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What's the big deal?
Cobra is an action thriller film released in 1986 and is loosely based on the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling. The film stars Sylvester Stallone as an ultra-violent LAPD cop on the trail of a serial killer who must protect a beautiful female witness when she falls into danger. The film also stars Stallone's then-wife Brigette Nielsen, Reni Santori, Andrew Robinson and Brian Thompson. Stallone wrote the screenplay based on changes he wished to make to Beverly Hills Cop when he was in the running for that film - when his changes were rejected, he was replaced by Eddie Murphy instead. Directed by George P. Cosmatos, the film received a largely negative response from critics who decried the film's excessive use of violence and lack of characterisation. The film was also nominated for a total of six Razzie awards but despite the critical backlash, the film would go on to earn a global total of $160 million and like many Stallone pictures, was even considered for a sequel at one time. In 2019, Stallone suggested that a remake was in the works although whether this would be a movie or TV series is unclear.
What's it about?
During a hostage situation at a Los Angeles supermarket, the LAPD are forced to invite specialist officer Marion Cobretti onto the scene. Nicknamed Cobra by his fellow officers, Cobretti is notorious in the department for his lack of proper procedure and his brutal violent streak. Infiltrating the store, Cobretti hears from the gunman about an underground organisation calling themselves The New World who have adopted a fascist and supremacist philosophy against society in general. Unable to reason with the gunman, Cobretti deals with the situation as only he knows how - by murdering the gunman and freeing the hostages.
Despite the verbal backlash from his commanding officer Detective Monte and a horde of reporters, Cobretti and his partner Tony Gonzales are called upon to help protect a potential witness. Businesswoman and model Ingrid Knudsen witnessed a killing spree by the group, led by a knife-wielding maniac known as the Night Slasher, and she finds herself quickly targeted by the New World's army of motorcycling goons. As the three of them try to escape the city, Cobretti finds himself falling for Ingrid as the network of killers around them draw ever closer.
What's to like?
For me, films like Cobra are why Stallone will always play second fiddle to his long-time friend and rival Arnold Schwarzenegger. This film is a prime example of Stallone's ego getting the better of him as the film seems to only have two purposes - make Stallone look cool or sexy and make Stallone look tough. Cobra is an almost laughably shallow exercise in cinematic violence that doesn't innovate or refine any of the many stereotypes we've all seen dozens of times before. Stallone, perhaps inspired by the remarkable success he enjoyed in the previous year's Rambo: First Blood - Part II, is basically hoping for more of the same here and it shows. The film is a meaningless parade of glorified violence (from both good guys and bad) that has all the style and depth of a music video from the era. It can't even bother with being realistic - since when were submachine guns with laser sights standard issue for LAPD officers?
So this is definitely one for the 'so-bad-it's-good' crowd. At least the film gives Thompson, who would go on to become a solid B-movie baddie actor, an early outing and he actually does quite well. Armed with the least practical (but coolest-looking) knife in history, Thompson is a leering and intimidating presence in the shadows. For a while, he looks like he could be Stallone's equal but you know what they say about the perils of bringing a knife to a gun fight. The film has plenty for undemanding action fans to enjoy including a fair bit of motorbike stunt work but as I suggested earlier, nobody will remember much of this once it's all said and done.
- The original cut of the film was much longer with multiple scenes forced to be removed in order to prevent the film receiving the dreaded X-rating. In all, some 30-40 minutes were edited out and then studio Warner Bros. insisted on even more cuts. Stallone removed many scenes that didn't feature any characters other than his own as well as some of the more graphic scenes, meaning the final running time was about 50 minutes less than the original version.
- Stallone complained to cinematographer Ric Waite one day that they were running behind schedule and needed to work harder. Waite fired back, telling Stallone that if he stopped showing off in front of his bodyguards and fooling around with Nielsen then they wouldn't be behind. Stallone was shocked someone would talk to him like that but ultimately improved his onset behaviour for a while. Waite also confirmed that Stallone was ultimately the director of the film, describing Cosmatos as a good producer but a bad director.
