Monday, August 17, 2015

COBRA (1986)

Director: George P. Cosmatos
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone (Based on the novel “Fair Game” by Paula Gosling.)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Reni Santoni, Brian Thompson, Andrew Robinson.
Running Time: 88 minutes.
Tagline: “The Strong Arm of the Law.”  

If COBRA was a different sort of movie, that the Scorpio Killer from DIRTY HARRY (Andrew Robinson) shows up as the we-do-things-by-the-book police captain would have been intentional. It was because of Harry Callahan’s refusal to do things in accordance with the rules, remember, that botched his arrest and lead to Scorpio walking free despite all the damning evidence against him. We get the impression that Robinson certainly understands this and, knowing what an utterly cockamamie movie he's in, chews the scenery accordingly. Everyone else involved in the making of COBRA, however, seems to have lacked that level of self-awareness. 

“Cobra” would be one Officer Marion Cobretti, (Sylvester Stallone) the pride of the L.A.P.D.’s “Zombie Squad,” where he seems to be an elite unit unto himself, a last resort type called in when diplomacy fails and a liberal application of high velocity lead is needed to resolve things. If there are any other members of the “Zombie Squad” outside of Cobretti and his partner Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), we never meet them. Cobretti we’re introduced to with the film’s opening, a gritty voice over that rattles off a string of violent crime statistics before he draws his .45 and fires directly into the screen. I’d say that’s a statement of intent. 

Though his superiors don’t approve of his hardline approach to crime, as is the habit of movie police captains, Cobra is given the go ahead to “do what he does best” in pursuit of the Night Slasher, a vicious serial killer responsible for 16 deaths that the regular police force have had no luck in catching. There’s a reason for that, though. The Night Slasher (Brian Thompson) isn’t just some psychopath operating by himself but the leader of an organized cult whose members have infiltrated the police department. Cobra realizes that they’re dealing with an army of killers but can’t get any of the higher ups to believe him. This refusal to buy into the multiple killers angle will continue after Cobretti comes under attack by groups of assailants several times. 
The big break in the case comes when model Ingrid Knudsen (Brigette Nielsen) unknowingly witnesses the Night Slasher’s latest murder. (Note to all would-be serial killers reading this, if somebody drives by your murder scene, it’s not a good idea to just stand out in the middle of the street so they can get a good look at your sweaty, wild-eyed face and drive off.) Now the Night Slasher’s next target, Ingrid is placed under Cobretti’s protection and he’ll do what he can to get her out of harm’s way.  No prize for you if you conclude that will involve a lot of stalking, car chases, explosions, and gun fire.

COBRA isn’t particularly subtle about the way it tries to update DIRTY HARRY for the muscles-and-machine-guns crowd, going beyond simply sharing the “hard-as-nails cop versus nameless psychopath” scenario. Even back in high school when I first caught it on TBS, I picked up on how laughably blatant the similarities were. When his superiors remind Cobretti that he’s a “cop who gets the jobs nobody wants,” you can’t help but hear echoes of Harry Callahan angrily muttering “...every dirty job that comes along.” Facing off with a psychopath that’s taken a supermarket hostage, he tells the creep in question to “go ahead...” before emptying a clip into the guy. By that point, co-opting two of the major supporting actors from DIRTY HARRY is just overdoing it. I’ve mentioned Robinson already but Reni Santoni was also in the previous movie and plays what amounts to the same character here. He even suffers a similar fate, getting badly injured during a major gun battle. I had to check more than once just to make sure that the two characters didn’t share a name.

Whenever I watch DIRTY HARRY these days, I’m always struck by how different it is from the popular image we have of it. Never do I get the sense that it’s as in favor of the ‘kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out’ approach like its reputation would suggest. At its core, it’s about one angry man’s frustrations as he runs up against the limitations of the system he swore to uphold. The violence is treated as shocking and brutal rather than thrilling and when Callahan finally corners Scorpio and blows a hole through him, it’s not played as triumphant but with an air of disgust for things having gone this far. You don’t leave a mark on pop culture the way DIRTY HARRY did, however, without inspiring other filmmakers to create their own dollar store knock-offs of the original. And since the majority of filmmakers out there aren’t as smart as Don Siegel or screenwriter John Milius, the imitators would take all the wrong lessons from it. Different Clint Eastwood movie, but Sergio Leone’s “How many sons-of-bitches do you think I’ve spawned?” about the spaghetti westerns that followed A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS comes to mind. 

