What makes George P. Cosmatos’ Cobra (1986) such a lustrous, fierce and enthralling thriller? If your answer includes anything to do with Sly Stallone – that’s evident. Sly is in his prime; the fully-blossomed age of reason – 40. Fresh-off of his uber-lean body fat of less than 2.9% on Rocky IV (1985), Sly looked better than ever in Cobra. There has got to be more to this gem of a film than the mere clout and bold stage presence of its screenwriter and star; even with the chain around his neck and his edgy, five o’clock shadow. Sylvester Stallone is the meat of the main entrée that is Cobra, but perhaps the side dish, garnishes, Sauce, and overall ingredients are what makes this meal – movie – salty damn-good.
Is it Brian Thompson’s extremely intimidating villain, The Night Slayer, what makes Cobra stand apart from practically any other film, ever made? A hero is only as great as his villain is dark. Maybe, it’s Reni Santoni’s character of Gonzales and the way he cracks open a can of Coke, making love to it with his lips, similar to the way Cobretti savors a swig of a canned Coors, in conjunction with Cobretti observing Ingrid drain her large plate of French Fries with ketchup. Cobretti cuts cold pizza with scissors and eats it while sitting through a Toys R Us Christmas commercial and a view of Venice Beach through his penthouse window at the Waldorf. A nod to what the holiday season looks like in L.A., sunlight, beaches and beautiful women.
It’s quite possible that the mouth-watering and jaw-dropping Brigitte Nielsen and her portrayal of Ingrid – a supermodel – is why we’re so tantalized by this film. Better yet, it must be the backdrop: the heat and beach weather of L.A.; the beautiful grit and grime in the city of Long Beach, Venice and Los Angeles county. Moreover, it’s probably the range of supporting actors surrounding Sly with their magic, like Marco Rodriguez playing a psycho supermarket killer, or film director John Herzfeld (15 minutes, Escape Plan 3) playing the henchman “Cho”, or Art LaFleur’s “Captain Spears” stamped on your memory from playing a neutral character on the police force. Cobra is arguably the standalone gem of Sly’s filmography. But, to make such a bold statement, one must at least offer their insight to support this claim with conviction.
Lieutenant Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is a one-man army representing the infamous “Zombie Squad” – a select few of elite policeman who are only called upon the crime scene during dire circumstances. Cobretti assembles and disassembles his laser-mount submachine gun with a masterful ease. His Colt .45 has an emblem of a cobra snake, firing bullets with the force equivalent to venom. The Greco-Italian film director, George P. Cosmatos, marks the second time he works with Sly, after he and John Rambo decided to return to Vietnam to fight the war again in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). Except this time, Sly isn’t going up against the brutal Viet-Kong; instead he’s pitted against tracking down a ruthless, coldblooded serial killer who preys upon women at night; a savage known as Night Slayer (Brian Thompson). Cobretti’s trajectory directs him toward the Night Slayer, in addition to a cult of savages who proclaim the emergence of a “New Order” – and are dead-set on murdering an eyewitness bystander – L.A. supermodel, Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen). Cobretti is assigned the task of taking Ingrid under his wing into protective custody, while escorting her to a safehouse. This tale of edgy thrills is only the tip of the iceberg as far as how dark – yet satisfyingly comedic – certain scenes in this film become. The violence gets so outrageous, certain shots and sequences call for outbursts of amusement.
Brian Thompson, the bold presence who ingeniously brings to life the supervillain “Night Slayer” has moments in this film where he merely utters one word that weighs heavily on our laps. “Kill her.” He mutters, with a bizarrely deep tone of voice. One can take his utterance with grave danger, or chortle at the pun with a laugh, due to its ludicrousness. “Sly directed the film.” Brian Thompson said, in an interview with Scream Factory. “The classic shot of my character saying “Pig” with the spit flying out. Sly said (to me), ‘I want that spit backlit. Brian, you’re gonna put a lot of water in your mouth. And when you say “pig” I want the water to explode out of your mouth.” This is clearly Brian Thompson alluding to Sly’s tremendous input, not influence, on the film’s direction. “Since George P’s role was so reduced, when Stallone was on the set, when Stallone wasn’t on the set, George P was tyrannical. Screaming.” Brian Thompson went on to add about the cinematographer, the late Ric Waite (48 Hrs., Out for Justice). “He had such an eye for photography. Ric was the most seasoned, A-List filmmaker on the project.” Brian Thompson said, referring to working with Ric Waite as the equivalent of a master class. Cobretti’s weaponry doesn’t get outmatched, but is almost equal with Brian Thompson’s characters knife. “What other knife even looks remotely close to the Cobra knife?” The knife is multi-functional in dangerous ways; it has spikes underneath it to protect the users hand. The Night Slayer wields this knife throughout the entire film, until getting stopped by Cobretti, in the epic warehouse climactic sequence that displayed some of the most elaborate audio production and sound design in ’80s cinema.
