If ever a movie epitomised the unapologetic shoot-first-ask-questions-later meat-headedness of 80s action flicks then it’s Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra.
The 1980s was a curious time in film history, sandwiched as it was between the New Hollywood of the 70s and the rise of independent cinema in the 90s. Stallone was in the right place at the right time as the success of Jaws and Star Wars gave rise to the ‘event movie’, while the action-loving philosophy of newly elected President Ronald Reagan was embraced by the studio system.
Stallone’s career morphed in the 80s into the sort of movie star whose choice of roles were seemingly decided not by depth of character, but rather how alpha male they could be. His two films previous to Cobra were continuations of his most famous roles, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV – both textbook examples of 80s cinema.
However, it’s in Cobra where Sly’s unique formula can perhaps be most crystalised; a right-wing time capsule that would probably end up straight on the DVD racks today, but which back in 1986 raked in $160m against a $25m budget, much to the bewilderment of the critical fraternity of the time.
Audiences were no doubt drawn to the film’s pared-down poster, which features the toothpick-chewing Italian Stallion in moody black against a blood-red backdrop and holding a semi-automatic weapon with a cool-looking laser sight. Its memorable tagline – ‘crime is a disease; meet the cure’ – and description of its titular leading man as ‘the strong arm of the law’ undoubtedly had many cinemagoers champing at the bit to see Stallone dishing out bloody justice.
Sly plays Marion Cobretti (no wonder he prefers the sobriquet ‘Cobra’), an anti-establishment cop from the same police academy as ‘Dirty’ Harry, whose unconventional methods are apparently loved by many of his colleagues, tolerated by others and seemingly hated by only one – Andrew Robinson’s by-the-book Detective Monte (a canny bit of casting to get the actor who played the unhinged Scorpio in Don Siegel’s cop classic).
He ends a hostage situation at a supermarket by knifing and shooting the perpetrator after making a half-hearted effort at negotiation, later learning the no-gooder was a member of a cult of murderous nut jobs on a killing spree led by the Night Slasher (a terrifying looking Brian Thompson, graduated from bit part player in Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator).
Cobretti is tasked with protecting model Ingrid Knudsen (Brigitte Nielsen), who witnessed the Night Slasher’s gang going to work and, as the bodies pile up, so too does their attraction towards each other.
Much of what became Cobra had originally been in Stallone’s mind for his rejected take on Beverly Hills Cop and while George P. Cosmatos is credited as director, this is absolutely Sly’s project.
His screenplay (loosely based on Paula Goslin’s book A Running Duck) makes sops towards respecting the rights of alleged criminals, before quickly dispensing with such trifles and turning the movie into a glorified shooting gallery (it’s something he’s revisited at various points in his career, in particular 2008’s Rambo which features one of the most bloodthirsty endings in movie history). Stallone also gives himself a generous number of one-liners to puncture the grim and foreboding mood of much of the film.
Alongside the biblical levels of bloodletting on screen is a series of barefaced product placements for the likes of a well-known brand of brown sugar water and brand of beer, while Sylvester Levay’s soundtrack is a time capsule in itself.
Nielsen, sporting the ultimate in big hair, was never the most versatile of actors and is asked to shriek a lot while also appearing in a hilarious montage (soundtracked by some cracking synth power pop) in which she poses in various terrible 80s fashions next to a collection of homemade robots that resemble something out of Metal Mickey.
The tales of Stallone’s reported megalomania on set have entered cinema folklore. The supporting cast was supposedly forbidden from speaking to the Stallion, for example, while Nielsen was drafted in to play opposite the leading man as the pair were dating at the time.
In spite of its many flaws, Cobra has become a cult classic and it’s not hard to see why. An unapologetic exploitation flick, it takes no prisoners – preferring to just shoot them instead.