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Cobra (1986)


Cobra wasn't on my radar for thirty-three years. I always loved the painted movie poster, a knock-off of The Terminator artwork with Sylvester Stallone subbing in for Arnold Schwarzenegger as the expressionless, sunglasses-wearing murder machine. But even at nine years old, I knew to be skeptical, based on negative critical reception and a plot that sounded like Dirty Harry with less tact: a rogue L.A. cop uses his own brand of violent justice to bring down a serial killer, while (sorta) romancing the model/witness he's been enlisted to protect.*

In fairness to my miniature know-it-all self and the movie reviewers of 1986, I can see how George P. Cosmatos' gleefully authoritarian shoot-'em-up would have felt like piling on in an era of glamorized movie vigilantism and a wider Conservative culture that made dark satire like American Psycho not only possible but essential to the arts. Nowadays, if an '80s-set period piece features a photograph of Ronald Reagan in a cop's office, it's meant as a joke, a derisive jab at out-of-touch law enforcement. On the surface, there is no such irony in Cobra: "The Gipper" stares hopefully across the desk of Marion "Cobra" Cobretti (Stallone) as he prepares to stomp on due process with as much vigor as he does the throats of murderers, rapists, and drug pushers.

Three decades on, from the vantage point of peak '80s nostalgia, it's easier to appreciate Cobra for the myriad quirks that make it stand out among its contemporaries. The themes are still gross, but the balls-to-the-wall weirdness with which Cosmatos executed his adaptation of Paula Gosling's 1978 novel (which Stallone himself turned into a screenplay) suggest that the director was playing an elaborate joke on his cast, crew, studio, audience, and pop landscape. Before "Weird" Al Yankovich parodied Rambo in UHF, and before Ben Stiller ripped the action genre a new one in his "Die Hard 12" sketch for The Ben Stiller Show, America had a sterling example of meta-parody, staring at its credulous, slacked-jawed face from behind a pair of impossibly reflective Aviator shades.

Right off the bat, there's too much going on in this movie, and none of it makes any sense. We encounter a Los Angeles beset by a serial killer called "The Night Slasher" (Brian Thompson), who is also the head of an underground anarchist army that includes street-level pushers, businessmen, and even police officers (it's Project Mayhem fifteen years early). Cosmatos intercuts a regular-life-in-progress montage with hazy shots of criminals engaged in synchronized weapons-clanking. One of these psychos marches into a grocery store with a shotgun, taking lives and hostages.

Cobretti arrives n his black 1950 Mercury Monterey Coupe (license plate: "AWSOM 50"), berates the suits who reluctantly summoned him, and sneaks inside the store. Bullets fly, chests explode, products are placed, and the encounter comes to a head with one of the best tough guy exchanges in cinema history (paraphrasing):

Bad Guy: I'll destroy this entire place, man!

Cobretti: That's okay. I don't shop here.

You can guess how this scene ends.

Later, we meet a model named Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) who drives by the Night Slasher's gang mid-murder. Ingrid instantly becomes their target and, following an attack on the studio where she has just wrapped a photo shoot featuring robots, smoke machines and semi-nudity, Cobretti enters her life as a protector--and as the one person who believes that the Night Slasher is more than one person. There's a lot of "business" leading to the Wild Bunch-meets Streets of Fire climax, including the Night Slasher's Halloween II-style rampage through a hospital, a car chase straight out of the files of Police Squad!, and lots of sneaking around by the death cult's main snitch-cop, Officer Stalk (yes, that's a real character, played by Lee Garlington). For a gang of psychotic, nihilist anarchists, this crew seem overly concerned with keeping a passerby from testifying in court.

Cobretti and Ingrid head to a motel in a small town up north with Cobretti's long-time, junk-food-obsessed partner, Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), and Officer Stalk in tow. Thanks to the Law of Attractive Performers, our hero and his charge begin to fall in love--despite Cobretti's nausea at the way Ingrid eats French Fries.** Two very strange things happen here:

1. Cobretti and Ingrid begin a sex scene, but don't finish it. She calls him to her bed as he (ahem) assembles his weapon. They kiss. Sexy music plays. Cut to the death cult closing in on the motel. Back in the room, Cobretti sits up from what was apparently a fully-clothed cuddle sesh, and resumes preparing for Armageddon. Some movies have sex scenes; others don't have sex scenes. The difference is usually cut and dry--not this Choose Your Own Adventure nonsense.

2. Cobretti confronts Officer Stalk about her suspicious behavior while on the case. We know he's onto her, and the fun is watching her try to make him believe that he's wrong. However, since we've seen Stalk call the death cult with the location of the motel, and have not seen any attempts by Cobretti to actually stop her, I can draw only one of two conclusions (neither are flattering to Cobretti's qualifications as an officer of the law; both are very compelling reasons to side with the straight-arrows on the force who think he's dangerous trash):

a. Cobretti doesn't actually know that this dirty cop has sold him out.

b. He looks forward to taking on an army of fifty-plus motorcycle-driving, automatic-weapons-toting maniacs whose messiah takes joy in slicing up innocent men, women, and children--ostensibly risking the lives of himself, his best friend, and his newfound snuggle buddy.

The climax of the climax finds everyone running around a foundry, immediately after a car chase during which Cobretti mowed down twenty-five bad guys while standing upright in the back of a pickup truck. The Night Slasher taunts our hero in a wild-eyed monologue about the societal degradation and weakness that he and his followers intend to eliminate. In a true bravura performance by Brian Thompson, I was reminded of Vincent Klyn's apocalyptic ravings in the movie Cyborg, which came out three years after Cobra.

Modern sensibilities dictate that the rogue cop should have realized the hypocrisy in his twisted moral code (i.e. Cobretti's policy of sinking to criminality in stopping crime is only a few degrees cruder than the Night Slasher's own bent philosophy). But we're still talking about the mid-1980s. The comparatively touchy-feely, self-aware exploits of Robocop and John McClane were still a year or more away.

Which brings us back to Cosmatos. Is it likely that he purposefully turned in a sloppily edited paean to machismo that featured one of the world's biggest action stars acting like an utter buffoon--and hoped that the dregs who showed up for the carnage wouldn't "get" that they were being spoonfed a funhouse-mirror repudiation of the so-called values they held dear?

I have no idea. This could all just be me explaining away one of the nuttiest genre flicks I've ever seen. It's possible that Cobra is just a bad movie, with no more depth than Ingrid's sex-robot co-stars, and no greater ambition than giving Stallone his own Terminator poster.

*Hell, Andrew Robinson even stars in both--playing decidedly different roles, but still...

**There's a reaction shot here that mirrors a close-up of Mark Wahlberg from Transformers: The Last Knight. In a split-second of real-world vulnerability on the part of Stallone and Marky Mark, we see what looks to be genuine confusion and revulsion. Each case may offer credence to my theory that the filmmakers were may have been screwing with absolutely everyone involved.

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