COBRA does more than just ignore DIRTY HARRY’s moral murkiness to avoid forcing any ambiguity and consequence onto its violence; it grimly embraces a fascistic viewpoint that Travis Bickle would be nodding in approval at. As far as Cobretti is concerned, criminals are all inhuman garbage unworthy of life and society would be better off if we could bypass the (useless and corrupt) justice system and just execute them in the street. “You’re the disease, I’m the cure” is a catch-phrase, tagline, and mission statement all in one. The lengths that he goes to dispatch the various criminal scum he runs across...”with extreme prejudice” seems like too light a phrase to describe it. Shoot them. Stab them. Stab them and then shoot them. Run them over. Set them on fire. Drop them off shooting them. Blow them up. Blow them up some more. Pistol whip them, impale them on a hook and then dump them screaming into a furnace. It’s wholly appropriate, then, that for its climax COBRA transforms into a miniature slasher movie with Cobretti stepping in for Jason Voorhees. 

We’ve got an action film where the nominal hero of the piece is just shy of being as much of a remorseless killbot as the T-800, so it begs the question, what are the villains like? They’re called the New Order, though never referred to as such in the movie, and we never really get a clear idea as to what their goal is. The Night Slasher gives some big speech about being hunters out to cull the weak from a sick society but if you want anything more than that, you’re out of luck. See, when COBRA came out in theaters, it was set to go up against TOP GUN at the box office and the producers were worried that it would get crushed by the Tony Scott / Tom Cruise juggernaut. In order to squeeze in a few more screenings at the Cineplex, a good half hour was cut from the movie, and any backstory for the New Order went with it. The film was further trimmed down to avoid an X rating for violence. What we’re left with is little more than a legion of cannon fodder that are here only to get mowed down by Cobretti.

Whatever information that got excised would have been useful because just what exactly the deal with these clowns is the most confusing thing about COBRA. Throughout the movie we see the New Order members gathered in a run down building taking part in a ritualistic ceremony where they clang together their weapons while standing before a larger version of the same skull sigil that every member is tattooed with. What this does this symbol mean and what’s the point of this ceremony? We never find out. Even more puzzling is the exact make up of the New Order. This has got to be one of the most diverse gangs of murdering psychos you’ll see in a movie, including doctors, construction workers, businessmen, police officers, crossing all manner of social and ethnic lines. What exactly brought them together? Just crazy, I guess. And why do they hold the Night Slasher in such reverence? When Brian Thompson tried to get Stallone to explain what the motivation of the character was, all Stallone told him that there’s “nothing to him, he’s just evil.” But “just evil” isn’t good enough for the Night Slasher to make sense at all for the role he’s given. He has to be more than just a savage brute. Having a nameless villain with vaguely defined motivation and history works dandy when he’s operating alone, like the Scorpio Killer, but if you’re going to sells us on your big bad being an uber-Charles Manson figurehead, you’re going need him to do more than sweat a lot and wave a big nasty knife around. In fact, a friend of mine was so unconvinced that the Night Slasher was the real villain when she saw this movie for the 1st time she kept waiting for the eventual reveal that Andrew Robinson’s obstructive police captain was the New Order’s true leader. I can’t blame her, either, since his utter disdain for Cobretti goes so far beyond the standard horn-locking you expect you’d think it was setting him up as a red herring at the very least. Nope, he’s just here to act smug and then get punched out by Cobretti in front of a dozen or so witnesses. Besides, having the renegade cop’s captain turn out to be the leader of a gang of murderers would have been ripping off DIRTY HARRY’s sequel, MAGNUM FORCE, and that would just be getting ahead of ourselves. 

