From The Parallax Review Vaults: Cobra (1986)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Cobra was for the “Cannon Corner” column of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

Judging from the view of early 2011, it may be hard to believe, but in the late ’70s through the early ’80s, it was still possible for critics to take Sylvester Stallone seriously. Films like Rocky and First Blood were commercial and critical successes that found him taking on scripting duties, tailoring characters to fit his limited acting range. Yes, he had his share of misfires (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks), but at least they were ambitious misfires. But by the time 1986’s Cobra rolled around, Stallone had squandered any good will that the critical community had for him. The increasingly awful Rocky and Rambo sequels had made him box office gold and a critical punching bag. In other words, he was a perfect fit for the Cannon Group.

Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti (Stallone), is one tough cop. He has a reputation as a take-no-prisoners type that the higher-ups (Andrew Robinson, Art La Fleur) loath to use because of his violent and chaotic way of getting the job done that usually results in several dozen dead bodies littered about. But when a cult of killers begins randomly murdering the citizens of Los Angeles, the brass have no choice but to turn to Cobra.

Initially stalled in his investigation by a lack of clues and skulls to crush, Cobra catches a lucky break when fashion model Ingrid (a surprisingly likable Brigitte Nielsen) witnesses a murder and becomes a target for the cult. By protecting Ingrid, Cobra gets his shot to take down the cult in an orgy of violence that finds him eventually locked in an epic (by Cannon standards) battle with the cult leader known as the “Night Slasher” (Brian Thompson).

Action movies don’t get more simplistic than Cobra. Unfortunately, there are plenty that are more entertaining. Working with noted schlock merchants, the Cannon Group and his Rambo: First Blood Part II director, George P. Cosmatos, Stallone had the opportunity, as screenwriter and star, to go completely over-the-top and offer up a ridiculous action movie in the vein of Commando. Instead, Cobra is nothing more than a pale Dirty Harry impersonation with Stallone as a controversial cop who chafes at the way civil rights restrict his ability to mete out justice at the end of a barrel. This Dirty Harry connection is only made more obvious by the presence of Robinson and Reni Santoni (as Cobra’s partner).

Unfortunately, Cobra lacks the philosophical depth and moral ambiguities of Dirty Harry — not to mention the fact that Stallone is no Clint Eastwood. This leaves the film to live and die through the inventiveness of its action sequences.

An effective opening sequence that finds Cobra wasting no time in ending a hostage situation sets a solid tone of brainless fun. The same can be said for a silly car chase in the second act and the climactic showdown in a foundry with conveniently placed giant hooks. But the bulk of the film is made up of slasher-movie clichés with the “Night Slasher” stabbing victims with a large knife and Cobra going through his boring investigation.

Given the right role, I like Stallone, but his strengths as an actor don’t lie in portraying secretly intellectual detectives. Here, too much of the film is padding with numerous scenes of Cobra sitting at a computer staring at mug shots and fingerprints. The fact that he has zero chemistry with Nielsen also kills the obligatory romantic subplot.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of Cobra is how safe the whole thing feels. There’s definitely a paranoid right-wing message to its tale of a cop who gets the job done by ignoring the civil rights of suspects, but it’s so silly in that regard that it’s impossible to take seriously. The action keeps it watchable, but the connective tissue between the big action scenes is bland to the point of making it a chore to sit through.

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