Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Back Shelf Memories: 'Cobra'

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.    

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


With this week’s arrival of The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy capper – I was getting all nostalgic and decided to revisit an earlier Batman film. But unlike what I’m sure most others will be doing right around now (a Batman Begins and Dark Knight double bill), I bypassed the Nolanverse, circled around Schumachertown and headed straight for the 1989 Tim Burton original.

You all know the story: billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) dons the cape and cowl by night to do battle with fresh-from-an-acid-bath maniac, the Joker (Jack Nicholson). For mainstream audiences, this was their first taste of the real Batman. Dark, brooding and violent, this came as a shock to those whose only prior knowledge of the character involved Adam West and KAPOW bubbles. It spawned a brilliant animated series and three sequels of varying quality, before the series was rebooted in 2005 to much critical acclaim. The original still remains my favourite, however, but just to prove this isn’t going to be a “Burton RULZ, Nolan DR00LZ” tirade, I’ll start with some things I didn’t like about Batman.

First off, it’s clear that Burton wasn’t much of an action director. While edited more coherently than any of Batman Begins’ rumbles (jerky close-ups abound), most of Keaton’s punch-ups do have an overly staged, clunky quality. Perhaps this only became apparent in the wake of Nolan and co. re-envisioning Batman as a flying ninja (pretty much), but this particular approach to dishing out justice hasn’t aged too well. Not that it isn’t satisfying, mind you. Whether Batman’s throwing goons over cars, grappling them with his thighs of steel, or utilizing a wrist-mounted piston device (?) to ram one acrobatic thug’s testicles right up to his stomach, there’s much typical 80s action movie fun to be had.

Then there are those undeveloped plot points that always bugged me. Stuff like the Joker’s brisk rise to the top of Gotham’s criminal underworld via the quill of death is notable, but I’m looking mainly at his attempt to poison unsuspecting citizens with tainted health/beauty products, and how quickly Batman manages to thwart those plans. On-screen, the Dark Knight has never really lived up to his “World’s Greatest Detective” moniker (possibly excluding the 60s show), and this would have been a prime opportunity to showcase that particular trait of Wayne’s, but it’s sadly brushed over.   

Lastly, I’ve never been fully satisfied with some of the film’s supporting characters. Commisioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) in particular is shoved far into the background, while the corrupt Eckhardt (William Hootkins) could have been a more prominent villain, and Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) is mainly here to scream and be helpless (even Katie Holmes shot Cillian Murphy in the face with a taser!). And yes, that is Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. Shame he never got to play Two Face in a later film.

Granted, you can’t give everyone the same amount of attention. If you do, you end up with a lethargic run time and glacial pacing like The Dark Knight (let me have one shot). Besides, the few that stand out do shine. Michael Gough is nothing less than lovable as Alfred. Alex Knox could have been overtly annoying, but Robert Wuhl makes him the most likeable character in the film. Then you’ve got Bob (Tracey Walter), who’s been described as the Boba Fett of Batman. I couldn’t put it any better.

But this is the Batman and Joker show, after all. I’ll focus on the latter first, since there’s not much to say about Nicholson’s character that hasn’t already been discussed at length. As the laid back, drawling Jack Napier, Nicholson is essentially playing himself. Once the makeup’s applied, he brings on the crazy with plenty of delicious black comedy. The scene where he uses a hand buzzer to fry one mobster, whooping and singing as he does so, before having a one-sided conversation with the charred corpse, perfectly encapsulates Nicholson’s Joker. And I do love how his plan consists of: bring chaos to Gotham, get revenge on Batman, and win the heart of Kim Basinger.

Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne fascinates me. He’s not the square-jawed playboy you might anticipate. In fact, he’s pretty dweeby and the LAST person you’d expect to be the goddamn Batman. Thing is, Keaton’s always been one of those actors whose eyes do all the talking. You can see that level of unpredictability within him, and you instantly know there’s a dark side waiting to take over (“YOU WANNA GET NUTS?!”). But say you’re still not convinced. Well, put that suit on him and there’s an instant transformation. Suddenly, you believe this guy could fly out of the darkness to ruin your night. The best part is he doesn’t need to sound like a rabid Scooby-Doo to pull off scary either (okay, two shots).

