Viking Night: Cobra
By Bruce Hall
March 7, 2018
I’ve always imagined that how hard it is to be a cop probably depends on what kind of cop you want to be. If you want to sit behind a billboard with a radar gun all day, it’s probably not very hard. If you want to be a cop in a Martin Scorsese film you’ll make money, you’ll eat well, and will in fact be enjoying a meal very much when you’re eventually murdered. But what about detectives? Those are the ones we most often see in the movies. Their lives are just a non-stop action movie filled with daring stunts, kick-ass car chases and sweet one-liners that don’t really land and will not age well.
Consider the following: A madman shoots up a grocery store and takes hostages. Even though there’s already a swat team in place, someone calls in Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone), a plays-by-his-own-rules guy informally known as “Cobra”. He’s part of an elite anti-gang unit called the “Zombie Squad”, and nobody likes his methods. He drives an obnoxious muscle car with custom plates, and wears mirrored sunglasses. He always has a match in his mouth, because I’m sure he saw Chow Yun Fat do it.
He carries a pearl handled pistol emblazoned with his own logo, wears cowboy boots and shaves infrequently. It is this man who bursts into the store, has a beer and mangles a few lines of uninspired dialogue before shooting the gunman in the chest with so many bullets I almost started laughing. After this he goes home, unnecessarily picks a fight with some Mexican gentlemen, and eats pizza with scissors while he cleans his gun and watches cartoons.
Fifteen minutes into the movie and the sunglasses haven’t come off once.
THAT is Cobra. Now, if you roll your eyes and accuse me of taking this movie too seriously, I’ll know for a fact you’ve never seen it. If you had, you’d know where I’m about to go with this. Tonally, Cobra really would like you to see it as a serious and gritty crime drama. But it’s a child in man’s clothing that stops trying the moment it starts, with its true level of competence being revealed the moment Cobretti cuts into that pizza.
It’s a pointless personality quirk that’s never tied to anything else or referenced again in any way, which actually makes it distracting. I’m not sure why a guy who drives around in a giant Hot Wheels car and has a cartoon snake on the side of his pistol needs any more eccentricities, but there you go.
And it’s only part of what makes Cobra so simultaneously frustrating and fascinating. The premise is that our hero must hunt down the unimaginatively named Night Slasher, an zany serial killer who only attacks men, women, children, immigrants and the elderly. For anyone still unconvinced of the danger, we see police examining a roadside crime scene that looks like two velociraptors pulled a car apart and fought over the squishy, terrified contents. Cobretti suggests - and I think quite wisely - that there would almost have to be more than one person behind something like that.
He’s established early on as the most competent character in the story, but that’s only because
everyone else’s idea of “police work” is to wait for Cobretti to say something, and then shout him down, telling him that he’s a loose cannon, his methods are not liked, and also to shut up. It’s one of the countless tropes-on-a-rope that constitute the plot of Cobra, but it would actually make more sense if the film itself didn’t give away almost immediately that yes, there are multiple people involved.
So the only real tension in the film comes from the fact that all the other cops hate Cobretti for no specific reason. Nobody ever specifies what he did to earn that, but well into the second half of the film, every time he speaks everyone in the room shouts:
“Shut up Cobretti, you’re a loose cannon and I don’t like your methods!”
Aside from partner Gonzales (Reni Santoni), no other cop in the film does anything in any way to help Cobretti. The LAPD braintrust spends the entire story standing in a room, shouting impotently about the murders that are still happening. That’s not hyperbole; there is specifically a scene in the film where everything you’ve ever heard an exasperated police captain shout across the desk is repeated by someone in the room. And every time Cobretti speaks, he’s told...well, you know.
That, and also shut up.
And yet at every turn, they give him more responsibility. I haven’t even gotten to the part where a fashion model named Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) is attacked, but escapes into police custody. But now that she’s seen too much for her own good, the shadowy group behind the killings has her in their crosshairs. Obviously, Ingrid is yet another stock piece pulled from the barrel of action movie cliches, in a movie that’s already lousy with them by the time she appears. Even the score is half-hearted, as though they picked someone randomly from the phone book who just happened to be an average musician.
And remember, the only reason I’m even this cynical of Cobra is because it invites that level of criticism. It goes through the motions of what is meant to be legitimate drama. But every time it tries to do something mature, it distracts you with a montage, or a car chase that looks like it’s made from bits of other car chases, or a line of dialog so bad it actually makes you fart. It wants your respect but does nothing to earn it. Instead it treats the very idea of it with contempt. With a laugh track, Cobra might be watchable. There isn’t one, but is you can do it in your head like I can, it’s possible.
Word is, about forty or fifty minutes were cut from Cobra. I don’t know if that means there’s a lost director’s cut (George P. Cosmatos also directed Tombstone, one of my favorite films), of if it would be any better than the version we have. There’s no question the cuts made whatever it was worse, to the point where it’s still...somehow...almost fun to make fun of. That said, I think you should watch Cobra, and that you should do it as soon as possible.
It won’t hurt you. It will confuse, bewilder and inadvertently amuse you for 87 minutes, and then leave you asking questions the rest of your life.