It’s fitting that COBRA was released in 1986 for two reasons. One, this was the same year that Cannon Films, the same studio that produced COBRA, would release the third DEATH WISH movie. Two, the following year would see the release of Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP. (Warping 7-year old Bill Smiley’s brain in all the right ways. But let’s save for the (near) future, shall we?) That couldn’t have been timed better. That’s because when you look at the former two movies, you’d be hard pressed to find any other films that took the tropes and mentality of vigilante crime films to such extremes without crossing over into out-and-out parody. Obviously, the only place to go from here was to do an over-the-top send up and that crazy Dutchman delivered. Come to think of it, 1987 also saw the release of PREDATOR, and I could go on about how that riffs on this kind of movie as well. Probably will, too.

How much distance is there between Marion Cobretti and Alex Murphy, really? One’s a soulless machine programmed to shoot criminals in the face and spit out one-liners and the other’s a victim of corporate greed that gets turned into one. The big cyborg certainly displays more genuine humanity. Cobretti isn’t so much a character as he is every tough cop cliché distilled down to an ambulatory scowl and bullet delivery system. When in any situation that doesn’t call for murdering everyone in sight, there’s something downright alien about the way he acts. If his face flipped open to reveal he’s a tiny little extraterrestrial driving a human-like robot, I wouldn’t be that surprised. Who cuts up cold pizza with scissors or keeps their gun supplies in his freezer? Or the scene where he tries to flirt with Ingrid by handing her a giant prop hamburger and making nonsensical jokes about how she uses too much ketchup? Speaking of Stallone and Brigette, you’d think two people who were married at the time would have some chemistry but you’ll see more romantic sparks fly when Cobretti is assembling his machine pistol.  

I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort if, instead of writing anything, I just posted a clip or an animated gif of the moment when Cobretti guns down somebody and then sticks his pistol in his waistband, the engraving on the grip now positioned to make it look like there’s a huge snake coming out of his pants. That’s this movie in a nutshell. There is no denying that COBRA is one seriously bad movie. It’s incoherent, sadistic, and tries way too hard in all the wrong ways to prove to you that it’s the coolest thing ever. But I’m going to let you people in on something: I love every stupid minute of this dumb, dumb movie. For people like me who are devotees of trashy 80’s cinema and action films, COBRA is an embarrassment of riches. If the following year would bring the first tremors in a shift towards popular action movies taking cues more from Shane Black and John McClane than John Rambo, this is one heck of a note to go out on. Cobretti can’t just be a supercop, he has to be THE supercop, dressed all in black, mirror shades practically stapled to his face, chewing on a matchstick the whole time, wiping out whole armies single-handedly while wielding the coolest weapons and driving the coolest car. (A 1950 Mercury that actually belonged to Sylvester Stallone, the lucky bastard.) This is a man who gets referred to as “The Cobra” in casual conversation! And hey, why settle for simple product placement when you can have you your hero pause in the middle of a hostage situation to crack open a Coors and take a drink? (Coors! The beer of choice for Cops on the Edge nationwide!) Or have him live in an apartment that has a gi-normous neon Pepsi sign right on his balcony? The real mind-boggler here though is a lingering shot on a Toy ‘R’ Us commercial. I want to know who at Toy ‘R’ Us looked at this movie, a hard-R action film about a renegade cop going completely apeshit on a murder cult, and said “Yes, this is what we need to advertise our chain of children’s toy stores.” Then there’s the moment where COBRA stops everything to turn into a music video featuring Brigette Nielsen in some of the most violenty 80’s clothes and wigs you can image, posing with prop robots! You can watch that bit here.

Sometimes a movie can get by on sheer excess alone. Despite the critical drubbing it received on release, COBRA has maintained a fairly sizeable cult following since. You might be surprised to learn that cult includes someone like Nicholas Winding Refn, the director of everyone’s favorite arthouse anti-hero movie DRIVE, and he even cites COBRA as a major influence. Comparing the two movies with this in mind, it’s actually not that surprising. They share quite a bit, from its story of a matchstick chewing stoic versus the Los Angeles underworld to the visuals it uses to depict the seedier side of the City of Angels. A good bit of COBRA’s skuzzy charm comes from how it looks, everything drenched in harsh lighting and neon reds, disorienting camera angles and Peckinpah-esque intercutting smattered throughout. You’d have to turn to William Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. to find another screen version of this city that’s as stylishly sleazy. Add in the horror movie tone it often times takes and COBRA feels almost like an Italian giallo that someone inserted a bunch of car chases and shoot outs into. (Amusingly, we must note that it’s the hero with the black gloves.) Dario Argento’s COMMANDO, ya’ll.

