If I had all the time and money in the world, I would write a book about how the combination of Paula Gosling’s 1974 debut novel A Running Duck (also published as Fair Game) and various drafts of a screenplay once called Beverly Drive somehow resulted in three completely different movies: Beverly Hills Cop, Cobra, and Fair Game. As I briefly touched upon in my earlier Forgotbusters on Tango & Cash, Cobra’s strange path to theaters began when Sylvester Stallone signed on to star in Beverly Hills Cop and re-wrote the screenplay so extensively, and with such a determined eye toward removing its comic aspects entirely, that the plug was reportedly pulled two weeks before filming was to begin, and Stallone was replaced by Eddie Murphy.
As Stallone told Ain’t It Cool News in 2006:
When I read the script for Beverly Hills Cop, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong house. Somehow, me trying to comically terrorize Beverly Hills is not the stuff that great yuk-festivals are made from. So I re-wrote the script to suit what I do best, and by the time I was done, it looked like the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy. Believe it or not, the finale was me in a stolen Lamborghini playing chicken with an oncoming freight train being driven by the ultra-slimy bad guy. Needless to say, they dropkicked me and my script out of the office, and the rest is history.
Beverly Hills Cop became a great yuk-festival with a slightly more gifted comedian in the lead role, and that script Stallone found so deficient and unconscionably joke-heavy was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award (a rarity for an action-comedy), and became one of the top-grossing comedies of all time.
Stallone had a bit of a consolation prize, however, in that he was now free to make 1986’s Cobra out of all the wonderful ideas he had for removing the comedy from the 1980s’ most beloved action-comedy. To muddy the waters even further, Stallone integrated his leftover ideas from his unmade Beverly Hills Cop draft with elements from Gosling’s novel to the point where Cobra was officially an adaptation of A Running Duck, as well as a semi-adaptation of an unused rewrite of a hit film. Judging from a summary of the novel, however, it’s hard to see what in Gosling’s novel made it into the film, except that they both focus on human beings who reside on planet Earth, and both involve strong, stoic men protecting women, a somewhat common premise for film and literature alike.
Gosling’s thriller received a slightly more faithful, less Beverly Hills Cop-derived adaptation in 1995 when it became the basis for everyone's favorite Cindy Crawford vehicle, Fair Game. But even that deviated tremendously from the novel, particularly after the film was heavily re-edited following disastrous test screenings. Cobra was similarly re-edited and re-shaped after poor test screenings, and the daunting prospect of competing against the box-office juggernaut Top Gun caused a jittery studio to trim more than half an hour from the film’s two-hour-plus running time. There was also the unfortunate matter of the X-rating Cobra initially received, which also required further cuts to make the film less stomach-churningly gory.
As befits a movie whose villains use axes and knives instead of guns, Cobra got slashed to ribbons. The results sometimes feel borderline avant-garde. The most pronounced way in which this drastic reshaping affects the film is in its depiction of its villainous murder-gang New Order, whose members are first seen clanking their beloved axes together in rhythm, as part of some crazed half-Satanic, half-fascist ritual. This murder-crazed collection of axe-wielding maniacs includes a balding, middle-aged man in a suit who wouldn’t look out of place at a convention for life-insurance agents. What is this milquetoast fellow doing in this cult? Do his colleagues in middle management know he moonlights as part of an axe-murder-gang in his spare time? How does he keep these two lives distinct?
We never learn the answer to these questions, because Cobra is perversely uninterested in its villainous gang of insane axe-murderers. They apparently believe some vaguely Hitlery horseshit about the future and hunting the weak, but apart from that, the response to questions about their credo is a resounding, “Who the fuck cares? They’re all crazy scumbuckets who need to be shot in the face.” In Cobra, the bad guys don’t seem to have families, friends, or loved ones; they might as well be the product of spontaneous generation, arising magically from sidewalk piles of dog feces as fully formed wild-eyed maniacs.
