They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. By that logic, you can’t judge a film by its poster, right? But say you’re perusing an aisle of your local video shop, and you happen across the 1986 Stallone vehicle, Cobra.
Right. First off, we have the tagline: Crime is a disease. Meet the cure. Already, you’re hooked. Then you notice the HUGE aviators covering Sly’s eyes... the matchstick poking through his lips... the shirt that must be at least three sizes too small... the black leather gloves gripping a retro laser sight-fitted submachine gun... and lastly, the jeans which he’s aggressively thrust a custom design pistol down the front of. Oh, and there are some grenades hanging off his belt too.
If you can ignore how Stallone is dressed like the main entertainment for some lucky (?) gal’s hen night, then you already know you’re in for rarely matched levels of badassitude. Warner Bros clearly realised they had a good thing going with the poster. It’s been retained and re-used over the last twenty six years – right up to Cobra’s Blu-ray release last year.
Stallone stars as Lieutenant Marion Cobretti, a member of the Zombie Squad: a Los Angeles police division that takes on the cases nobody else wants (and appears to be comprised entirely of Cobretti and his partner, Gonzales (Reni Santoni)). After a spree of vicious murders perpetrated by a killer known as the ‘Night Slasher’ (Brian Thompson) leave the police clueless, Cobretti and Gonzales are let on to investigate and soon find themselves protecting a helpless witness (Brigitte Nielsen) from not just one killer, but a whole organisation of psychotic followers devoted to death, destruction, and the dawn of a chaotic new world.
If you take away the witness protection subplot and the small legion of baddies, then Cobra plays out like a ‘roided up Dirty Harry for the Commando generation. And I’m not just pointing out the obvious casting of Santoni (Callahan’s original partner – also called Gonzales) and Andy Robinson (the Scorpio killer) as one of Cobretti’s overbearing superiors. Stallone’s screenplay positively drips with right-wing, no-nonsense, Reagan-era manliness, and is all the more stupidly entertaining for it.
Take Cobretti. Never mind that his first name is Marion. When all else fails, he’s brought in as the last line of defence. “Call the Cobra.” orders Captain Sears. That’s right, he prefixes Cobra with the. In other words, Cobretti is a humanoid version of the armoured car from Die Hard, except he actually works and comes fitted with one-liners.
Yes, Sly does spout some gems. Alongside the inevitable tagline delivery, we are treated to such grin-inducing treats as:
- In reply to a manic supermarket bomber: “Go ahead. I don’t shop here.”
- Upon being told he has an attitude problem: “Yeah, but it’s just a little one.”
- Before burning one henchman alive: “You have the right to remain silent.”
I’d only recommend trying out the middle one in real life. Be sure to hold your thumb and forefinger close together to effectively emphasise the little.
As you might have guessed, character development is kept to a minimum in Cobra, but while supporting roles are about as stock as they come (Andy Robinson in particular is lumbered with the same “Nyeeh, you’re outta control! Nyeeeeeh, do it by the book!” shtick we’re all so familiar with), we are at least given little glimpses into the man behind the aviators. For instance, he keeps his newspaper stored on the barbeque; his diet consists of cold pizza cut up with industrial-sized scissors; and he cleans his weapons while a Toys ‘r’ Us advert plays on TV.
That’s right, product placement! Though distributed by Warner Bros, Cobra was a Cannon production (this was the company that kept Charles Bronson busy throughout the 80s). Given the sleazy subject matter, Cobra could only have been a Cannon film. Their general output was modestly budgeted at best, but Cobra was a comparatively more expensive project (and didn’t tank like the following year’s Masters of the Universe – more on that later)... so where’d the money come from?
Well, according to the on-screen evidence, mostly Pepsi. An early clue takes the form of a Pepsi stand that Sly takes cover behind (and then cheekily takes a sip of Coors). But okay, nothing too glaring. It’s not like Cobretti’s apartment is bathed in the light of a giant glowing neon Pepsi sign-OHMYGODITIS.
Hey, I bet the rent's great.
Buh. Well, I guess it’s official: Cobra is second only to Lethal Weapon 2 (*cough*nikecommercial*cough*) in the hilariously unsubtle product placement stakes. I needn’t bother mention how Nielsen is later strategically positioned to cover up the logo on a Coca Cola machine.
I find it strange how we’re formally introduced to Brigitte’s character (she plays a model named Ingrid) during the course of a montage (Robert Tepper song included) as she strikes provocative poses amongst a collection of lewdly designed robots. I don’t have a point to make here. It’s just weird.
Luckily, Ingrid isn’t the worst love interest to come out of action cinema. She doesn’t have much to do except look... frighteningly butch (she was Red Sonja, after all), but at least she’s never annoying. Nielsen and Stallone were an item at the time, which might explain why a vacuum in space and time opens up whenever they have an intimate moment, but it’s never too long before the Night Slasher shows up with his goombas to spoil the mood.
