? Although a thing of aggressive beauty, this is really just another image-brandishing super-statement that makes the lead character into a bloated joke.
Even if they together at the time, there’s absolutely no excuse for the pathetic vanity-casting of Brigitte Nielsen as the killers’ prey. She’s simply wretched and hugely unappealing. Remarkably, considering their well-publicised affection for one another at the time, there is no chemistry at all between her and Stallone either. So we have two cardboard cut-out lead characters swept up in a scenario that doesn't add up.
And then, to top this, we get the blatantly ridiculous finale in which the lead killer who, to be frank, hasn’t actually done all that much throughout the entire film, then stands there and confronts our hero with the mocking declaration that “You won’t kill me, pig! The courts have a system,” and that “even criminals have rights,” etc, etc. What garbage is this? Cobra has just wasted dozens of this guy’s henchmen (and women) without a second thought. Why would he suddenly switch tactics and follow the letter of the law now, especially after all the trouble the guy’s caused? No, I’m sorry, but even in the huge parameters of what is permissible in a simple action movie, this is just plain stupid. Stallone actually sat down and wrote this. Even Rambo III and Tango & Cash, both of which are monumentally idiotic (but great), make much more coherent and logical sense than this.
As larger-than-life as he is, Rambo is still a believable character. Even when blown out of all proportion to take on the Russian Army in the third instalment, he exists in a world whose sense of logic and possibility had been pushed to stratospheric, but still carefully established parameters. Cobretti has absolutely no basis in reality at all. Which would be fine if Stallone had then allowed him to just explode even further from reality as the story went along. But he doesn’t. In fact, he attempt to keep things lower key than the hero he has created actually deserves. All he does is whisk Nielsen's bland heroine to safety a couple of times. If you are going to start out so brazenly cartoonic, at least have the courage of your convictions to expand upon such an idea. These guys have penetrated the higher echelons of city so why not have Cobra exposing the nutters at the top of the hierarchy who are probably pulling the strings of their foot-soldiers? This a complete lack of ambition. So there we have another problem with the film – its narrative is not outrageous enough!Well, to make up for this juvenile short-sightedness, we have the action, don’t we?
Ahhh, well … let’s be honest about this … no, not really. The film is resolutely pedestrian, badly edited and unforgivably dull. Cobra’s one saving grace in the mayhem department is the admittedly barnstorming car chase with Stallone’s own muscle-wagon leaping like a steroidal gazelle over humpback bridges, spinning around on the freeway and racing backwards to enable Cobra to machine-gun a pursuer into flaming oblivion, and then roaring out of the second level of a multi-story car park like a turbo-boosted chrome toad, but this really isn’t a great showcase for the Italian Stallion and his valorous brand of vigorous do-gooding. The introductory shoot-out in the supermarket is a sanitised wash-out of woeful slo-mo and unfulfilled build-up. TV veteran Marco Rodriquez (who looks like Emmerdale’s Cain Dingle!) doesn’t learn the lesson that Marion Cobretti teaches his renegade “hunter” by attempting to hold up another supermarket in Maniac Cop 2. I like the grapple with a trio of goons lying in wait outside his apartment – fast and sudden and reflexive - but this is over far too soon. And the big battle at the end, the showdown we have all been waiting for, is really quite pathetic. With the road surface clearly hosed to enable those motorbikes to skid and slide more easily, the same hunters being used over and over again (we see around four times as many in action as actually come riding into town) and some painfully pedestrian stunts – barring that one guy who almost gets his head run over by a bike (watch for this and wince) – this is an example of sappy, slow-leak adrenaline seepage. Heavily touted at the time and hyped-up as being this tremendously exciting thriller, Cobra feels like a trailer that has been stuffed with all the wrong bits - the off-cuts excised from a much better film.
In the UK, the film was always slightly cut on home video. Basically it was just Cobra saying the line, “You have the right to remain silent,” to a bad guy just before setting him ablaze. But even the uncut version the film (which we have here) has always seemed censored. There are no graphic killings despite the fact that many of them are committed with axes, or that evil knife. In many ways, this reminds me of the surprisingly brutal and twisted Bronson thriller, 10 To Midnight. Both films depict very violent deeds and we see some subliminal smatterings of blood, but you are left with the unwelcome impression that the meat ‘n’ gristle had been removed long before release. Both films also have a similarly gaudy look of sullied neon, and both depict a cop who is forced to break the law in order to take down a killer who is exploiting the pussy-footing ways of the legal system. Bronson's film does it much better.
Genre-fans know that Bruce Campbell has the most iconic chin in the business. Well, until Bruce Forsythe starts smiting Deadites, that is. And that Robert Z’Dar, from Tango & Cash and the Maniac Cop series (which also featured Campbell – what a facial conflict that must have been!), has the most impregnable jawbone since Bluto in Popeye. But, just before Z’Dar stuck his steel-plated chin into the proceedings, we had brawny Brian Thompson and his unfeasibly shovel-shaped face. Despite my misgivings about the film in general, I actually like Thompson’s satanic performance. He is hugely intimidating. You have to admit he’s the most unlikely hospital handyman since Michael Myers first donned a boiler-suit and went for a slash (geddit?) in Haddonfield General – just slicking back his hair and putting a pair of glasses on isn’t going to convince anyone that he’s trustworthy when he’s a towering six-foot-three, lantern-jawed monster of a man with a stare that could melt through sheet-metal. He’s even bestowed a serial killer’s moniker, the Night Slasher, in lieu of a proper name. But, as blatantly one-dimensional as his urban chieftain is, Thompson imbues him with genuine mad-glared and senseless rage. “I want your eyes, pig!” he declares to Cobra during their showdown. “I want them!” And he even spits wads of venom as he growls. Thompson is giving it his all … but he just isn’t given much material or motivation to work with. He had previously been one of the punks who had foolishly taunted Arnie’s nude Terminator in the first outing for the T800, and shortly after this he would appear in the elusive Werewolf TV series, alongside Chuck Connors, and then Fright Night Part II as one of an ensemble of vengeful monsters. His distinctive appearance has also seen him cast as leering heavies in fantasies like Dragonheart and even as mythical heroes, such as Hercules in the terrible TV version of Jason And The Argonauts. But, in many ways, he was at his most menacing here … in one of his biggest roles and lousiest movies. Plus, he is the one person in the world who actually looks better with a stocking over his face.
A lot of people will be stunned at my verdict on Cobra, being as, for me, Stallone can normally do no wrong. As far as I am concerned, he is one of the greatest cinematic heroes and a continuing inspiration … but in a career that has, unmistakably, suffered some failures and falls from grace along the way, this is one of his worst ever efforts, totally epitomising all that could go wrong with the action genre in the 80’s. As I alluded to earlier, even Charles Bronson was making better films than this at around the same time. It wouldn’t be so bad if this was a young Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, or even Steven Seagal flexing some pre-bloat muscle. You could forgive an awful lot if this was an introductory flurry for some up-and-coming action star. But it isn’t. This is Stallone at the height of his 80’s glory, under the command of a director who certainly knew how much space to give his leading man with regards to the furthering of his own cinematic mythology.
Cobra joins the ranks of The Specialist and Daylight as being the nadir of Stallone’s high-prestige thrillers. Even the lower-echelon likes of D-Tox and Get Carter are better crafted and more entertaining than this. Without the cutting edge of gritty irony or dark satire that would become the hallmark of later action epics, the element of ballsy and ballistic fun of Commando and Lethal Weapon, or the knowing swagger and audacity of Rambo and Rocky, Cobra is like an enthusiastic child caught in-between two parties and trying to impress them both at once. It wants to get on with everyone, but is hopelessly out-of-synch with either camp – it is the poser at the party, too cool to notice that everyone is laughing at him.
For Stallone completists only.