Cobra is the first of two film versions ‘loosely’ based on Paula Gosling’s novel A Running Duck, which won the John Creasy Award for Best First novel in 1974.
Gosling’s story basically deals with the unlikely romance between a woman hunted by a wanted assassin, and a cold-mannered lieutenant, assigned as her bodyguard after her fiancée is killed. Sylvester Stallone took the core romance and stalking threads and reconfigured them into a serial killer / western / action cop thriller, which theoretically ought to have worked, except Stallone forgot an elemental truth about himself: aside from owning the character of Rocky Balboa, he can’t write a decent screenplay, and has a horrid ear for dialogue.
The script for Driven (2001), for example, was several years in the works before the finished draft was given a green light, and still contains amazing bad (but deliciously amusing) dialogue. In the scripts Stallone has re-written, his imprimatur is often unmistakable: scenes of emotional intimacy are laughable, and villains are mere cartoon cutouts, as is the case in Cliffhanger (1993).
His drastic overhauling of existing scripts also frustrated writers to the point where Phil Alden Robinson was permanently soured by Hollywood, after Rhinestone (1984) was altered to his distaste; and writer James Cameron left Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) when the project became a G.I. Joe cartoon, taking the arms research data, and working it into Aliens (1986).
Cobra was meant as a launching pad for a new anti-hero, a Dirty Harry variant who brings the vigilante ethos of a gunslinger to the police department, albeit restricted to the “zombie squad,” the night crew who deal with the lowest form of criminal scum using their own form of creative policing.
The film’s opening hostage scene sets up the character and his bizarre relationship within the (Venice?) police force. Unable to deal with the killer inside the grocery store (actor Marco Rodriguez, who would literaly reprise the same persona in Maniac Cop 2 [M]), they call neither a negotiator, nor mine their resources, for less drastic approaches, and choose to bring in, with great reluctance, “the cobra.”
Nicknamed Cobra (short for Cobretti), the jacketed goon arrives in a vintage customized Mercury (license plated “AWSOM 50”) and walks into the grocery store, where he soon dispatches the killer to hell after uttering the immortal phrase ‘You’re the disease, and I’m the cure.”
Stallone’s crime-busting creation rarely removes his sunglasses, keeps his hands ready for action by having them sheathed in black leather gloves, and carries a gun with a cobra logo – seen in the film’s brief pre-credit scene where Cobra / Stallone utters what’s supposed to be the film’s first of two rare moral messages about crime running rampant in America, and the law not giving a damn.
Detective Marion Cobretti, aka The Cobra
Cobra also keeps a matchstick in his mouth, and after a hard night’s work he removes a pizza box and egg carton from the freezer & fridge, respectively, cuts the pizza with desk scissors, and begins to clean his gun for another day’s work using tools housed in the egg carton.
These are all Stalloneian character nuances which never re-appear, or are explained.
During the course of the drama, Stallone keeps the opposing forces in very distinct camps: Cobra and partner Gonzales (Reni Santoni) form the buddy cop contingent; their superiors are time-wasting boobs who tiresomely argue without taking needed drastic action; and the killers are part cult, part crime posse, tracking Cobra and Ingrid, the witness wanted by the cult because she alone can identify the Night Slasher (The Kindred’s Brian Thompson) and place him at the scene of a recent murder.
Like Cobretti, Stallone infuses the killers with nuances that make no sense. In the credit sequence, we learn they begin each dawn of a massacre day by doing calisthenics with fire axes, and they ‘massacre’ – part of a plan to create a new world order free from the weak creatures – one woman per night, because a diner worker or model represent ‘the dangerous weak’ who clearly have the capacity to emerge as a kind of cult anti-matter, capable of destroying pure evil if they happen to join hands and hum C major in a peanut field.
There’s no logic to the cult, but they exist as a constant threat to push Cobra, Ingrid, Gonzales, and the cult’s police mole Nancy (big-haired Lee Garlington) towards some isolated lot where they can be exterminated in private.
During their secret voyage to a motel in a foundry town, Ingrid and Cobra have a discussion about scum on the streets that beautifully illustrates Stallone’s tin ear:
Ingy: Why can’t the police just put them away and keep them away?