Cobra was nominated for 6 Razzie Awards – Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actor, Worst new star, worst actress, et cetera. This nonsense couldn’t be further from the truth. If Cobra was such a bad film, why has it garnered such a massive cult-following throughout the last four decades? Or has it remained underground because of this? If Cobra was so bad, why has the super genius filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Alita: Battle Angel) begun to develop a Cobra spin-off TV series? Perhaps, it’s because this film is beloved by those who appreciate it’s unique darkness, and are indifferent to the film’s lack of meaningful character development. Cobra wasn’t entirely grounded in reality; the entire “New Order” concept of the villainous cult of ax-wielding serial killers is a work of a fictional graphic-novel. Brian Thompson talks about how the closest resemblance of the villains evil traits were equivalent to Adolf Hitler’s methods of mass executions in Nazi Germany, except Hitler had an organization structured to eliminate the wealth from the people he was racist toward. In Cobra, there’s absolutely no justification or system set in play that gives an explanation behind the “New Order’s” motives. Cobra is an imperfect looking gem; like the one Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has in Uncut Gems (2019).
There is a glaring, obvious nonexistence of character development for the villains, but the lacks are made up for with solid acting, a decent screenplay, innovative lighting, earsplitting sound design, iconic music, and masterful cinematography. Cobra is the epitome of ‘80s L.A., and leaves a permanent mark on Venice Beach, with its iconic location of The Waldorf on the beach boardwalk that housed Cobretti’s apartment. Sly’s Waldorf building going toe-to-toe with Schwarzenegger’s Muscle Beach just a few blocks down is the perfect daredevil matchup for southern California’s gritty, grimy vibe of Venice that fosters a freewheeling atmosphere for the hip and ultra-cool skateboarders, cyclists, artists, athletes, b-ballers, business owners and surfers that live on an elevated level of life. Let us not inadvertently neglect to mention Venice’s sister, Santa Monica; the clean, PG-13 neighbor that houses some of the finest L.A. women, including Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen).
“The whole supermarket sequence, the food, the meat, led to the grossness, it enhanced the whole idea of the violence of this cult.” Marco Rodriguez said, the actor who played the vicious Supermarket Villain in the opening sequence. Sly’s Cobretti guns him down inside of a real supermarket in Redondo Beach, California, and the villain falls back on a refrigerator of frozen poultry, serving as a metaphor for the upcoming slaughter the rest of Cobra has in-store. Both Marco Rodriguez and Brian Thompson allude to how Sylvester Stallone was the silent film director with George P. Cosmatos, giving the film two directors. “I think George had an eye. He was a stylish director, and I don’t think he got his way.” Andrew Robinson said, the actor who played Detective Monte – the evil cop who was originally scripted as the secret leader of the “New Order”. “They turned it into a music video. It was cut into every inch of its life; there wasn’t room to breathe.” Andrew Robinson said, referring to the editing. “I don’t give a shit what year it is, or what genre it is; if you don’t have character development, then who gives a good god-damn what’s going on?” Andrew Robinson’s constructive criticism of Cobra is proper and acceptable, nonetheless. Noteworthily, Cobra was catered to an MTV audience whose majority would more than likely disregard the importance of character development in a film. Decades later, that same audience looks back evocatively, loving it evermore. Perhaps, that audience is a cult, keeping the status of the film underground.
“I thought that Sly directed a lot of it. Although, George is a strong character. I saw him directing also. I think they shared the directing.” Art LaFleur said, the actor who played Captain Sears – an angry policeman. Marion Cobretti is the contemporary gunslinger; a larger-than-life hero who takes extreme measures in his crime fighting methods. From Stallone’s $250K custom-built 1950 Mercury, to Brigitte Nielsen’s breathtakingly provocative sidelong glance and the iconic filming locations of Venice, Redondo, Long Beach and downtown L.A., Cobra was sultry and sleek. Cobra is not a 10-course meal; it’s a buffet.
George P. Cosmatos and Sylvester Stallone crafted a classic work of art that contains finite details in it’s filmmaking. When Marco Rodriguez’s shotguns flare inside the supermarket, George P. cuts away to an exterior shot of birds startled by the noise. When we first meet Detective Monte (Andrew Robinson), we see his reflection shine on the gloss of a car hood as he speaks into a megaphone. When Cobretti fires bullets from his Colt .45 at the shooting range, the editing cuts to a closer angle to the target on the poster while in sync with every gunshot. These details are what reveal the heart and dedication George P. Cosmatos put into this film, along with Stallone’s silent input. Ultimately, what represents the lush, lustrous L.A. of ’80s Cobra is depicted during the music video montage of the first act, with Robert Tepper’s “Angel of the City” on the soundtrack as Stallone and Reni Santoni cruise through the Los Angeles night, intercut with shots of Brigitte Nielsen performing in an erotic, exotic photo shoot.
Cobra is a rare steak, distinctive; in a class by itself.