Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 cop thriller Cobra begins on a black screen with blood red titles for director George Cosmatos and star Stallone; we hear only ominous industrial and animal noises. Then, as the camera pulls out away from a close-up on an illustrated cobra snake, Stallone hits us with alarming crime statistics: In America, there’s a burglary every 11 seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes and 250 rapes a day.
True? Who knows? Probably not, but it feels true and that’s scary, right?
The snake illustration is on a gun handle. A black leathered hand slides around the handle and points the barrel toward the camera. There is a muzzle flash, a bullet flies toward the camera. Only after the bullet has totally engulfed the frame does the camera cut away, this time to a stark landscape with a blood red sky (there’s a lot of red in Cobra), and the title of the film.
A silhouetted figure on a motorcycle appears from over the horizon as the credits continue. His journey is intercut with another silhouetted figure in an abandoned swimming pool, raising and clanking two giant axes in some kind of ceremony. The man with the axes is surrounded by others, also silhouetted, also with axes. There’s smoke, lens flairs, and close-ups on drawings of skulls and torn fabric that hangs ominously and the clanking is continuous all the while the motorcyclist who drives through downtown Los Angeles, finally stopping in front of a grocery store. Christmas decorations are everywhere but the red sky and smoke give off the impression of intense heat, as the still faceless man walks into the grocery store, after passing a fighting couple. He’s wearing a wool cap, sunglasses and has a moustache. He shoves a shopping cart with a child sitting inside out of his way just in case the audience is on the fence about how they feel about him and makes his way toward the center of the store, ignoring the grocery clerk asking if he needs any assistance.
Once he reaches the produce section he pulls a shotgun out of his trench coat and begins to fire. It’s a bold way to start a film, and an honest representation of the brutal violence to come.
Cobra is a movie about paranoia, rage, violence, and aggression.
It’s Los Angeles in 1986 and the city is under siege by a cult of faceless axe murderers stalking the streets, indiscriminately executing anyone they come across. One character points out that even sexually abused children are fair game. The police are at best impotent, tied down by rules and due process, and at worst actively complicit in the spree. Justice depends on a couple of rogue cops and a plucky model to bring the whole murderous operation down.
That’s the whole plot.
Sylvester Stallone is a cop named Cobretti, or Cobra; he and his partner Gonzales (Reni Santoni in a sensational cap) are members of the LAPD’s Zombie Squad, a division that isn’t really explained and Cobra and Gonzales appear to be the only members of, but whatever it sounds cool so we’re going with it because this movie is really just about atmosphere and action anyway.
When fashion model Ingrid (Brigitte Neilson) witnesses one of the murders and sees the killer, known only as The Night Slasher (Brian Thompson), she becomes a target and Cobra and Gonzales are assigned to protect her. The rest of the movie Stallone fights off waves of killers until pretty much everyone else is dead.
It’s no secret that Stallone was originally going to star in Beverly Hills Cop. He also rewrote the script, as was pretty much his habit at the time, turning the comedic culture-clash police story into a more straightforward action movie. Stallone’s take on the material was ultimately deemed too violent and expensive and Stallone exited the production two weeks before production began.
But the story of Beverly Hills Cop has a rare double happy ending – Eddie Murphy was brought in to star in the film that became a classic and helped cement his status as a legend in Hollywood, and Stallone took many of the concepts from his Cop draft and worked them into Cobra. What Stallone brought from one film to the other that actually made it into Cobra is not known, but it is interesting to note that his character in Beverly Hills Cop was going to be named Axel Cobretti.
Also worth noting is that along with being a vehicle for his Beverly Hills Cop ideas, Cobra is an adaptation of a novel called Fair Game, written in 1974 by Paula Gosling. It’s rumored that Stallone approached Gosling and suggested the book be rereleased and that Stallone be listed as co-author. Gosling declined. Because of course she would.
It’s also been widely reported that Cosmatos wasn’t the actual director, but a figurehead for Stallone to direct from behind the scenes. The whole thing is bizarre on several levels because Stallone already had a thriving directing career by the time Cobra came around, having directed three Rocky films and a handful of other movies. It’s also been suggested that Stallone used Cosmatos in the same capacity for Rambo: First Blood Part Two.
