Cobra (1986)

Country: United States
Director: George Pan Cosmatos
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brigette Nielsen, Brian Thompson, Reni Santoni, Andrew Robinson
Music: Sylvester Levay

Cobra was made after Rambo II and Rocky IV, and before Rambo III, and directed by George Pan Cosmatos (who directed the aforementioned Rambo II). At the time of its release it was derided primarily for two things. The first, and most obvious, was that it was too violent. The second was, that at only 86 min in length, it was too short and the cinema going public were being ripped off. Funnily enough, looking at the film today, it doesn’t seem that violent at all. Most of the violence is suggestive rather than shown, and when a violent sequence does take place it is rather stylised.

Despite any criticism levelled at at the film at the time, when I saw it at the cinema (and I hate to admit, I saw it two times) I didn’t think the film was too bad at all. In fact, I thought it was a good fast paced thrill ride. And visually, the film was amazing. You’ve got to remember that this was made in the days before CGI and rampant use of green screen backgrounds. Sure some filters were used, but most of what you see on the screen was filmed in front of the camera.

In the film Sylvester Stallone plays a bad ass pop named Marion Cobretti (Marion possibly being a nod to John Wayne whose real name was Marion Morrison). Cobretti is a part of a special police unit called ‘The Zombie Squad’ – no, I am not making that up. And of course, he does not get along with his superiors. It is a time honoured trope in cop films, and can be seen in the Dirty Harry series, Brannigan and McQ and (with John Wayne), Lone Wolf McQuade and Code of Silence (with Chuck Norris) and in the Italian cop films of the 1970s especially those starring Maurizio Merli. Why would we expect Cobretti to be any different?

As the story begins, the city is in turmoil because a serial killer known as the ‘Night Slasher’ is cutting a bloody path through the population. There are no clues in the investigation, nor suspects, as the attacks appear to be random. One evening, Ingrid Knudsen (Brigette Nielsen – Stallone’s wife at the time) witnesses a ‘Night Slasher’ attack and reports it to the police. However the ‘Night Slasher’ is not just one psycho, but a fanatical group of fruitcakes who believe they are establishing a New World Order. That is, a New World Order, where the only prerequisite to join the group is a desire to kill people, and an ability to bang two axes together in time with the other fruitcakes. Later, to silence her, the crazies make an attempt on Ingrid’s life. Then Cobretti and his partner Chico are assigned to protect her.

The villain, the head ‘Night Slasher’ if you will, is played by Brian Thompson, who made a career out of this sort of role. Here, he doesn’t have much to say, but he looks menacing, and when he does finally speak, he spits the words out in a suitably vitriolic (and taunting) fashion.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about the film, were the Dirty Harry in-jokes. Firstly, Andrew Robinson plays Cobra’s boss – you know the one who doesn’t like his detectives methods. Robinson, of course, played the psychotic Scorpio in the original Dirty Harry. Also from Dirty Harry, Reni Santoni plays Cobra’s partner Chico – he was also Harry’s partner Chico. From Sudden Impact, there is a great line at the beginning of the film as a terrorist threatens to blow up a supermarket, Cobra, rather than in-tone “Go ahead, make my day”, he says, “Go ahead, I don’t shop here” – which at the time was rather funny.

A Running Duck - Australian paperback edition

Cobra is based on a book called Fair Game by Paula Gosling – although published in Australia as A Running Duck. However the book and film are nothing alike – the only similarity being that they are both stories about a cop who is assigned to protect an innocent woman. After reading the book, it is possible to see why Stallone was drawn to Gosling’s story though – in Fair Game, the hero is an ex-Vietnam sniper, which almost aligns the character with Rambo. It’s almost like ‘what Rambo did after the war’. But none of that made it into the script of Cobra. Even the character names are different. The hero in the book was named Malchek and the girl was named Clare Randell. Although it has been twenty years since I read the book, from memory, it seemed pretty good – which means it is pretty ripe for a remake as none of the story actually made it into the film.

Watching the film today, it seems a very 80s in its style, its look, and its cringe inducing music. And in the action stakes, it has been surpassed by films such as Die Hard which brought something new to the tired cop thriller. And that was the thing, the strength, of Cobra upon its initial release was that it was a shot in the arm to a genre which had been popular in the 1970s but was now running out of legs. But Cobra still had its foot in the old school camp and now that it style has dated its impact is severely diminished.

As I implied at the top, I thought Cobra was a good film – but today, it is almost hard to sit through. I want to say great things about it, but that would be nostalgia talking, and not a true reflection on viewing the film today. Obviously, with the success of The Expendables there is a lot of nostalgia for Stallone’s early work, but I feel some of that is misplaced and looking back with rose coloured glasses – and Cobra may be one such example.

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