Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Film Appreciation - Don't Deal with Psychos

This week in Film Appreciation, Cody Hamman clanks axes for Sylvester Stallone in 1986's Cobra.

"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." - Sylvester Stallone's opening voiceover informs us of some crime statistics before a gun with the image of a cobra on the grip fires a bullet into the screen.

Produced by the legendary Cannon Group, Cobra re-teamed writer/star Stallone with his Rambo: First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos to tell the story of Marion "Cobra" Cobretti, a tough cop in a crime-ridden world.

Cobra is another film that I watched a lot in the late '80s. When it came to '80s action, Stallone was a king, and given that my father almost exclusively watched action movies back then, I saw a whole lot of Stallone on TV when I was a kid. Cobra may be one of Stallone's less regarded movies - this is no life lesson drama like Rocky, the character has nothing like Rambo's psychological torment, Cobra is very simply a badass cop who just wants to punish the hell out of criminals - but it was still very popular in my childhood home.

The main titles play out over images of a cult gathered in a rundown warehouse. The cult's logo is of a skull with two axes behind it, every member has a tattoo of this. The cult consists of people from all walks of life - there are businessmen in suits, construction workers with hard hats on, police officers in uniform - and as part of their gathering they're all clanking two axes together above their heads. To this day, if my father or I ever have access to two axes at once, we will briefly mimic their clanking.

A biker who has a cultist tattoo walks into a grocery store, pulls out a shotgun and goes on a shooting spree... Mainly of food items. He kills one person, but it's produce, beverages, and loaded shopping carts that take the heaviest casualties. As cops surround the building, the gunman holding hostages inside, the Captain knows who they need to have deal with this situation: "Call in the Cobra."

Cobra is part of a special division of the police force called The Zombie Squad, who get the jobs nobody else wants. When he arrives at the store, it's immediately apparent just how badass he is. He drives a battleship grey 1950 Mercury, he wears sunglasses, he chews matchsticks, and as he walks through the shotgun-blasted aisles of the grocery store and the gunman screams out for TV coverage, Cobra stops to drink a can of Coors beer. As a kid, I was more interested in the Pepsi display beside the Coors: a giant Pepsi can pouring an endless stream of fake-Pepsi into a giant Pepsi cup, and the fake-Pepsi actually moved. I was fascinated... Then this amazing Pepsi display becomes another victim of the gunman.

This isn't the only prominent Pepsi promotion in the film, as there's also a giant neon Pepsi sign right outside Cobra's apartment... But his partner drinks Coca-Cola. I'm getting mixed signals here.

Cobra is not in the store to negotiate with the gunman, he doesn't deal with psychos. His first words to the man include a threat to "waste him". When the gunman tells Cobra that he has a bomb and will blow the place up, Cobra replies, "Go ahead. I don't shop here." (My father loved that line.) With the following exchange:

Gunman: "I'm a hero of the New World!"
Cobra: "You're a disease. And I'm the cure."
Gunman: "Die!"

The hostage situation comes to a quick end. As Cobra exits the store, the film's stance on crime becomes clear when a reporter stirs up an argument over unnecessary force and rights. Cobra doesn't feel that the system works, punishments don't fit the crimes, and he laments having to play by rules.

The biggest problem in Cobra's city currently is the presence of a serial killer called The Night Slasher. Cobra wants in on the investigation, but his Captain and a detective are hesitant to involve him, not sure that his tactics are right for the case. The slasher has killed sixteen people before the start of the film, and we're soon witness to his seventeenth and eighteenth murders... It's after the eighteenth that Cobra and his junk food junkie (self-described "garbage belly") partner Sergeant Gonzales are finally put on the case.

We recognize the Night Slasher as the head of the cult, but the police have no clues, no idea that he's not working alone, instead seeking out his victims with the help of two accomplices, one of whom is a corrupt female cop. When model Ingrid Knudsen drives past the aftermath of murder eighteen, she has no real idea that something's amiss, just that the Night Slasher is a very creepy-looking guy. But the fact that she saw his face is enough to get the killers to come after her.

At this point in the film, it's montage time, and this particular two-and-a-half minute+ montage is even more '80s music video than most, as Robert Tepper's song "Angel of the City" plays out over images of Cobra searching for clues, quick cuts that coincide with beats in the song, Night Slasher and cult images, and Ingrid modeling several different outfits and wigs during a photo shoot, dancing around robots.

Ingrid is attacked after the photo shoot, but manages to escape and is soon under the protection of Cobra. The cult is determined to kill Ingrid, to stop her from wrecking their "New World... and the dream", pursuing her and attacking again and again. Eventually Cobra even takes her out of the city to try to keep her safe, and as they spend more time together, romance begins to bloom.

The cult never gives up, their relentless onslaught becoming kind of reminiscent of Race with the Devil, especially since the action involves two car chases.

As I said, I watched Cobra a lot in the late '80s, but I haven't watched it much in the last twenty years. Still, certain things from it have stuck with me over the years: the axe clanking, the opening grocery store sequence, the Night Slasher and his awesome knife, and the final confrontation between Cobra and the Night Slasher, which is set in some kind of empty factory full of fire, sparks, and molten steel, and features the Night Slasher referring to Cobra as "pig" in his great, deep, strange, memorable voice no less than eight times.

I remember crafting Cobra fan fiction when I was a kid, back when my work didn't involve writing so much as it did drawing stories in picture form. I remember clearly a picture I drew of Cobra, once again in the factory setting, badly wounded during battle and bleeding all over the place. I was staying with my paternal grandparents at the time and my grandfather wasn't too happy with the bloody violence I was always drawing, but my grandmother would still put my drawings together into little booklets using a hole puncher and string.

The credits claim that Cobra is based on the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling, but it seems to be a case where the purchase of the book rights was a waste of money, as the only thing they share is the set-up of a cop protecting a woman who witnessed a crime. Beyond that, it's a Stallone original, using ideas that he had come up with when he was going to write and star in Beverly Hills Cop, a much more serious and action-heavy film than the Eddie Murphy Beverly Hills Cop that we know. The 1995 film Fair Game that starred William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford was also based on Gosling's novel, and was apparently only slightly more faithful.

Cobra is a rather goofy movie and certain aspects are grating to me these days, but it's fun. It has a pretty good cast, including Brian Thompson as the Night Slasher, Lee Garlington as his creepy female sidekick, Reni Santoni as Gonzales, and guys like Art LaFleur, Andrew Robinson, and David Rasche, all of whom have over 100 credits on IMDb. There are a lot of cool scenes and I enjoy seeing Sylvester Stallone action mixed with the slasher and Race with the Devil-esque elements.


  1. Great Write-up! Cobra is one of my personal favorites!

  2. Pretty sure Brian Thompson broke the indoor record for most times addressing a cop as a "pig" during that showdown. And it was awesome.