Speaking of Arnold Schwarzenegger…the other most iconic action star of the 1980’s would have to be discussed here. COBRA is often mentioned alongside COMMANDO as both movies are pretty representative of the Reagan-era action movie form but they’re somewhat different beasts. COMMANDO was clearly made with an understanding of the movie that it is: a live action cartoon starring an invincible superhero. Heck, Jeph Loeb, the original scriptwriter, went on to make his name in superhero comics. COBRA, conversely, no matter how ludicrous or comical it gets, always behaves as if it’s nothing less than one hundred percent serious business. Ironic for a movie that started out as a discarded script treatment for BEVERLY HILLS COP. (I’d go into that but Crom, this review is long enough already.) But COMMANDO isn’t the Schwarzenegger movie I want to talk about here. You see, when Stallone rewrote his BEVERLY HILLS COP script into COBRA’s screenplay, he credited a number of the story elements to a novel by Paula Gosling titled “A Running Duck,” which would be published again as “Fair Game.” I don’t really believe that “Fair Game” was what Stallone was working from when he wrote COBRA because a look at “Fair Game’s” plot synopsis reveals very little in the way of similarities beyond the most basic. On the commentary track, George P. Cosmatos straight out admits that Stallone threw out everything from the book. (Another choice quote: “This movie did not win an Oscar.” No kidding.)  I think Stallone just credited Gosling to avoid getting hit with any kind of litigation. Huh, that sounds familiar. 

So what was really on Stallone’s mind? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t pick up on this until I chanced on watching these two movies within a couple days of each other. It didn’t dawn on me before, I think, because in my mind COBRA was “that DIRTY HARRY rip-off.” Shall I stop keeping you in suspense? Like DIRTY HARRY, it had a huge influence on subsequent action films. It, along with CONAN THE BARBARIAN, was one of Schwarzenegger’s star making roles. It, like COBRA, dealt with a woman being protected by a man from a single-minded killer that’s terrorizing Los Angeles. You might even say this killer can’t be bargained or reasoned with. It took a while to finally click but oh boy, when I did realize just how much COBRA is a stealth remake of THE TERMINATOR in DIRTY HARRY drag, I couldn’t stop cracking up about it. Hey, come to think of it, Brian Thompson was in that movie too! This gets considerably more obvious when COBRA gets out of the city and into its last act, in which a romantic interlude at a roadside motel segues into a motorcycle / truck chase before a final showdown in an industrial complex where the machinery is put to use in dispatching the villain for good. Good grief, COBRA’s poster is practically a player two color swap of the iconic one-sheet for James Cameron’s movie! If the Night Slasher emerged from the furnace Cobretti feeds him into at the end, his burning flesh sloughing away to expose a robotic endoskeleton…it would make as much sense as anything else.

I mean, come on now!

A Little Something Extra:
“Night Force” by synthcore group Power Glove, which features sound and dialogue samples from COBRA. The perfect soundtrack for whenever you feel like cruising through the city’s neon-lit underbelly at 3 a.m.


  1. I've always thought that this movie was the most 80's of Stallone's 80's period, packed with excesses that render it a parody of itself, but it isn't without some small joys. Interestingly enough, it felt to me that when Stallone started making the Expendables movies that he returned to a lot of these tropes while moving from police action to mercenary action. The cars/bikes, the sunglasses and gun fetish stuff, the one-note characterizations. Cobretti could easily be Barney. Perhaps that is why even as a fan of the action genre and a child of the 80's I find the Expendables series eye rollingly groan worthy.
    I'm excited about the new review blog! This should be fun to watch.

  2. That "Terminator" angle is one that didn't occur to me at the time (as I staggered, dazed and bemused, from the first run theatrical presentation, back in the days when one could afford to watch crap in a theatre), but it make a hideous Bizarro-World sense when it's pointed out. I don't know if I'd known Stallone was down on the writing credits for this thing at the time, either; it's unsurprising, and if the horrible and expensive fountain pen he designed a few years ago is anything to judge by his artistic sensibilities haven't changed much.

    Excellent review for the debut-- I'll be lurking around your virtual door awaiting the next!