Cannonvember #8 Cobra (1986)
When you’ve been writing about pop culture for over two decades, as I have, you end up writing about the same subject matter a fair amount. It’s a hazard of the trade. Christ, I’ve probably written about Caddyshack and Charlie Wilson’s War a half dozen times in different contexts (like the Careerviews I did for Bill Murray and Phillip Seymour Hoffman respectively, for example) and while I think those movies are both very entertaining, I would not list them as personal favorites.
So perhaps it is not surprising that writing about the ten films in the Cannon box set requires me to revisit Over the Top, which many, many years ago was a My World of Flops entry, and Cobra, which I wrote about for Forgotbusters over at The Dissolve. I was a little worried that it might be difficult finding 2000 entirely new words about it but my concern turned out to be ill-founded.
Every time I re-watch a movie I bring a new set of life experiences and expectations for it. I inherently see it in a different way because I’m a different person, even if I’m re-watching it just a few months apart. When I first watched Cobra, I was trying to figure out why such a commercially successful film had been relatively forgotten by pop culture.
What I quickly discovered was that it hadn’t, in fact, been forgotten, and for a very good reason: it’s fucking awesome. The first time I wrote about Cobra I was pleasantly surprised. This time I was something close to blown away. As a lurid, vulgar fever dream of a Reagan-era fascist power fantasy Cobra is unusually pure, unadulterated schlock, a movie committed to giving violence enthusiasts the bloody red meat that they crave.
The movie opens with Marion Cobretti, AKA “Cobra”, rasping crime statistics that sure sound terrible. So many murders! And burglaries! Not to mention all the sexual assault! Thank god there’s someone around who doesn’t mind trampling over criminal’s rights in order to fulfill his destiny killing all the bad guys. That man is Marion “Cobra” Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone).
The implication is unstated but strongly implied: Cobra’s back story is that crime exists and it’s fucking disgusting, and the scum that do it are repulsive pieces of shit, so it’s Cobra’s job to murder them all.
Cobra has the dread-and-violence-choked atmosphere of a grind house horror movie. Indeed, if Sylvester Stalone, who also wrote the script, wasn’t playing the title character, Cobra could just as easily, and appropriately, be named The Night Slasher after the police and media’s name for its villain, a group of deranged, knife-wielding lunatics the moronic police (other than Cobra, of course) somehow believe is the work of one serial killer with the power of dozens.
With Cobra, Stallone tried to out-Chuck Cannon’s two Chucks (Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson) by making a right-wing bloodbath even more ridiculously over the top in its depiction of criminals not as human beings who choose to commit crimes for any number of reasons, many of them steeped in complicated socio-economic and political factors, but rather as crazy-eyed, knife-wielding sub-human garbage just begging to be set on fire or riddled with bullet holes.
Like Death Wish 3, which Cannon released a year earlier, Cobra depicts criminals as a different, inferior species to the law and order-minded folks in the audience. The film depicts all criminals as sweaty, wild-eyed maniacs whose sole motivation is to kill, kill, kill and maybe throw in a little kidnapping and sexual assault while they’re in the process.
Cobra opens with Cobra, the pride of the “Zombie Squad” being called in to handle a liquor store robbery that turns into a hostage standoff. The killer, a potent combination of swarthy, sweaty, pock-marked and insane, is taking a liquor store hostage and babbling gibberish about the supremacy of something called “New Order.”
Cobra is an old hand in situations like this, so he knows the first thing to do is to chug a nearby can of Coor’s and then antagonize and threaten the lunatic holding liquor store patrons hostage with sweet nothings like, “You’re a disease. And I’m the cure” and “I don’t deal with psychos. I put them away.”
He gets his guy because Cobra always gets his guy, but when he swaggers outside he has to put up with some pencil neck geek of a reporter insulting him with the very offensive and untrue statement, “People have rights!”
Not in Cobra, they don’t.
By the book cop Monte (Andrew Robinson, the bad guy from Dirty Harry) decides that this is the perfect opportunity to tell Cobra just how much he doesn’t care for his outside-the-box manner of solving crimes, and how inferior it is to the by-the-book manner he personally prefers. He keeps telling Cobra this every time they interact, until we’re supposed to cheer Monte getting punched in the face pretty much just for being annoying.
Cobra nearly hit theaters in a two-hour version but Stallone and the studio got skittish as its release date approached, so they slashed over a half hour and released the movie in a lean, mean 86 minute cut that strips the narrative down to its bare bones. The film’s tough-guy minimalism borders on the perverse. If given a choice between dramatizing a secondary bad guy’s background, his relationship with other characters and giving him a dramatic arc or having him appear onscreen for two seconds so he can be set on fire by Cobra in an orgy of destruction, Cobra invariably opts for the second strategy. And you know what? That’s the correct one.
What does the “New World” want? What’s their philosophy and background? We get some nonsense about the strong hunting the week, but honesty, Cobra doesn’t give a mad-ass fuck. It doesn’t care about where they’ve been and what their aims are. It’s exclusively interested in this crazy murder cult—who apparently pass the time clanking together their old-school murder weapons in a form of “Axe Calisthenics” in their sinister lair—as an endless supply of crazy-eyed, damn near frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics to come at Cobra and be brutally assassinated for the effort.
