Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at Cobra, the gun-toting 1986 Dirty Harry riff that was unfairly dismissed by critics at the time.
The history of cinema is littered with vanity projects. When they’re helmed by interesting filmmakers with huge egos, these movies can be some of the most entertaining pieces of art out there. But few are as entertaining as Cobra, a 1986 Sylvester Stallone action vehicle that the Italian Stallion created for himself as a means to play his own version of Dirty Harry.
However, the origins of Cobra can be traced back to another iconic actioner with a terrific detective protagonist: Beverly Hills Cop. Before Eddie Murphy accepted the role of Axel Foley and became a big-screen superstar in his own right, the role was Stallone’s for the taking. It didn’t take long until he became a thorn in the side of the studio, though.
At the time, Stallone had his own ideas in mind for what Beverly Hills Cop should be. Instead of the name Elly Axel (which was changed to Axel Foley later), he wanted the character to be called Marion Cobretti as a tribute to John Wayne (The Duke was known as Marion Robert Morrison before he became famous). He also wanted the film to be much grittier, violent, and serious in tone. So, he took it upon himself to rewrite the script and implement some changes.
Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that Stallone had a lot of justified clout at the time. Not only was he one of the biggest action stars of his era, but he was also an acclaimed filmmaker in his own right. His Rocky screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination, and the film spawned a highly profitable franchise.
Unfortunately for Stallone, no one else agreed to his vision for Beverly Hills Cop. This led to the actor parting ways with the project due to creative differences. Beverly Hills Cop was released as the action-comedy it was originally intended to be and became a massive hit. Sly, on the other hand, still had plans to play his own Californian crime-fighting crusader.
Stallone subsequently re-envisioned the project as Cobra, and it became the riotously entertaining shoot ‘em up we know it as today. Fortunately, the Cannon Group — probably the only company that was willing to fund a movie like this with a substantial budget — existed back then to buck to the actor’s demands and bring his ultra-violent dream to the big screen.
Naturally, Stallone cast himself in the starring role because who else would have been better? George P. Cosmatos, who had previously worked with Stallone on Rambo: First Blood Part II, was brought in to direct (though it’s believed that Stallone effectively took control of proceedings, much like he was alleged to have done during their previous collaboration).
The movie’s legacy is also synonymous with stories of Stallone’s alleged off-camera antics. The actor’s ego supposedly ran rampant during production. The rumours claimed that he always canoodled with his co-star, and then-girlfriend, Brigitte Neilson, while letting his entourage do as they pleased. However, the end product didn’t suffer from any behind the scenes drama — in fact, Stallone clearly got to fully realise his vision the way he intended.
The premise of Cobra is simple; a group of crazed cultists are on the loose in Los Angeles and they’re out for blood. Our hero, Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti (Stallone) is tasked with protecting the sole witness to their heinous crimes, which brings him into contact with the criminals. He doesn’t deal with psychos — he puts them away. Crime is the disease, and he’s the cure. That’s all we need and it’s exactly what we get.
Paula Gosling’s novel A Running Duck — which was later adapted as 1995’s Fair Game — served as an inspiration for Cobra. So much so that Gosling received a screenwriting credit. It was also reported that Stallone wanted the book reissued with his own co-author credit following the film’s release. Despite the fact, he wasn’t involved in its writing process whatsoever. Take that story with a pinch of salt, but anything is believable when it comes to Stallone’s ego in the 1980s.
That being said, Don Siegel’s gritty cop series Dirty Harry, starring the indelible Clint Eastwood as the eponymous justice enforcer, is where the film draws most of its influence from. Like Harry Callahan, Cobretti doesn’t do things the conventional way and has no problem getting his hands dirty when it comes to taking down the bad guys. He’s also equipped with as many one-liners as he is bullets, all of which are delivered with straight-faced sincerity.
Dirty Harry set a precedent for crime and action movies in the New Hollywood era and beyond; the kind with blood on their knuckles, dirt in their nails, and bullets in their chests. It also pioneered a new breed of cop film where loose cannon detectives pushed their Second Amendment rights to the absolute limit. Cobra is a student of this school of thought, and that’s why it’s so entertaining. It also turns up the volume quite considerably by featuring a cast of gloriously unhinged villains who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mad Max movie.
The fascination with Eastwood’s dirty detective is all over Stallone’s own hard-edged trigger enthusiast, but he’s not the only pop culture icon whose DNA is visible here. As mentioned earlier, the name Marion is a nod to John Wayne. And like the personas the Duke often played on screen, Cobretti is a cowboy; shooting first, asking questions later. In Cobra, the streets of L.A. are the Wild West and Stallone is the sheriff out to punish every rotten bandit who steps out of line. This is the type of vigilant American hero who’d make his gun-wielding forefathers proud — a one-man militia who has no time for due process and liberal ideals. Who’s got time for that when the world is full of scum and in need of saving? Not this guy.
Of course, it’d be unfair to label Cobra as a mere Dirty Harry clone. Cobra has its own personality, and it corporates a myriad of influences into its barrel. It’s a product of ‘80s excess, a period when body count pictures were all the rage. As such, the movie also mines the horror genre for inspiration, especially slasher flicks. Most of the kills are gun-centric, but there are also meathook impalements and other methods of slaughter that would make Jason Voorhes and Michael Myers proud.
The film’s villainous cult, The New World, is truly menacing and provide some truly eerie moments. The scenes that feature these lunatics are rife with tension and spooky atmosphere. However, what’s even more terrifying is that they’re a cult that’s motivated to kill because they believe in extreme social Darwinism. Modern action movies don’t make villains who are this ideologically deranged and vile.
Unsurprisingly, critics hated Cobra, citing its excessive violence and overuse of genre tropes among its main issues. The film was nominated for six Razzie Awards, which is no badge of dishonour considering that most of the movies nominated each year are better than those up for Oscars. That said, for people who enjoy action movies, Cobra is different gravy. The movie benefits from its unabashed dedication to violence and mayhem. The savage simplicity on display is what makes it such an effective genre yarn. As far as this writer is concerned, Cobra is a king among its ‘80s action movie kin.
The original cut of Cobra clocked in at a meaty 130 minutes, which included more of the cultist’s back story. While it works wonderfully as a lean, mean action picture with minimal exposition, exploring the sect’s background and motivations could have added an interesting dynamic. Who doesn’t love crazy axe-wielding cults who just want to see the world burn, right? The movie was ultimately cut to 90 minutes in an effort to compete with Top Gun, which came out one week later and dominated the summer box office. And while Tom Cruise’s aviation actioner overshadowed Stallone’s wanton exploitation-tinged treat, Cobra was still a substantial financial hit. Unfortunately, the critical lambasting it received killed any chance of a sequel (but it did inspire an underrated ZX Spectrum game).
Over time, though, Cobra found a deserved cult following and its numerous one-liners are spoken fondly among action aficionados to this day. It’s the product of an era where cinema felt ballsier, more daring, and anarchistic. A time that was arguably the best for this kind of give-no-hoots mid-budget genre fare. Studio movies in this vein are few and far between in the modern era, but Cobra is also so quintessentially ‘80s — from its one-liners to glam rock soundtrack — that it would seem out of place in any other zeitgeist.
But with Stallone still dancing in bullet ballets having not lost a step since his prime, maybe we’ll get that long-awaited sequel eventually. The actor is all about resurrecting old characters, and he’s always felt there are more Cobretti stories to be told. The last we heard, he was potentially teaming up with Robert Rodriguez to make a series for the El Rey network.
As long as crime is the disease, there will always be the need for a cure. And it’s a crime that Cobra wasn’t appreciated for being the action masterpiece that it is when the movie was originally released. If Stallone has more matchsticks to chew and shootouts left in him, who are we to stop him?
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