1986 in Film – Cobra

Release Date: May 23rd
Box Office: $44,769,650

A great thing when you’re a movie fan is when you find out about the nearly happends and the should have beens. Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones? The often rumoured John Woo/Quentin Tarantino project? Stallone in Beverley Hills Cop (1984)?

That last one is important as we discuss Cobra (1986).

In the mid-eighties, Stallone was on top of the world. Both the Rocky and Rambo series were huge successes, however outside of that was a little tricky. Not many of his other films gained any traction at the box office compared to the money being raked in by his two main franchises. Nighthawks (1981) and Rhinestone (1984) in particular were financial disappointments. That second film, a musical comedy, was very poorly received.

Perhaps because of that Stallone knew he wasn’t a good fit when it came to a comedy which is why he took the script for Beverley Hills Cop and made it more of a straight action film. Paramount baulked at the budget of the film and cast Eddie Murphy instead, and we all know how that turned out.

So, once he was off that film Stallone took some of the ideas he had and started another script. He also used the novel Fair Game as source material which ended up as Cobra.

Stallone is Lieutenant Marion Cobretti, or Cobra to his friends. As the poster says about him, “crime is a disease, meet the cure”. He’s a cop in LA on the edge who does what he needs to in order to get the job done.

So far, so 80s.

The film doubles down on this by mixing in a roving criminal gang, the New Order, that are behind a series of crimes across the city. They murder several of the witnesses to their crimes, but Brigitte Nielsen escape and ends up Cobra’s protection. They leave the city to try to keep her safe only the gang follows and carnage ensues.

There did seem to be a lot of organised sociopathic criminal gangs about at the time. There was that gang in Death Wish 3 (1985), a fair chunk of the cast of The Warriors (1979)and most of the bad guys in the Mad Max series. The group in this film is headed by The Night Slasher, a man who is looking to kill off the weak and create a dystopia. Quite how he got such a disparate membership base to this group is another question. Anyway, Nielsen has seen his face so that explains why she has such a target on her back.

Cobra is clearly the man to stop them because a) he has a gun with a laser sight, b) he has a cool pair of shades and c) a toothpick. He ticks all of the cool cop boxes that we could possible ask for. All we need to know about Cobra is that he gets the job done and spends his evenings cleaning weapons, cutting up pizza with scissors whilst watching news reports about how messed up everything is.

It’s as generic as they come, even when it was released in the midst of the 80s action boom. The film reunited Stallone with his director from Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)although it was later rumoured that Stallone did most of the directing himself. This was also whilst he was cavorting around with Nielsen, his then wife.

The film also had a troubled journey to release; the initial cut was around two hours however when Top Gun (1986) hit big a week before Cobra was released Stallone and the studio panicked. They went back in a stripped the film down to the bones to eek out more showings per day. The violence in the film has to be toned down, initially it received an X rating from the MPAA which was worked down to an R.

The critics savaged the film lambasting it for just rehashing action movie tropes. The audience, however, didn’t agree as it opened at number 1 and ended up as another Stallone film to gross over $100m. Perhaps this was Stallone’s star power on display given the success of the Rocky and Rambo films.

It’s a strange film, Cobra. On the one hand it is a big bag of cliches mixed around and emptied into a script. That doesn’t make it a bad film, just a familiar one. Cobra as a character is too flat to really join the ranks of the action pantheon of the time, and that hole in the middle of the film is what stops it from becoming a true manpunching masterpiece.

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