Two shady figures walk into a club, raising the suspicions of Detective Axel Foley. Foley needs help to deal with both men, but the pair of officers keeping an eye on him — Sergeant Taggart (John Ashton) and Detective Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) — don’t trust him. Furthermore, he’s in a public place, which means that his actions could harm civilians.
After his pleading convinces Taggart and Rosewood to help out, Axel approaches one of the potential troublemakers.
“Phillip!” Foley shouts, adopting the stagger and slurred speech patterns of a drunk man as he approaches the confused suspect. Foley continues the act even after the suspect pulls a gun and threatens the patrons, which allows him to get close enough to yank the weapon away.
You probably recognize the above scene as one of the standout moments of 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, in which Foley shows off his keen detective mind and rascally sense of humor. The scene works because Foley is played by Eddie Murphy at his most electric, who sells Foley’s genius and his humor.
But imagine that scene being performed by the first choice to portray Axel. Imagine the cop playing stumbling drunkard was Sylvester Stallone. And then imagine that, after getting removed from the project, Stallone took his ideas to make the mega-violent Cannon flick Cobra.
That sounds like the ravings of a crazy alcoholic yelling for his buddy Phil, but it’s true.
The Heat Is On
Initially, nobody wanted Sly for Beverly Hills Cop. When screenwriter Danilo Bach brought a story about a Detroit cop who transfers to Beverly Hills to producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, they called the project Beverly Drive. Daniel Petri, Jr. went to work on a script and Mickey Rourke signed on to star, while the producers courted big names like Martin Scorsese and even David Cronenberg to direct.
Rourke soon dropped out, sending Simpson and Bruckheimer on the lookout for another star. They talked with big names like Al Pacino and James Caan, but only sent the script to Stallone out of courtesy. The producers assumed that Stallone would pass on the project, and he probably would have, were it not for his agent Ron Meyer. In an interview with author James A. Miller for the book Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency (via Film School Rejects), Meyer recalled pitching the film to the actor’s advisors. “I think it’s an important film for him to do in every way,” Meyer told the team. “I don’t want someone else to do it, because it’s going to be a huge hit.”
Meyer wanted the movie for Stallone because it had humor, something that most people associated less with Stallone and more with his rival Arnold Schwarzenegger. So when Simpson and Bruckheimer slid the script for Beverly Drive over to Stallone, Meyer thought he’d just found the golden ticket.
Martin Brest agreed and he signed up to direct the movie, now called Beverly Hills Cop, with Stallone as the lead. “My conception of it at the time was to do something with Stallone that nobody had ever seen before,” Brest told Variety in 2023. “It had some comedic elements by virtue of the fish out of water, but he wrote this thing that was a straight-out action drama.”
The “he” in question there is Stallone. Remember, Stallone had proven himself as a writer, earning an Academy Award nomination for penning Rocky. His screenplays for Rocky II and First Blood (co-written with Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim) didn’t earn quite the same acclaim, but they were successful. And so when Stallone joined the project, he re-wrote the screenplay to make it about Axel Cobretti, the Motor City Cobra.
To hear Stallone tell it, he re-wrote the screenplay because he couldn’t see the humor in the concept. “Somehow, me trying to comically terrorize Beverly Hills is not the stuff that great yuk-festivals are made from,” he recalled for Ain’t It Cool News in 2006. To better suit his approach, Stallone made his version. “[A]nd by the time I was done, it looked like the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy,” he revealed. “Believe it or not, the finale was me in a stolen Lamborghini playing chicken with an oncoming freight train being driven by the ultra-slimy bad guy.”
Citing budget concerns, Simpson and Bruckheimer dropped Stallone and hired Eddie Murphy, who proved himself an action movie star in 48 Hrs., which suited Brest just fine. “The nature of Eddie’s talent and the theme that I would like to bring up and the tone that I would love to make this movie about, it was perfect,” he told Variety.
The Heat Is Hotter
We know that Beverly Hills Cop became a blockbuster hit that spawned two immediate sequels, with a fourth entry coming in 2024. But what about Axel Cobretti, the Motor City Cobra?
Stallone took the project to its natural home, Cannon Film, where it became Cobra, written by Stallone and directed by George P. Cosmatos. According to the credits, Cobra adapts the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling (which also spawned a Cindy Crawford vehicle in 1995). And Cobra does involve Cobretti protecting a beautiful woman (Stallone’s then wife Brigitte Nielsen) from danger. But in Stallone’s movie, that danger comes in the form of an axe-wielding serial killer cult called the New World, led by a man known only as the Night Thrasher (Brian Thompson).
As that description suggests, Cobra is an incredibly violent movie. In the first scene, a gunman holds hostages in a supermarket after randomly killing a few, including a kid. The police call in the so-called Zombie Squad, led by Detective Cobretti. Of course, the Cobra’s detective methods consist mostly of cocking his gun, taunting the hostage taker, and then blowing him away.
Given this approach, it’s easy to see how Cobra came from a Beverly Hills Cop script that looked more like Saving Private Ryan than an Eddie Murphy comedy. In fact, Stallone saw Cobra as a spiritual successor to Dirty Harry, the original “shoot first, ask questions never” cop. He even cast the guy who played the Scorpio killer in that movie, Andrew Robinson (who would go on to play the plain and simple tailor Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), as a functionary who poo-poos Cobretti’s tactics.
While that casting might be another example of Stallone’s rampant ego, making a guy who almost killed Dirty Harry Callahan into a nerdy pencil pusher next to the Cobra, the star’s original script made Robinson’s character the true secret leader of the New World. In fact, the first version of Cobra is filled with these types of excesses, with more cult killings and a climactic motorcycle chase. But when Stallone and Cannon realized that they would be going up against Top Gun, the latest from Beverly Hills Cop producers Simpson and Bruckheimer, they cut out 40 minutes of footage, hoping to get in more screenings and ticket sales.
The gambit worked, sort of. Cobra didn’t beat Top Gun at the box office, obviously, but it did make $160 million on a budget of $25 million.
A. Foley to M. Cobretti
The violence tracks with other Stallone and Cannon projects, but what about that sense of humor that got the actor attached to the project? Believe it or not, it’s in the film but in the form of absurd choices, such as the matchstick that Cobretti keeps in his mouth at all times or Cobretti’s decision to slice up a pizza with scissors.
Stallone even gives himself a few one-liners! “Cobretti, do know you have an attitude problem?” asks Chief Halliwell (Val Avery). “Yeah, but just a small one,” quips the Cobra.
The most ridiculous scene of all is when Cobretti returns home to find a group of Latino men with their car in his spot. Cobra uses his car to push the offending vehicle away, and the men jump up to threaten him. “It’s bad for your health, you know?” Cobretti observes when the cigarette smoking lead man approaches him.
The man asks, “What is, pinché?”
“Me,” responds Cobretti, yanking the cigarette out of the man’s mouth, ripping off the man’s shirt, and then walking away.
No, that’s not really funny. But with its broad insensitive stereotypes and tough-guy quips, one can sense Stallone trying to do his version of an Axel Foley bit. I’d ask you to imagine how much better the scene would work with Murphy dealing with the men, but then you’d also have to imagine Murphy eating scissor pizza.
That’s an image strange enough to drive anyone to drink, whether or not they have a buddy named Philip.