Anyway, if it’s not true, Stallone hasn’t been in a hurry to correct anyone who says it is. But taken together, it suggests that he wanted to take credit for writing a novel that he didn’t and not take credit for directing a movie that he did.
Now, Fair Game was adapted again, this time in 1995 into a vehicle for Cindy Crawford and is notable only for having an absurd-even-for-movies sex scene and for proving that Cindy Crawford shouldn’t have starring roles; but beyond that it’s really nothing like Cobra.
It’s got the same woman on the run from bad guys protected by cop structure but so do ten thousand other generic action movies. What makes Cobra distinct and memorable is that the story and characters and the attitude are all products of Stallone and his imagination. And his imagination is a dark and violent place indeed.
People are horrible in Cobra, they’re mean and angry and grotesque. Putting the axe murder cult aside for a moment, even the supporting and incidental characters are loathsome.
First, the fighting couple in the parking lot, then Cobra’s neighbors, tattooed Mexican hoodlums who sit in their cars (taking up two parking spots), wearing wife beaters and listening to Gloria Estefan, while they drink, presumably not having jobs. They only learn to respect the rules of parking when Cobra snatches the cigarette out of the leader’s mouth, rips his shirt and tells him to straighten up and fly right. And Ingrid has to fend off her photographer who tries to pressure her into sleeping with him, and moments later is axe murdered.
As far as the police force, other than Cobra’s good-hearted-partner-with-a-great-hat the rest are either useless pencil pushers or secretly in cahoots with the Night Slasher and his gang.
Stallone loves individuals and hates organizations so his cops tend to be the “don’t play by the rules” type, at odds with the greater force who are all distracted by the bureaucracy that keeps good cops from doing their jobs. He isn’t crazy about the press either.
After Cobra kills the shooter from the opening grocery store scene, a reporter asks him about the possibility he used excessive force, mentioning the rights of the perp. Enraged, Cobra grabs the reporter and drags him over to one of the victims, shoves the reporter’s face up against the corpse and asks what about this guy’s rights?
In Stallone’s perfect world police officers work without oversite or accountability, their motives are never questioned and they’re too busy protecting the innocent to worry about coddling criminals (and don’t get him started on judges, who just let psychos back out into the world, negating all his hard work). And that’s weird because one of the members of the Axe Murderer Cult is a police officer, so one would think he would be sympathetic to systems that keep tabs on them.
So about those axe murderers – they’ve killed about a dozen people in as many days. This is obviously a real problem for the citizens of LA as well as their police. The police and public think the murders are being committed by a single individual, Cobra thinks the murders are being done by a group of people. When asked to provide an explanation for his theory, Cobra says he just has a feeling. His superiors are openly contemptuous of Cobra’s methods and detective skills, which is reasonable on the one hand because all we’ve seen him do is shoot people and intimidate his neighbors.
On the other hand, the audience has seen some of the murders and the cult gatherings so we know he’s right. The effect is to isolate Cobra and his few allies from the rest of the police force and create sympathy from the audience for our main character. There is no logical way to explain what he knows because Cobra isn’t a movie interested in logic. It’s about emotion, and that emotion is rage. From that opening narration about crime that overlays a bullet being fired at the audience to the grocery store killer who screams about being a party of “a new world order,” which maybe has something to do with the cult or maybe it doesn’t. While that same phrase is repeated at the end of the film by the axe murderer, the movie doesn’t take the time to connect those pieces.
Again, no time for logic. Along with the emotion, Cobra is about attitude. The movie mostly takes place at night and despite that, Stallone manages to wear big aviator sunglasses in most of his scenes; he’s unshaven too, and in a giant trench coat, like he didn’t want to play someone recognizably human. The score is more in line with a John Carpenter film than the upbeat Pointer Sisters and Glenn Frey pop hits from Beverly Hills Cop or even the bluesy guitar riffs that fill Lethal Weapon, the effect is dour and threatening.
