Cobra: Sylvester Stallone’s Underrated Vanity Action Movie

Was there ever a better '80s tagline that "Crime is a disease. Meet the cure?" If you haven't seen Sylvester Stallone's Cobra, you should.

Sylvester Stallone in Cobra

Had Sylvester Stallone had his way, the now cult classic Beverly Hills Cop would have been a much different film. Before Eddie Murphy was cast in the role that would define his acting career, the part of Axel Foley was offered to Sly. Yet the Italian Stallion had other ideas in mind for what he wanted the film to be, so he took it upon himself to rewrite the script, moulding it to suit his strengths as a white-knuckled mortal terminator. As screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr. told Den of Geek UK, while it was “considered a coup to have written a script to attract a movie star of that caliber,” it was nonetheless “a daunting experience.”

Stallone proposed a lot of changes. He wanted his character to be named Axel Cobretti, instead of the proposed Elly Axel. Furthermore, the comedic elements were removed entirely, replaced by the grittiness and violence that was commonplace in exploitation fare at the time, along with action set-pieces which required a budget deemed unaffordable by Paramount. Ultimately, the studio didn’t share Stallone’s vision, rejecting his proposed script changes and parting ways with him amicably, and reverting back to one of Petrie Jr.’s earliest drafts. Murphy came on board immediately after Stallone’s exit, and the rest is, as they say, history.

But that didn’t deter Stallone from bringing his idea to life.

Citing Paula Gosling’s novel A Running Duck – which would be adapted more authentically in 1995 with Fair Game – as source material, he would channel the ideas he had for Beverly Hills Cop into an original screenplay, with sadistic serial killers, a take-no-prisoners plot, excessive carnage, and one-liners only he could execute with the stoned-faced bravado required of such a bad ass protagonist.

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Cobra was thus born, incorporating just enough elements of Gosling’s novel to warrant her a writing credit. It is rumored that Stallone offered to have the book reissued with his name on it as co-author, an offer that Gosling seemed to decline.

Cobra would see Stallone re-team with Rambo: First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos but, according to reports, Stallone essentially directed the film as well (as we charted in this article, Stallone was reported to have effectively directed the first Rambo sequel, too). That’s when – allegedly – his movie star ways weren’t disrupting the fluidity of the filming anyway. Believe the stories, and he was fraternizing with then girlfriend and co-star Brigitte Nielsen, in addition to goofing around to impress his bodyguards.

However, in no way did the final product suggest a making-of process beleaguered by the megalomania of its lead star; if anything Stallone’s ego gave him the confidence to pull of his performance with aplomb, even if Cobra was essentially one big vanity project. But a really fun vanity project.

The film tells the story of Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti (Stallone), a no-nonsense harbinger of justice who doesn’t operate via the conventional channels of police procedure. He is tasked with protecting a witness to a murder carried out by a psychotic axe-wielding sect known as The New Order. His orders are to ensure her safety and put a stop to the cultists’ random thrill killing spree in Los Angeles. What ensues is a tour de force of ‘80s action cinema. In fact, when people talk about the kind of films they don’t make any more, surely Cobra must be on the list. It’s an ’80s action blaster, fully equipped with essential genre conventions, delivered with style and punch.

In fact, let’s go further. At times, Cobra is a borderline horror film, gleefully wearing its exploitation influences on its sleeve as a badge of honor, seamlessly shapeshifting between gung-ho action extravaganza, brutal slasher film, and hardboiled crime thriller.

The slasher elements are evident in the hospital scene in particular, which is strikingly reminiscent of Halloween II. Throw in some despicable manic villains who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, a high body count and a soundtrack that oscillates between doomy synths and hair metal, and you have yourself a potent cocktail.

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For make no mistake, Cobra was and is a film that revels in sleaze, packed with scenes that are unsettlingly suspenseful, including an opening supermarket siege that exudes menace and sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Of course, the darker elements are lightened by Sly’s constant supply of one-liners, delivered with deadpan precision. Stallone was, it is worth remembering, arguably the biggest movie star on the planet at the time the movie was made. Cobra was very much a vehicle built around that.