These aren’t action movie bad guys. Action movie bad guys have less than admirable but sane motivations. These fucking nuts just want to kill everybody. Action movie bad guys use practical, powerful weapons like guns. These crazy-eyed motherfuckers use axes and hatchets and knives like goddamn slashers in serial killer movies.
Cobra doesn’t just have the lean, paranoid, lurid neon intensity of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13; during an extended sequence where a lunatic tries to murder Brigette Nielsen’s witness it feels more than a little like Halloween II (which Carpenter cowrote as well). Cobra is officially the work of director George P. Cosmatos, who directed three pop classics in Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and Tombstone but it alternately feels like the work of any number of action auteurs, including Tony Scott, Walter Hill and the aforementioned John Carpenter.
Cobra is exquisitely dated. A montage sequence that combines the “New World” sickos engaging in axe calisthenics, Cobra shaking down lowlifes on skid row, slashers sharpening knives menacingly, model Brigette Nielsen in a fashion shoot involving colorful wigs and robots and a power ballad called “Angel of the City” may not be the best montage sequence of the 1980s, but it could very well be the single most 1980s montage of the entire decade.
Bridgette Nielsen is the film’s female lead, a model who survived an attack by the murder gang and is consequently the target of repeat attacks from the cult. Nielsen was chosen because she was the only actress extreme and cartoonish enough for this material.
Cobra has eyes for the beautiful young woman under his protection but his true love is murdering people with guns. Instead of sex scenes, we’re treated to multiple scenes of Cobra lovingly caressing his many weapons, and, in the film’s hilariously excessive third act, assembling a big enough arsenal to take on an entire army of blood-crazed murderers with no respect for human life.
Cobra does not feature much in the way of bazookas or rocket launchers. That marks it as an anomaly for a Cannon film of the era but Stallone finds way to be gloriously excessive. Cobra is singularly devoted to overkill. There’s a hilarious moment in the climax when the bad guy taunts Cobra by saying that he’s too hopelessly by-the-book to kill him rather than bring him in, and I couldn’t help but think, “Motherfucker, this psycho thinks nothing of setting motherfuckers on fire and throwing them on giant hooks. He literally kills over forty people. The line between killing and not killing is clearly not one he’s too concerned about transgressing."
Cobra’s climax finds Cobra pretty much single-handedly murdering an entire murder gang. This is not a small murder gang, mind you. No, this is a murder gang that is feeling justifiably good about the pace at which they’re growing. This is a murder gang whose rapid growth and effectiveness makes it the envy of murder gangs around the world. This murder gang murders with impunity. They can handle anything except officer Marion Cobretti.
In a line that succinctly sums up the movie’s Reagan/Trump-style conception of law and order, Cobra at one point complains that the police will always lose because they have to play by rules that the murder gang they’re pursuing don’t. The movie clearly agrees with him (as star, screenwriter and ghost-director, Cobra very much reflects Stallone’s vision) but here’s the thing: the murder gang thinks it’s perfectly kosher to go around murdering people for no reason. That’s why they’re the bad guys. Law enforcement, and, indeed, civilization, should hold itself to a slightly higher standard of conduct.
After our man Cobra successfully murders the 400-person motorcycle death cult murder gang that has been trying to stab him to death, Andrew Robinson’s sniveling, by-the-book, Cobra-hating fellow officer inexplicably decides that it’s once again time to point out, to the audience, Cobra and the world, that they are very different types of cops, and, in his opinion, he’s a much better cop.
So Robinson’s law-abiding pussy hems and haws and stammers something to Cobra to the effective of, “Well, I suppose your ‘murdering an entire death cult yourself with the weaponry of a medium-sized country" technique got results, after a fashion, in that all the bad guys are now dead, and no longer murdering people. But you just trampled on those citizen’s civil rights by killing them while they were in the act of trying to kill you. Now I would have also single-handedly dealt with the murder gang myself, but by first informing each of their Miranda Rights, then encouraging some to either arrest themselves or arrest each other so that the entire death gang could be incarcerated without a single casualty! Oh, but my way would be clearly superior!”
Cobra is so pissed off that he slugs the lily-livered creep in the face. Technically, that’s probably some manner of crime, possibly of the “felony assault” variety but the guy was antagonizing a dude who just rid the world of about thirty percent of its most violent and insane criminals. Besides, do wusses have rights? Cobra feels strongly that they don’t. It’s the kind of movie that really lets you know just how violently (no pun intended) it disagrees not just with the concept of “criminal rights” but with the concept of “rights” in general. Nope, in Cobra your two main rights are to buy and operate a fuck-ton of firearms and to get murdered by Cobra if you get in his way.
Cobra was a sizable commercial success. It was a movie for the moment, and a movie that today is 1986 in cinematic form but unlike previous Stallone smashes Rocky and First Blood it never inspired sequel. Oh well. It might be for the best. At 86 minutes, Cobra doesn’t have time to wear out its welcome. It’s nothing but the good stuff, blood and gore and action delivered at a feverish clip.
Then again, I might be over-rating Cobra a little because it follows six Chuck Norris movie and a fun but much less Stallone vehicle in Over the Top. Many decades later, when Cannon was but a vivid memory, Stallone would throw Chuck Norris a bone and gave him a cameo in an Expendables sequel. The idea was to honor another action legend but it’s also possible that Stallone, who might just have too much personality—wanted to thank the personality-free older action hero for making him look so good by comparison.
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