From the Vault: Cobra (1986)

Alcohol doesn’t taste good.

Yet we drink it anyway. Why do we insist on putting potentially dangerous amounts of liquid poison in ourselves? For the buzz? The social aspect? Maybe it’s because sometimes we just want to lose a few brain cells and not really care.

This is weak philosophy and has little to do with the following review, save for the shared interest of lost brain cells. Cobra is the cinematic equivalent of a case of Blue Moon. Nah, screw that. It’s like Coors. Coors Light. Oh hell, it’s neither. This movie is more like chugging down Pabst Blue Ribbon. For the alcoholically illiterate (and/or the smart ones who stay away from such films) that means that this is a really, really bad movie.

The plot(?) of Cobra is like virtually any other Dirty Harry knock-off since Don Siegel directed Clint Eastwood in that seminal crime thriller in 1971. It involves a tough cop named Cobra played by Sylvester Stallone, the star of immortal classics such as Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!, Rhinestone and Over The Top. Stallone had fallen into something of a slump by the mid-80s. He started off strong with the original crowd pleaser that was Rocky (1975) and the action favourite First Blood (1982.) I’d even throw in Night Hawks (1981) for good measure, just because I always thought that was a damn good thriller.

This film epitomises the vanity project of an action star. It’s heavy on the expected testosterone and macho attitude but to the point of parody. Stallone’s cop is more like somebody’s idea of what cool is complete with all black ensemble, classic car, aviator shades and a custom engraved .45 pistol that I doubt any hardworking detective could realistically afford.

Cobra (or Cobra McCoolname) has to stop a group of maniacs bent on destruction. They wield hammers and bang them in the air at one of those sort of abandoned factories you always see at the climax of these kind of movies, this one being no exception. Their leader is played by Brian Thompson, previously known as the guy who told Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Wash day tomorrow, nothing clean right?” before getting his heart ripped out and shown to him at the beginning of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984). He hasn’t progressed much but does say pointless, menacing things pretty badly when he says anything at all. I had friends in high school who quoted him for reasons that cannot be explained. “Come on out pigs!,” was apparently the height of hilarity, though it was lost on me. (I was hardly as sophisticated – all I did was quote Predator and Die Hard.

There’s not much of a plot here. Stallone has a not so great introduction as he stops a would-be terrorist/robber who is holding hostages. It’s not as exciting as the opening bank robbery of Dirty Harry, I can say that much. Brigitte Nielsen shows up a quarter way in because the film was in dire need of more bad actors. She plays a model who witnesses a murder and is now a target of the maniac hate group or whatever the hell they are supposed to be. She and Cobra develop some sort of relationship and it’s about as interesting as anything else Nielsen has appeared in, which is to say, not at all. It’s pretty bad when this film makes me reconsider Red Sonja as not being so bad.

By the end of the film, Stallone has acquired some fancy schmancy sub-machine gun and practices very poor gun safety. It’s not as cringe inducing as placing that Colt in his trousers, which reminds me, boys, if you want to carry pistol, get a holster. If you want a career as a practicing eunuch, place it in your pants. Look at the poster and (don’t!) watch this movie and you’ll know Cobra’s answer.

Stallone shoots up everyone pretty good and even is thoughtful enough to send the villain into a fiery death where he burns alive while being strangled by a heavy chain. After that intensely moving conclusion, Stallone punches Andy Robinson in the face, because for extra irony, the killer from Dirty Harry is in this, too and plays a very liberal cop who doesn’t agree with Cobra’s brutality, which obviously means that he is the “bad guy.” Stallone and Nielsen ride off on a motorcycle at the close and into a messy marriage/divorce in the 80s.

I just love a good romance.

Cobra fails on virtually every meagre level that it tries to obtain. Action is an easy to please formula involving the most basic of cheap thrills to operate. In other words, cool character, fast plot and lots of violence. It’s not rocket science. It’s not supposed to be 8 ½ or La Grande Illusion. It’s escapism, pure and simple.

This film fails to engage the target demographic by presenting a cliched boring protagonist with little or no relatability. Still, Stallone has charisma to spare: that’s why he’s still able to get work. He has made several enjoyable pictures, despite the “ball busting” I am giving him here (to quote from Cobra), he actually is one of our better action heroes. But Cobra is one note and lacks the lighter touch of later successes like Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987), nor the intensity and style of the original Dirty Harry.

The comparison is unfair since few action pictures were ever going to reach the heights achieved in that film but the casting of both Robinson and Reni Santoni (who was Eastwood’s partner in the earlier film) make this film’s weakness even more jarring. In that film they were real flesh and blood characters. Here, try how they might, they are simply actors getting a paycheck.

Cobra has a grimy quality to it that also takes away most of the fun. It’s just unpleasant all around. Charles Bronson made Death Wish 3 that same year and that was also pretty bad, but that film worked because despite all the inanities of the plot it was largely played for laughs and survives as something of a camp classic, much like Commando has for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s pretty bad when even the action scenes are rather timid: I can’t remember one that elicited one fist pump or satisfactory smile. Everything has no connection and feels disjointed and in the end, just plain boring.

Cobra is much too serious and brutal to be much fun and because there’s no characters or any emotional connection: it plays out like the worst slasher film imaginable and comes across as cheap and excessive. There’s no social message or any kind of depth – not that it’s required – but if the audience isn’t having some fun with something as dumb as this, then it’s probably a good call to at least show some responsibility for such dreary violent “entertainment.”

Stallone made his Reagan-era propaganda piece, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, the previous year, but that was at least kind of fun. There’s some American POWs in Vietnam? So, that means Rambo goes back to Vietnam and has to kick some ass? Fuck yeah! I can get behind that! Throw in some Russian villains into the mix, exploding arrows aimed at human bodies (complete with gruesome explosions!) and a high body count caused by both sharp blades and belt-fed machine guns and we’ve got ourselves a movie!

Cobra wishes it was that dumb and fun. Instead, it’s just dumb. If you need a fix of Stallone, grab your best beer, a couple of unruly friends, and check out the Rambo series, Nighthawks or Demolition Man (1993), and leave this one in the 80s.

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