We close this year’s Yulemala with a film that really gets to the heart of the season, Cobra. Believe it or not, this film is actually set during the holidays, but let’s turn the page to the Stallone Diary and consider this inadverdant Christmas movie …
“You are a disease. I am the cure.”
— Marion Cobretti, Cobra
By 1986, Stallone was ready to be a superhero, but only by his rules and that’s certainly true with Marion Cobretti, the titular supercop in “Cobra.” In the previous few years, Stallone had transformed himself from star and maker of dramatic material like Rocky II and Nighthawks into the greased up action hero of Rambo: First Blood, Part II. The only problem with that evolution was the lack of a character that was truly his. John Rambo originates from a novel. Even if Rocky IV saw the Italian Stallion converting to action hero poses, it was not a new bit of mind-craft from the always restless writer that sits in the mind of Stallone. Though based on a novel, Cobra is clearly the man’s attempt to jump-start at third franchise with a memorable, quotable character that lives on the same diesel fumes as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With his trench coat, shades, and matchstick in his mouth, the Cobra strikes a profile, but fails to be as memorable as Stallone’s earlier characters. He’s a flawed design that is quite emblematic of the era that birthed him.
The film (proper) opens with a lurid clash of images: A lone rider on a motorcycle. A group of axe-wielding toughs chanting. A off-brand supermarket sometime during the holiday season. The three elements come together in a sequence of bullets and, curiously, little bloodshed. The lone rider belongs to the group of axe-wielding chanters. While he seems to want the local news to cover him, his main mission appears to be simple chaos. When negotiations fail, the commanding officer on the scene tells his subordinate to call in “The Cobra.”
In the film’s opening moments, the Cobra — Detective Marion Cobretti — actually tells you some statistics about crime in the late 80s. It’s clear from the monologue that Cobretti hails from the generation that followed Harry Callahan. This also proves true when he arrives at the market. His car is a matte gray 1951 Mercury Coupe. He emerges from it in mirror aviator glasses, a black jacket, jeans, and a gun. When apprised of the situation, he enters the market, taunts the lone rider, and ends up shooting him three or four times. With the crisis over, reporters question Cobretti’s use of lethal force. He picks up one of the more odious looking newsmen and shoves him in the face of one of the lone rider’s victims.
And the film stops for awhile. Well, that’s not true. Interaction with the characters stop. We’re treated to further scenes of the axe-wielding group and the police reacting to it. We also get a bizarre scene in which Cobretti goes home and cleans his gun.
During this run of scenes, we are introduced to Ingrid, a model who can identify the leader of the axe-wielding crazies. He’s known in the press as the Night Slasher (um …) and is played by the Alien Bounty Hunter from “The X-Files.” Consequently, I’ll be referring to him as ABH. While he espouses some sort of belief in “The New World Order,” he just comes off as a crazy man who, somehow, has convinced other crazy people to follow his lead.
ABH and his crew begin stalking Ingrid. In the film’s solitary montage, this is counterpointed by Cobretti and his partner hitting all the haunts in greater Los Angeles in an attempt to track down ABH. Oh, but added to this is some odd cuts to a set of robots and, eventually, Ingrid’s photo shoot with the automatons.
I should probably mention here that Ingrid is played by Brigitte Nielsen and, therefore, discuss her marriage to Stallone. I think it’s fair to say the man’s tastes run a little mannish. Nielsen is the apex of this fascination as she’s not only tall and physically imposing, but she’s also Danish and, therefore, just this side of being a Valkyrie. As a film actress, she has certain limitations. Not the least of which is her inability to be any other character besides Brigette Nielsen. In the case of Cobra, we’re supposed to buy that she’s an up-and-coming fashion model. While I can take on-board that a certain subset of guys would find her quite fetching, she utterly fails to capture any of the qualities most often sought in mainstream fashion modeling. Yet, Stallone wants you to believe that she’s no different than say, Cindy Crawford.
While Ingrid gets accosted by her latest photographer (special appearance by Sledge Hammer himself David Rasche), ABH finally catches up to her and … there are a few deaths in the resulting chaos. Ingrid has some sort of modifier on her saving throws, though, because she manages to escape ABH and his goons at every turn, complete with managing to find the perfect hiding place in a parking structure.
Cobretti and his partner question her and she agrees to help a sketch artist. With the sketch in hand, he leaves his partner to watch Ingrid while he goes home to check his “files.” This is another bizarre scene as we’re meant to believe Cobretti enjoys computers. I mean, he could … it’s not like we really know him. Then again, could you imagine Dirty Harry navigating Windows 3.11 for Workgroups?
Turns out ABH has a follower on the job and she lets him know that Ingrid is being held at a hospital in downtown LA. She offers to kill her, but ABH insists that he must do it. Dying his hair black and stealing a custodian’s uniform, ABH manages to enter the hospital undetected. Oh yeah, a couple more people die as he slowly makes his way to her room. He creeps up to her bed and starts stabbing repeatedly only to look up and see her walk out of the bathroom.
Seriously, what kind of gear do you have to grind to get a saving bonus like that?
After he terrorizes her for a little bit, she manages to escape again and set off the fire alarm. He takes this opportunity to retreat just as Cobretti returns to give her a sympathetic hug.