What’s really surprising was the initial reaction his casting received. “Mr. Mom? Are they serious?!” came the response. There was even some form of pre-internet petition begging Warner Bros. to cast someone else (dunno who, Mel Gibson had already turned it down). Though best known for his comedic roles, Keaton’s understated yet haunting performance turned heads and earned the respect it deserved. Personally, as someone who is only barely familiar with the comics (!), Keaton remains my definitive Caped Crusader.

On that note, I should address one of the biggest gripes long-time comic fans have with Burton’s film: Batman kills. Though he does leave some foes out cold on the ground for Gotham’s finest to clean up, he also blows up an entire chemical factory filled with who knows how many workers, before mercilessly gunning down various Joker goons with his Bat-plane’s Bat-machinegun. He’d only go on to burn people alive in Batman Returns! But in all fairness, his killing spree doesn’t initiate until the final act (hell, he tries to save Napier in the chemical factory), and that was after a certain feather-ruffling plot twist gave him an understandable nudge in the murderous direction.

Ah yes... the twist. Spoilers ahead (duh). Even if loyal Bat-fans had calmed down about Keaton being cast, the revelation that Jack Napier was in fact the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents would have most of them vomiting in the cinema, Exorcist style. All of a sudden, Batman becomes a revenge movie which, from what I understand, goes against everything the character has ever stood for. And yes, it is a little contrived. On the other hand (bear with me), the ultimate realisation that these two have in fact been linked since long before their alter-egos even existed only strengthens what was already a fantastic hero/villain relationship. Still, it wasn’t a popular creative decision... and Aeus, if you’re reading this... I understand.

  The buddy movie that never was.

I’ll be the first to admit it: my love for Batman stems mostly from aesthetic reasons. This is vintage Burton through and through. Gotham’s stunning design features a bizarre mishmash of gothic fantasy and film noire (... goth-noire?), while Danny Elfman’s classic score perfectly underscores every scene. Add that to the already effective mix of stand-out performances and exciting action, and Batman becomes this borderline operatic experience – not unlike Conan the Barbarian or Blade Runner. This may raise a few eyebrows, but I think there’s enough information in the visuals, and enough emotion running through the music to argue that Batman could work as a silent film!

Of course, you’d have to take out the Prince songs first... 


Friday, 6 July 2012

Blu-ray Review: 'King of New York'

And now... the-good-men and WOmen at Arrow Video bring... King-of-New-York - Abel Ferrara’s urban re-work-ing of the Robin Hood legend... to Blu-RAY.

Yeah, uh, I won’t write like Christopher Walken ever again. Ahem.

The Film

Frank White (Walken), a powerful crime lord, is released from prison intent on helping New York for once in his life. White sets his sights on renovating a hospital for one of the city’s most run down areas, but he’ll only have the funds to do so when all his criminal competition has been violently disposed of. As the body count rises, a squad of corrupt cops seek to put White back behind bars for good, setting the stage for a bloody showdown between both sides of the law.

Sitting right at the film’s centre like a gangly spider is Walken himself. Frank White could well be his best role to date, such is the level of icy menace Walken imbues him with. He’s ably supported by Lawrence (Larry) Fishburne as White’s hyperactive right hand man, Jimmy Jump, who acts as a manic foil to Walken’s cool mystique.

There are no “good guys” in King of New York, which makes Team Police all the more interesting. Victor Argo, David Caruso and Wesley Snipes are devoted to bringing White down whatever the cost, regardless of their blue-collar nature. Whether or not they’re morally reprehensible is up for you to decide, and questions over just who the real “bad guys” are soon arise.   

New York itself is also something of a character. The film was apparently inspired by The Terminator, and these roots can be seen in the moody, night time cinematography that brings out those rawer qualities you’d expect from an Abel Ferrara (of Driller Killer fame) movie. Combine that with an eerie score, and you’ve got a totally atmospheric production.  