It should come as no surprise that the film was produced by the Cannon Group, the company synonymous with over-the-top B-grade action pictures during that period – some of these gems included the Death Wish sequels and the majority of Chuck Norris’ good movies during his prime. It was a company that treated us to many treasures. Yet Cobra shines with the brightest spark in a chest chock full of golden nuggets – and bear in mind that this is the same company that brought us classics like Highlander, Invasion USA, and Revenge Of The Ninja.

Back to Cobra, though. Prior to the film’s release, cuts had to be made before the MPAA would even grant it an R rating, as the violence was deemed too frequent and gratuitous. Those cuts meant some scenes containing slashed throats, dismembered limbs and increased death tolls had to be removed altogether before the film could hit multiplexes. On top of that, the film itself faced stiff competition from the Tom Cruise mega hit Top Gun when it came to release, so further cuts had to be made to the running time to get extra showings in theatres in order to maximise box office success. In the original 130-minute version, secondary characters were more developed; this included more background on The New Order cult, which delved deeper into the reasoning for their killing spree.

Thankfully, in this case the cuts proved to be beneficial, as the exposition was kept to a minimum and Stallone’s character took front and center, delivering his amped up brand of Dirty Harry justice. There’s little point denying that Dirty Harry, after all, is a film that Cobra shamelessly apes, albeit with the volume cranked up to 11 (it would even reunite Dirty Harry stars Reni Santoni and Andy Robinson). A further beneficiary of the cuts? The mystery of the bad guys: it’s arguably what makes them so effective, given that they’re so unapologetically evil. Still, the extended version of Cobra did eventually turn up in bootleg form, and you can watch a large chunk of the deleted scenes on YouTube.

read more – Dirty Harry: Scorpio is the Most Underrated Villain in Movie History

Cobra was maligned by critics on release, and it would be nominated for six Razzie Awards altogether. The critics of the time were unable to find favor with the corny dialogue, genre hallmarks and abundance of senseless violence. However, the critical mauling didn’t derail its box office success, as it went on to rake in $160 million on the back of a $25 million budget. Unfortunately, a sequel never materialized, though a surprisingly brilliant computer game did. Even though the ZX Spectrum version of Cobra bore very little resemblance to the film, it was a cracking title, as you rampaged through the early levels literally – and we’re well aware how misused that word can be – headbutting foes out of the way.

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As for the film? It’s a shame that Cobra wasn’t given a sequel. Watching it now, – especially knowing how gracefully it has aged – you can’t help but feel it had enough legs to carry a franchise. Much like John Rambo, Marion Cobretti is the type of character you could thrust into any situation where there are bad guys and let him run amok, delivering retribution, and cleaning up the degenerate filth. But following the Razzie nominations, any ideas they had for a sequel quickly evaporated. Razzie nominations, of course, aren’t the deathknell of franchises and careers – hello Adam Sandler! – but in the case of Cobra, the right demand simply didn’t seem to be there at the right time.

read more: The Underrated Movies of 1986

However, that didn’t stop the knock-offs from appearing, not least with the Fred Williamson-headlined vehicle The Black Cobra in 1987 – essentially an Italian-made Blaxploitation clone – that would ironically go on to spawn three sequels, all of which are well worth your time if you like them cheap and trashy. Cobra might have missed an opportunity to capitalize on its own success, but The Black Cobra series milked it for all it was worth and then some.

Over the years, Cobra has gone on to become a beloved cult classic by action aficionados, as it typifies everything that was great about the halcyon days of the genre. One notable fan is director Nicolas Winding Refn, who pays homage to it in Drive by having Ryan Gosling’s character chew on a toothpick. Fine work, Nicolas.

Cobra is by no means a perfect movie but, when it comes to mindless action fare, it’s a real ’80s treat, that’s just as much fun today. Fusing the spirit of exploitation movies with a mainstream budget, it supplies more than enough carnage to satisfy our thirst for blood and hunger for cheese. Stallone has no shortage of films that deserve more credit than they get, and surely Cobra is one of those.

As the poster promised, “Crime is a disease. Meet the cure.” We’re glad we did…