The incident convinces Cobretti that he needs to get Ingrid out of town. His first attempt to do this leads to a pretty epic car chase and the destruction of his car. He also gets chewed out by his superiors, but they agree to let him follow through on his plan. His captain tells the upper brass that, at least, it’ll get him out of the city.
Throughout the film, Cobretti’s commanding officer is painted as the sort of haggard authority who tolerates his loose cannon subordinate because he “gets results” in an era of suspects’ rights and increasing bureaucracy. Really, he’s just around to explain why the main character can go around shooting people with impunity. The police support him even if they can’t say it openly.
ABH’s police mole gets assigned to Cobretti’s protective detail, but the detective becomes increasingly suspicious of her while Ingrid becomes more enamored with the lone man of justice. It is during this sequence that Ingrid learns Cobretti’s first name and the two truly become romantically linked. It’s oddly half-hearted, with their initial romantic discussion occurring while Cobretti cleans his laser-sighted automatic pistol. But I guess that was the prevailing feeling in 1986: downplay people getting together, but give the audience and orgy of death.
And boy, do you get an orgy of death in the film’s final minutes. Cobretti manages to shoot almost every member of ABH’s gang. He immolates a few others and snaps at least one dude’s neck. Its clear the fanatics don’t have a chance against him and the sequence isn’t as thrilling as it should be. The police mole eventually gets her comeuppance and even ABH ends up on a hook and burned to death.
I’m not kidding.
The movie pretty much gives up right there. After the local police and LAPD appear to mop up all the unseen blood, Cobretti and Ingrid ride off into the end credits as the film’s main them plays. Sadly, it is not a Frank Stallone composition.
It’s important to point out that Stallone bought the rights to the novel Fair Game (also know as A Running Duck) intending it to be the basis of a project he was working on called “Beverly Hills Cop.” That’s right, Marion Cobretti started his life as Axel Foley. In the novel. Cobretti/Foley is Mike Malchek, a Vietnam vet turned San Franscisco cop who protects a young woman after she spots a hitman executing his latest contract. It’s easy to see why Stallone — the sole credited writer of Cobra — would jettison that aspect of the character’s background. He also jettisoned the “Beverly Hills Cop” project when the producers wanted a more comedic spin on the story. In a moment of great wisdom, Stallone steered clear of the laughs.
No longer answering to Paramount brass, he was able to re-shape Fair Game (which would also serve as the basis of the William Baldwin/Cindy Crawford vehicle of the same name) in his own image. Now, Cobretti is entirely law-enforcement id battling an increasingly inscrutable wave of crime and anarchy. I have to admit this is an odd thing to look back on. The 1980s were undeniably crummy for a lot of people, even if us kids didn’t really perceive it. Looking back at movies of the time, the crumminess is almost casual. In Cobra, the deterioration of Los Angeles is never commented upon. It just is. Contrast this to Death Wish, which does lament urban decay.
While the background radiation of blight is not really part of Stallone’s design, the omnipresence of crime is. He also seems to buy into the notion that the crime statistics of the decade were motivated by a palpable Manson-like persona than any of the economic pressures of the day. This myth motivates much of the action fare at the time as true villainy became more and more hidden across the world. In one way, that’s a fair choice when writing a dumb action movie, but when the writer in question is an A-List celebrity known for a certain facility in the storytelling arts, there is an obligation to treat the topic with more grace and complexity.
You’ll notice my treatment of Cobra is more analytical and studious than other Diary entries. This comes down to a lack of emotional engagement that I blame completely on director George Pan Cosmatos. Though an able director (he made Tombstone!), his choices on this film are uniformly wrong. He overuses the cross-cutting technique, as seen in the film’s opening moments, and his montage talents leave a lot to be desired. He also likes to make quick cuts to unrelated material, breaking the unity of the scene. When he shoots dialogue, it feels as though he doesn’t want to be there. Consequently, we never really get to know anyone in this film. While that should seemingly be okay for an action movie, it’s really not.
Remember: the whole point of Cobra is to establish a new Stallone franchise.
Since we never really get to know Cobretti, his partner, or Ingrid, their perils are meaningless. Stuff just happens and a bond between the film and the viewer is never established.
Stallone tries to counteract this problem with a few scenes where he falls back on the “I’m a lovable palooka” schtick. He engages in playful banter with his partner and with Ingird about food, his first name, and other things that are engineered to remind you of Rocky. Some of it will make you smile … except there’s really no getting around the fact that Marion Cobretti is no Rocky Balboa. He’s too much like Harry Callahan to buy as the sympathetic ogre that is comfortably with his partner joking about his kinda feminine name. I think Stallone (and, certainly, the rest of the country) forgot that Callahan was incapable of having any sort of human relationship. At the start of the movie, Cobretti is presented as the 2.0 of Dirty Harry, but by the end, he’s more like an early alpha build.
It all adds up to one of Stallone’s more mediocre offerings. It’s also a film without the convictions it seems to think that it possesses. But it’s also endemic of the mid-80s coke haze all the important people lived in. Stallone would continue to make testosterone-fueled ballyhoo for several more films before his next outing as Rocky Balboa would derail him into a place we all dread …
Next time I open the Stallone Diary, we come at last to the Comedies.
Stallone By The Numbers:
People shot (mostly by Stallone): 36
People killed by other means (often by Stallone): 16
Frank Stallone songs: 0