Originally, Cobra ran about a hundred thirty minutes with the idea that it would be cut down a little and settle in at two hours. But then Top Gun, released one week before Cobra, was a blockbuster so at the very last minute Stallone panicked and cut forty minutes out of the movie in order for theaters to fit an extra showing every day.
He cut out the majority of the plot, exposition, and scenes that he wasn’t in. He managed to keep inexplicable moments, like a sequence where he cuts a piece of pizza in half with scissors and eats it while cleaning his gun with materials that he apparently kept in the refrigerator in an egg carton, as well as a montage that cross-cuts Cobra and Santoni questioning homeless people and prostitutes about the Night Slasher with scantily-clad Ingrid doing a photoshoot with robots.
Stallone and robots, what was that about anyway? The cut scenes have been written about online and some have shown up on YouTube. Still, it’s hard to imagine that a more conventional narrative would have made Cobra a better film.
By all accounts Stallone was motivated by panic, economics and ego when he made the cuts, but the result is a mesmerizing movie with the logic and tone of a nightmare. Bereft of any real backstory or motivation, the characters take on Jungian archetypal significance – they are crude concepts of basic human emotions and motivations (fear, anger, corruption, innocence, loyalty), not actual people. There’s no reason for the axe murderer’s reign of violence other than to kill people.
The Night Slasher doesn’t have another identity where he’s a respectable business man or a drug addict or family man; he doesn’t even have a name. The actor who plays him is a bruiser, over six feet tall and built like a boxer with a massive jaw and forehead. He’s often shot in tight sweaty close ups, half in shadow, looking like a rhino ready to charge and what little dialogue he has is spat or growled instead of spoken. His army of axe murderers is somehow even less characterized; we rarely even see their faces, except his lover, the corrupt police officer who betrays Cobra and Ingrid by letting the cult know where they’re hiding.
That there are only two women in Cobra and one is a fashion model cult target and the other a violent psychopathic police officer and what that says about Stallone and how he sees women is a whole other can of worms that we simply don’t have time for.
At the climax of the film the Night Slasher sics his minions on Cobra is forced to kill them all pretty much single handedly. According to the internet (which is never wrong about this sort of thing), out of the 49 killings in the movie, Cobra is responsible for 39 of them, and most of those take place at the end of the film, in scenes that can only be described as pornographically violent. His final confrontation with the Night Slasher takes place in a foundry of some kind. They are surrounded by sparks and smoke and fire and when Cobra defeats him he doesn’t just kill him, he impales him on a giant hook and shoves him into a furnace. The camera holds on him while he burns alive. That’s not the only person Cobra burns to death by the way, he also sets someone on fire while reciting Miranda about ten minutes earlier in the film.
For a cop, Cobra seems to hate obeying the law.
And that’s the movie, there’s a short scene after the Night Slasher dies just to wrap things up. The rest of the police show up, presumably to catalogue and transport the scores of dead bodies lying around. His boss expresses gratitude to Cobra for killing everyone. Cobra asks to be reimbursed for his destroyed car – a 1950 gun metal grey Mercury Coupe, license plate “Awsome 50.” His boss explains it’s not in the budget. Then Cobra punches another cop in the face and drives away with Ingrid on a motorcycle. It’s not his motorcycle. . Who it belongs to is a mystery the film never solves, but it’s Cobra’s the moment he sits on it. That’s just how it goes.
In the end it’s hard to say whether Cobra is a “good” or “bad” film or if those types of labels even matter.
What it is, is a perfect distillation of the worst, ugliest values of action films of that era. The world is a dangerous place filled with evil predators that hurt innocent people for no reason other than they’re predators and that’s what predators do.
Institutions are unable to protect citizens and the only people who can are just as violent as the predators themselves. Women are either innocent and vulnerable, or if they do have power they’re violent and untrustworthy. Minorities barely exist and when they do they are supporting characters, in a world revolving around big strong violent white men who are steadfastly either moral or immoral. As an actual philosophy or functioning world view it’s revolting, but as the spine of a story it makes for a really effective experience, especially when it’s in the hands of a pro like Stallone.
Whether that’s something that someone actually wants to see is up to them, but it’s not easily forgotten once seen.
Cobra (Collector’s Edition) is now available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory