35 Years Ago: Sylvester Stallone Mixes Cops and Horror in ‘Cobra’
Sylvester Stallone was on a roll when he took on the part of Lt. Marion Cobretti in Cobra, which snaked its way into theaters May 23, 1986.
Sure, there were missteps along the way, with the 1984 comedic flop Rhinestone where he starred opposite Dolly Parton as the most glaring example. But Stallone had box-office cache to to survive those small missteps, thanks to franchises he'd built on the backs of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. Playing a grizzled Los Angeles police officer called upon to stop a band of murdering sadists seemed like a no-brainer.
The seeds for Cobra were sown when Stallone landed the lead role in Beverly Hills Cop, but chose to drastically overhaul the screenplay for the 1984 comedy, turning it into a straight-up action feature. He also revised the lead character’s name, from Axel Foley to Axel Cobretti. Looking to stay within a reasonable budget, Paramount Pictures said thanks-but-no-thanks and brought in Eddie Murphy. Stallone put the Cobretti name in his back pocket and went back to making sequels to his previous blockbusters.
Stallone’s two 1985 box-office bonanzas, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV, allowed him to go ahead with the story of an unorthodox big-city policeman who doles out his own brand of justice, tipping the scales to the violently obscene. Based on a Paula Gosling book from 1974 that was titled A Running Duck in the U.K. and Fair Game in America, Cobra is deeply indebted to Dirty Harry. (At that point, Clint Eastwood's franchise was four deep.) Like Harry Callahan, Marion Cobretti doesn’t play by the rules, rejecting the moral compass directed by his fellow brethren and routinely running against the grain to get his man.
The opening action sequence find a gunman taking hostages in a supermarket. When negotiations with him fail, the LAPD are left to take drastic measures by calling in Cobretti, a member of the “zombie squad” division who often do the dirty work against crime under the cover of night.
The scene is full of dry humor and tough guy quotes: “You're a disease, and I'm the cure,” Stallone says in a monotone before throwing a knife at the hostage taker’s chest and riddling him with bullets. Then he puts the Colt Gold Cup National Match 1911 gun, customized with the image of a Cobra on the pearl handle, back in his waistband. His mirrored aviator sunglasses never come off.
“He is kinda like what I call the bottom line in police enforcement,” Stallone said of Cobretti in a featurette for Cobra. “You might say he’s a modern-day gunslinger.”
Watch the Trailer for Sylvester Stallone's 'Cobra'
When Cobretti isn't working, he's home cleaning his gun and eating cold pizza, cutting bite-sized pieces with sewing shears. His clunky attempts at jokes are part of the appeal of the character, who has little need for social skills. He's a rugged man's man, rough and tumble and not of many words.
On paper, the film was directed by George P. Cosmatos, fresh off of helming Rambo: First Blood Part II, but directorial duties were by and large handled by Stallone. His goal for Cobra was to reduce the dialogue, except where necessary, while upping the action to ridiculous levels. He also wanted to blend the standard crime genre of the day with horror films, which had seen an explosion of popularity in the '80s. That's how he ended up with a psychotic killer nicknamed the Night Slasher, played by Brian Thompson as the leader of a reckless and brutal supremacist cult calling themselves the “New World.”
Fashion model Ingrid Knudsen, played by Stallone’s then-wife Brigitte Nielsen, witnesses the murderous party at work – thus making herself a target having seen their faces. After the Night Slasher attempts to murder her while she is recovering from a prior attack, Ingrid comes under the protection of Cobretti, who moves to place her outside of the city for safety reasons.
Before that can happen, arguably one of cinema's greatest chase scenes takes place with Cobretti deftly maneuvering through the streets of L.A. in his 1950 Mercury – the license plate reads “AWSOM 50” – pulling 180-degree turns so he can face the bad guys to shoot at them straight on and even jumping the vehicle out of the second story of a parking garage.
The New World find out where Ingrid is being hidden via an undercover police officer in their ranks, and launch a full-scale attack. The climactic battle sees the faction almost singlehandedly wiped out by Cobretti, who then squares off against the Night Slasher in hand-to-hand combat. The villain is ultimately impaled on a hook before being carried into a fiery furnace and burned to death.
Critics weren’t kind to Cobra, seemingly going out of their way to savage it while trashing Stallone personally: “If this guy tripped over a print of Citizen Kane," the Washington Post said, "he not only wouldn't know what it was, he'd hit somebody over the head with it.”
Watch the Chase Scene From Sylvester Stallone's 'Cobra'
Cobra earned $50 million domestically, becoming the seventh biggest summer film of 1986 – no small task in a season that included Aliens, Top Gun and The Karate Kid Part II. Yet it was still considered a flop.
“You’re getting a bit jaded about this business, wouldn’t you say?” Stallone groused to Cinema Papers. “If each one of my movies makes only $50 million, I’ll go to my grave a happy man.”
Gritty as it might have been, the overall quality of Cobra suffered due to its numerous cuts, first for violence – the MPAA initially slapped it with an X-rating – and later to reduce the running time so that more screenings could be squeezed in per day. What once clocked in at well over two hours was trimmed to just under an hour and a half.
Continuity errors and an overload of the musical score and soundtrack followed. Between Nielsen's model shoot appearing like one long MTV video and the New World banging together their weapons in time as if to some dystopian workout tape, there were better scenes left on the cutting-room floor. But calls to release an unrated version of Cobra as it was originally intended went unanswered.
A sequel was planned to focus on the Marion Cobretti character engaging in the war on drugs, but never materialized – partially because Stallone’s box-office stock continued to dip with poor returns on Over the Top, Lock Up and the third Rambo installment. Time has been kind to Cobra though, as it became a cult classic among Stallone fans.
In 2019, Stallone revealed that he was working with director Robert Rodriguez to potentially resurrect Cobra as a limited series on a to-be-named streaming platform.
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