- Thompson repeatedly went to Stallone for advice, asking about his character's history and motivations but Stallone showed no interest and just described the role as 'evil'. Ironically, when filming was finished, Cosmatos lambasted Thompson's performance and claimed that he would have been much better if he had listened to the director.
- Paula Gosling's novel Fair Game would receive a later film adaptation in 1995 also called Fair Game starring Cindy Crawford and William Baldwin. Released to a hostile reception from critics, it bombed at the box office. When Cobra was released, Stallone reportedly wanted the novel reprinted but with himself credited as the author. Ms Gosling understandably declined.
What's not to like?
If we ignore the fact that the film is essentially a one-man highlight reel for its egotistical star, Cobra has many other problems going on. Nielsen is unable to generate any chemistry with her hunky co-star (her husband, remember!) who struggles to engage with the viewer in any way at all. Frankly, Cobretti is the most mechanical law enforcement officer cinema had ever seen until RoboCop emerged the following year. One of my favourite scenes involves Ingrid and Cobretti in a diner where she asks whether he ever gets "involved" and he replies "With a woman?" as if the thought had never actually crossed his mind, or even if he knew what a woman was. If this film wasn't so po-faced and serious, it would legitimately be a comedy although not in the same way Beverly Hills Cop was.
There isn't a single trace of irony in the film anywhere as nobody seemingly has a problem with Cobretti imposing his brand of death and destruction on the community but axe-wielding bikers are a step too far. Nothing makes much sense which is understandably given how much material was removed but not forgivable. I will say that Cobra isn't the very worst film I've seen but it's really one only for action fans who don't care about things like quality, originality or class. Much like its ultra-macho star, the film is big and dumb but sadly not a great deal of fun. Compare this to the equally ridiculous Commando - which sees Schwarzenegger's military hardman unleash all manner of ballistic vengeance on people - and the gulf in quality is vast. Schwarzenegger has some decent one-liners, a slightly more relatable character and the action isn't glorified like it is here. This just feels grubby and far less enjoyable.
Should I watch it?
Stallone has had some serious highs and lows in his career but I'm afraid that Cobra is firmly in the latter category. Uninspired to the point of parody and shamelessly self-indulgent, the film is not one that will be missed by fans of this sort of stuff. Unless you like seeing shiny knives glisten in the darkness, you'd be forgiven for giving this film a very wide berth.
Great For: Stallone's bulging ego, boring audiences, unintentional laughs
Not So Great For: action film fans, anyone who paid to see this, anyone who is not Sylvester Stallone
What else should I watch?
Given a choice between this film and, say, a dog licking its own nuts...
Seriously, Stallone has enjoying severe peaks and troughs in his long career which keeps coming back long after you think it's died like a horror film villain. Take the likes of Rocky or First Blood which opened the doors to Stallone and introduced audiences to a genuinely impressive, athletic leading man of action to replace the John Waynes and Steve McQueens of yesteryear. To his credit, he has only recently started slowing down - Cliffhanger is an under-rated action thriller that is a poorly disguised clone of Die Hard while action throwback ensemble The Expendables allows Stallone the luxury of spreading the weight of responsibility among his co-stars, who grow in number with each instalment. Even his most famous role, Rocky Balboa, saw a return to form in 2015's Creed.
Sadly, he has had more than his fair share of stinkers, clunkers and turkeys as well - from the ignominious Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot to the horrible failures of Tango And Cash and the much derided Judge Dredd adaptation. These days, Stallone is more often found in voice roles or direct-to-video efforts although he will soon be seen in the forthcoming Expendables 4 and Marvel's much-anticipated Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3. Hopefully, his days of shooting anonymous bad guys and mumbling silly threats are behind him because he deserves better than that.
Lt. Marion "Cobra" Cobretti
Sgt. Tony Gonzales
The Night Slasher
|Director||George P. Cosmatos|
Release Date (UK)
1st August, 1986
Action, Crime, Thriller
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Film, Worst Actor (Stallone), Worst Actress (Nielsen), Worst Supporting Actor (Thompson), Worst Screenplay, Worst New Star (Thompson)
© 2022 Benjamin Cox