King is a far more action-packed affair than most of its ilk. While Scarface and friends often run up to three hours in length, Ferrara’s film clocks in at a much tighter 103 minutes, so the violence comes thick and fast across several expertly handled action sequences (Fishburne going nuts while dual-wielding pistols is an absolute highlight, as is a car chase over the Queensboro Bridge).

I’m not exactly sure where King of New York stands in the pantheon of crime films, but given its energetic combination of terrific performances and gratuitous ultra-violence, all set against the sleaziest of backdrops, it’s got to be one of the most outright entertaining entries.  

The Disc

One of these days, I should review a genuine DNR disaster (hey, I hear Predator’s going pretty cheap these days). Sadly, Arrow’s latest release features a visible, well handled grain structure and plenty of detail, meaning I can’t complain too much. While medium shots convey a pleasant enough level of fine detail, most close-ups are absolutely striking. Add in a real sense of depth, and Walken’s remorseless visage has never looked so unnerving.

Colours also impress. Skin tones never look glaringly unnatural, while blood splatters the walls with rich enthusiasm. One scene, set in a dingy nightclub and lit entirely in blue, would be a prime contender for colour bleeding, but the picture remains stable throughout.

It’s funny... the pasty blacks of Demons came under heavy fire, but Arrow appear to have done a complete 180 here. Deep, dark, inky etc. with nary a compression artefact to be found, King is mightily impressive in this department. I wouldn’t completely rule out black crush, but I also wouldn’t bother looking for any.

Nor should you go searching for edge enhancement, because there’s virtually none of that either. This is a clean, natural-looking transfer that easily bests any previous releases.

Audio wise, the film’s Stereo track is perfect. Strong, clear and precise – it’s a faithful rendition of how King was always meant to be heard. One or two lines of dialogue are barely comprehendible, but that’s no fault of the disc (and can be easily rectified via the quick application of subtitles).

The 5.1 DTS-HD track is... another story, however. I read a few horror stories concerning earlier DVD versions featuring terrible audio, and it seems as though that infamous mix has made a return. It’s a mess – the exact opposite of the stereo track, and it’s almost as though there’s one of those industrial-sized hand dryers you find in public toilets blowing throughout the whole thing. Worryingly, this is the disc’s default track, so remember to switch it over before starting the film.

But barring the 5.1 misfire, I’d go out on a limb and state that King is by far Arrow’s best presentation to date. A pat on the back to all involved, and for the love of all that is cute and fluffy, PLEASE don’t mess up Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Onto the extra features, and they’re virtually all about Ferrara. There’s a brand new interview with the man himself that runs for almost thirty minutes. This one is particularly revealing. He takes a gruff and sincere look back at a period of filmmaking that clearly doesn’t exist anymore. And amidst all the factoids and anecdotes, you can even devise a fatal drinking game around how often Ferrara says “you know”.

A Short Film about the Long Career of Abel Ferrara is a lengthy documentary in which his past collaborators discuss their work with the independent director, while Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty is a feature length doco that presents Abel at his most... Ferrariest.  

Ferrara also pops up on one of the two featured audio commentaries. His chat track is surly to the extreme (telling us outright that he’s been paid five thousand dollars to record it), but certainly an entertaining listen (he gets very excited during Steve Buscemi’s brief appearances). Meanwhile, the second commentary is a chatty and enjoyable affair with several key crew members.

An interview with producer Augusto Caminito is the only other totally Abel-free extra. This is a relaxed account of King’s development that reveals its Italian connections, and the often memorable experiences had while working with Ferrara and Walken.

Then there’re the obligatory trailers, a neat little booklet, and some excellent new artwork by Tom “The Dude Designs” Hodge that looks especially great on this very purple SteelBook edition.

Again, if we ignore the 5.1 track, this has got to be Arrow’s best work. Hardcore fans will be ecstatic when they pop King of New York in, and once done with the film, there’s a meaty selection of extras to plough through.

It helps that the film is great, too.