Before Cobra, Brian Thompson was perhaps best known for getting his heart ripped out by an Austrian cyborg about seven minutes into The Terminator. I have an easily debunked theory that the Night Slasher is that very same character. It’s the only reasonable explanation I can muster for just how goddamn soulless this bastard is. Thompson portrays a pure monster, bearing a permanent ‘KILL KILL KILL’ face. Much like the Cobra pistol, the Night Slasher has his own personal weapon – a curved dagger with a spike-embedded handle. A news broadcaster reels off a list of victims, including one sexually assaulted child. We never see him eat, but I assume his diet primarily consists of orphaned baby manatees.
Many action movies of the period followed the same Uber Villain / Right Hand Nemesis formula, thereby providing the protagonist with both a mental (relatively speaking) and physical challenge. Commando, Road House, Total Recall – they all apply. Yet the Night Slasher represents a combination of brain and brawn. He may resemble a furless morlock that’s pulsating with sweaty rage, but he’s also kinda crafty! On top of sneaking into the hospital where a traumatised Ingrid is being kept, he kills a janitor, steals his clothes (remarkably blood-free) and proceeds to innocuously blend in (minus the patient and nurse he slaughters, anyway). This might work out on paper, but just look at him...
Would YOU get in a lift with this man?
Despite his ability to somehow pull that off, I’m not sure how the Night Slasher managed to amass his crew of axe-clanking lunies. Really, that’s what they do. Their society’s get-togethers consist of standing around in empty warehouses, whereupon they raise axes above their heads in clashing unison. That, and their talent for riding motorcycles (there must be some initiation test) makes them an interesting bunch, though I’m still uncertain how around fifty men were hoping to radically alter society (reminds me of evil Jeff Bridges’ “plan” from Tron Legacy).
To be fair, the opening action sequence does give us some clues. The evil twin of Edward James Olmos calmly enters a supermarket, whips out a shotgun, and proceeds to blast the SHIT out of any vegetables, fruits and canned goods in range! Okay, he does kill one innocent bystander... and he does threaten to blow the place up before Cobretti takes him down. But as determined and anti-fresh produce as Evil Olmos was, the whole gang hardly seem like the most organised homegrown terrorist force, given their roundabout attempts at murdering Brigitte. Night Slasher’s prep-talk probably consisted of: “Right, when she comes out, KILL HER WITH AXES!”
Most of the hacking and slashing is implied. While Cobra is a mean spirited brute of 80s cheese, it’s not terribly graphic. The Night Slasher’s early attacks happen off-screen, while gunplay never reaches the squibby heights of a Paul Verhoven flick. A number of cuts were apparently made in order secure a more commercially viable R rating (how times have changed), so there is presumably a much grislier reel of Cobra gathering dust in a basement somewhere... no doubt being kept company by the missing footage from Cliffhanger.
A slight lack of claret doesn’t do much to diminish the AWESOME that Cobra serves up in spades, thank Christ. With a runtime of only 87 minutes, the film wastes little time and packs in a ton of action. Gun battles, fisticuffs, car chases and in one late instance, a combination of all three! Ingrid takes the wheel of a pickup truck while Cobretti squats in the back and guns down loads of motorcycle-riding villains in a scene that almost resembles something out of Mad Max. One idiot dares to climb on board and gets thrown under the truck’s wheels for his troubles.
And does it all lead to a hard-fought showdown in the burning heart of a virtually abandoned factory? Absolutely. The last great cliché of 80s action is ticked off as Cobretti faces the Night Slasher’s remaining forces in a steel plant that’s located right next to a vineyard (... naturally?). The only employee there (a security guard, I think) is abruptly killed, and Cobretti has to shove Ingrid in a corner somewhere so he can use the factory’s various death traps to eliminate his prey.
As fun as this part is, we’re just waiting to see Marion finally square off with the Night Slasher in one final bout of testosterone-fuelled fury. Not only do we get a tussle of Olympic standards (hah, relevance!), but it all kicks off with some classic good vs. evil pre-match banter (including the best Stallone put-down yet). Of course, it’s all about seeing how Sly eventually punishes this wacko, and when his ultimate comeuppance arrives, you may well cheer.
In the end, after experiencing all that bloodshed, Cobra’s final moments are just plain surreal. Watching Cobretti and Ingrid take a motorcycle and ride off down one of those deserted American country roads, to the strains of John Cafferty’s Voice of America’s Sons, without a care in the world stands in stark contrast with everything that’s come before.
Such is the magic of Cobra: a tonally confused, blockheaded cheese-fest spectacular which perfectly captures all that was ever deemed silly about a certain decade of numerous cookie cutter action films, and revels in its own absurd simplicity.
And it is beautiful.