Cobra: Hey, tell it to the judge.
Ingy: What do you mean?
Cobra: We put them away. They let them out.
Ingy: It makes me sick.
Cobra: Like I said, you got to go tell it to the judge.
Summary: Cobretti is part of a wheel in a corroded machine, and it all begins at the top when a judge allows a killer to walk the streets. Not bad laws, not bad apples within the system, not lousy social programs, nor the accumulation of crooks in densely populated centres who’ve learned how to work the system, nor warped behaviour than can’t be undone. Bad judges, man.
Stallone started the film with a pre-credit moral statement, and this is one of a few thematic recaps of a philosophy that may have stemmed from the actor’s genuine concern for injustice and social malaise, or it’s ad copy: bullshit social commentary along the lines of Caged Heat [M] (1983), meant to balance the violence with ersatz concern about society.
Ingy does la danse a la disco with the KNERB-5000
As a director, George Cosmatos knows how to stage action and maintain a tight pace, and similar to his prior Stallone effort, the hugely successful Rambo, there’s the director’s patented interpolation of massive, sweaty close-ups, firing guns, and visual & aural mayhem, although one music montage – Ingrid’s modeling session with steel robots - feels oddly out of place, and recalls the montages not only in Stallone’s Rocky films, but Staying Alive – the musical the actor directed & co-wrote in 1983.
Fans of Cosmatos and Stallone will also be disappointed by the strange lack of edgy violence, and amid his exceptionally dull commentary track, Cosmatos mentions he had to cut down the film to avoid an X-rating. Violent scenes lack the payoff gore we’re expecting, and the finale – particularly the Night Slasher’s demise – look as though they’ve been trimmed with a chainsaw. They lack the kind of mad, elegant finesse in Rambo, but Cosmatos does choreograph a few kinetic sequences, such as a city car chase & shootout, and the motorcycle pursuit in a small town, led by lieutenant goon Cho (future writer / director John Herzfeld).
The sadism within the film boosted its reputation as a nasty little thriller, but it’s much tamer in today’s eyes, and it’s strange Cosmatos didn’t put up a fight to retain a more violent cut, given the precedence established by Commando a year earlier.
Cobra’s brief running time is also due to the removal of a few scenes, one of which, featuring Nielsen and virtual bit-parter David Rasche, can be glimpsed in the vintage making-of featurette. Two other scenes - the Night Slasher’s day job in a fish processing factory, and discussion between Ingrid and Cobra prior to their leaving the foundry after the Night Slasher’s demise – reportedly appeared in the TV version.
Fans of the film will be pleased with Warner Home Video’s sharp and colour-rich HD transfer, and while some of the high frequencies (crashing and smashing sounds, in particular) are a bit hot, the bass range in the audio mix is quite broad. Sylvester Levay’s score is an effective mix of synths and brief orchestral, and the action cues are somewhat reminiscent of his patch-up job on Three O’Clock High (1987).
Cosmatos’ commentary (recorded in 1994 for the DVD) is sadly banal, and most of his efforts literally deal with whatever type of shot is onscreen (‘this is a wide shot,’ this was lit with a red filter’). He begins with a brief comment regarding Stallone reworking Gosling’s ‘boring’ story into an action-oriented script, but there’s no real meat about filmmaking, nor the film’s creation, production, and distribution. Cosmatos knew how to choreograph screen mayhem, but he wasn’t a deep filmmaker, to say the least.
The vintage featurette and trailer provide some amusing glimpses into the way the film was sold by Cannon & Warner Bros., but it’s a shame the deleted scenes weren’t included on this release.
Incredibly, Warner Bros. opted to green light a second version of Gosling’s novel in 1995. Titled Fair Game (the novel’s new title), the film was produced by Joel Silver as a vehicle to launch Cindy Crawford’s acting career, and one-time director Andrew Sipes, both of whom floundered soon after.
This title is part of a 4-film Stallone Blu-ray wave, including Assassins [M] (1995), Cobra (1986), Demolition Man [M] (1993), and The Specialist [M] (1994).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan