The history of art is littered with vanity projects, but few are as entertaining as Cobra, a 1986 Sylvester Stallone action vehicle that the Italian Stallion created for himself as a means to play his own version of Dirty Harry. But this was no ordinary take-no-prisoners detective with an itchy trigger finger: Stallone’s machismo cop also chewed on a matchstick and cut his pizza with scissors whenever he wasn’t gunning down the bad guys or impaling them on meat hooks. Needless to say, they don’t make them like this anymore. Cobra is a truly magical movie that benefits from being built around the unfiltered sensibilities of its lead star, because Sly is a cinematic art form.
The origins of Cobra, however, can be traced back to another ‘80s actioner with a memorable cop protagonist. Prior to gracing our screens as the 1980’s most underappreciated lawman, Stallone had other ideas in mind for the character. Before Eddie Murphy accepted the role of Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and became a big screen superstar in his own right, the role was Stallone’s. However, the Stallion had other ideas in mind for what that film should have been; instead of the alias Axel Foley, he wanted the character to be named Axel Cobretti. He also felt the film should have been much grittier, more violent, and serious in tone; so he took it upon himself to rewrite the script and implement some changes. No one else appreciated Stallone’s vision, though, which led to the star parting ways with the project due to creative differences. Beverly Hills Cop was released as the action-comedy it was originally intended to be and became a massive hit. Sly, on the other hand, still had plans to play his own Californian crime-fighting crusader.
Unwilling to let his ambition of playing a law enforcer named Cobretti die, Stallone re-envisioned the project as the riotously entertaining shoot ‘em up we know it as today. Fortunately, the Cannon Group — probably the only company who were willing to fund a movie like this with a substantial budget — existed back then to buck to the actor’s demands and bring his ultra-violent dream to the big screen. Naturally he cast himself in the starring role because who else would have been better? George P. Cosmatos, who had previously worked with Stallone on Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), was brought in to direct (though it’s believed that Stallone effectively took control of proceedings, much like he was alleged to have done during their previous collaboration). Furthermore, Stallone’s ego allegedly ran rampant during production, and he reportedly canoodled with his then-girlfriend on set and let his entourage off the leash. But it’s stories like this that make the man so endearing, and the end product didn’t suffer from any behind-the-scenes drama whatsoever as it’s a bona fide masterpiece.
The premise is simple; a group of crazed cultists are on the loose in Los Angeles and they’re out for blood. Our hero, Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti (Stallone), meanwhile, is tasked with protecting the sole witness to their heinous crimes as these lunatics want her dead. But first the deranged goons must get past Cobretti, who isn’t willing to go down without a blood-drenched fight in a storm of bullets. He doesn’t deal with psychos; he puts them away. Crime is the disease, and he’s the cure. That’s all we need and it’s exactly what we get.
Paula Gosling’s novel A Running Duck served as an inspiration for Cobra, but Don Siegel’s gritty cop series Dirty Harry (1971-1983), starring the indelible Clint Eastwood as the eponymous justice enforcer, is where the film draws most of its influence from. Like Harry Callahan, Cobretti doesn’t do things the conventional way and has no problem getting his hands dirty when it comes to taking down the bad guys. He’s also equipped with as many one-liners as he is bullets, all of which are delivered with straight-faced sincerity. While Cobra’s material is dark, it’s simultaneously cartoonish and self-aware. If you’re not in on the depraved joke then that’s your problem.
Dirty Harry set a precedent for crime and action movies in the New Hollywood era and beyond; the kind with blood on their knuckles, dirt in their nails, and bullets in their chests. It also pioneered a new breed of cop film where loose cannon detectives pushed their Second Amendment rights to the absolute limit. Cobra is a student of this school of thought, and that’s why it’s so entertaining. It also turns up the volume quite considerably by featuring a cast of gloriously unhinged villains who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mad Max movie.
The enamoration with Eastwood’s dirty detective is all over Stallone’s own hard-edged trigger enthusiast, but he’s not the only pop culture icon whose DNA is visible here. The name Marion is an homage to John Wayne, and like the personas the Duke often played on screen, Cobretti is a cowboy; shooting first, asking questions later. In Cobra, the streets of L.A. are the Wild West and Stallone is the sheriff out to punish every rotten bandit who steps out of line. This is the type of vigilant American hero who’d make his gun-wielding forefathers proud — a one-man militia who has no time for due process and liberal ideals. Who’s got time for that when the world is full of scum and in need of saving? Not this guy.
Unsurprisingly, critics hated Cobra, citing its excessive violence and overuse of genre tropes among its main issues. Maybe they had a point — it sticks to the familiar beats and there’s no commentary about violence to be found. Still, who needs a message with their action movies? The movie benefits from its pure mindlessness and the savage simplicity on display is what makes it such an effective genre yarn. That’s why Cobra is a king among its ‘80s action movie kin. At times, the violence and the intensity of several scenes are akin to that of a horror film, as we witness poor bastards being strung up like lambs in a slaughterhouse and psychos striking at random in the night. Cobra is an action movie for the most part, but it also embraces slasher elements and is all the better for it.
The original cut of Cobra clocked in at a meaty 130 minutes, which included more of the cultist’s back story. While it works wonderfully as a lean, mean action picture with minimal exposition, exploring the sect’s background and motivations could have added an interesting dynamic. Who doesn’t love crazy axe-wielding cults who just want to see the world burn, right? The movie was ultimately cut to 90 minutes in an effort to compete with Top Gun, which came out one week later and dominated the summer box office. And while Tom Cruise’s aviation actioner overshadowed Stallone’s wanton exploitation-tinged treat, Cobra was still a substantial financial hit. Unfortunately, the critical lambasting it received killed any chance of a sequel.
Over time, though, Cobra found a deserved cult following and its numerous one-liners are spoken fondly among action aficionados to this day. It’s the product of an era where cinema felt ballsier, more daring, and anarchistic, one which arguably arguably marked the apex for this kind of give-no-fucks mid-budget genre fare. Studio movies in this vein are few and far between in the modern era, but Cobra is also so quintessentially ‘80s — from its one-liners to glam rock soundtrack — that it would seem out of place in any other zeitgeist. But with Stallone still dancing in bullet ballets having not lost a step since his prime, maybe we’ll get that long-awaited sequel eventually. As long as crime is the disease, there will always be the need for a cure.