Cobra begins with Stallone’s Marion “Cobra” Cobretti delivering the following information: “In America, there’s a burglary every 11 seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes, and 250 rapes a day.” The gritty determination in his voiceover narration suggests he intends to personally cut those numbers in half by the end of the week.
Stallone slows down his voice and accentuates his raspiness in an attempt to emulate the steely, take-no-prisoners succinctness of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. Instead, he sounds exactly like Steven Wright, to the point where it’s easy to expect him to start delivering deadpan one-liners at any moment.
Like Death Wish 3—which Cannon, Cobra’s production company, released around the same time—Cobra is so devoid of moral ambiguity that it plays like a parody of the fascist underpinnings of 1980s action movies. Elements throughout the film unintentionally support this alternate reading film. For example, David Rasche—star of the late-’80s sitcom Sledge Hammer!, a send-up of action-movie excess—has a prominent supporting role. The line separating Cobra’s delirious self-parody and Sledge Hammer’s brilliant, deliberate satire of sociopathic action-movie excess is pretty thin.
Similarly, the presence of Dirty Harry villain Andrew Robinson (who played the deranged serial killer Scorpio) as Detective Monte, the weak-willed, lily-livered, criminal-coddling, by-the-books cop who keeps trying to rein in Cobra, feels like a nod to Dirty Harry. In Tango & Cash, Sylvester Stallone’s hotshot cop famously quipped, “Rambo is a pussy.” The unspoken implication here seems to be that Cobra is such a badass, even the crazed psycho from Dirty Harry is rendered sputtering and speechless by just how awesome Cobra is at wasting scum.
Cobra and Detective Monte illustrate their markedly different approaches to police work in their first scene, a setpiece where a maniac enters a supermarket and immediately starts blasting people. (And groceries.) Detective Monte blathers some namby-pamby bleeding-heart liberal gibberish: “All we need is a little more time, and we can get control of the situation,” and “There’s no more need for violence.” But it’s obvious that if given his druthers, Detective Monte would send in a therapist to help the killer work through his issues, followed by a masseuse to help relieve the tension in his back, a gourmet meal prepared by a world-class chef, and finally a full pardon and a helicopter to a tropical island, where he could live out the rest of his days in breezy, preferably taxpayer-funded splendor.
Cobra has a different approach to bad guys: He kills them dead. He, and the film, are of the mindset that society would be a lot better if criminals—or folks suspected of being criminals, or people who kind of look like they might be criminals, or the potentially criminally inclined—didn’t have any rights, while cops’ rights expanded to being able to kill anyone they damn well please. Cobra has no time for Miranda rights. True, at one point he does tell a criminal, “You have the right to remain silent.” But since he then sets the man on fire, (guaranteeing his right to forever be silent, once he stops screaming in pain), that was probably more of a bad-taste gag than a sincere attempt to respect his constitutional rights.
How little does Cobra care for The Man’s rules? He’s introduced parking in a handicapped spot en route to confronting the grocery-store maniac. While his rule-bound peers nervously ponder their options, Cobra strides into the scene and pursues a risky strategy of alternating insults and threats.
Among the many clichés lovingly exploited here is the convention of the infallible shooter: The bad guys in Cobra waste round after round shooting at nothing, while seemingly every bullet that leaves Cobra’s Uzi goes right into a bad guy’s heart. Cobra literally can’t miss, so even when it’s him vs. an entire army of axe-murderers, he always has the clear advantage.
Stallone takes stoic terseness and grim minimalism to absurd new levels; he’s less a tough cop with ice water in his veins than an android whose only emotion is murderous rage. Sure enough, when the psycho threatens to blow up the entire grocery store, Cobra bites part of Dirty Harry’s catchphrase with a casual quip: “Go ahead… I don’t shop here.” Dirty Harry accidentally created ubiquitous catchphrases. Cobra communicates exclusively in would-be catchphrases, most notably “You’re the disease, and I’m the cure,” which he says to the supermarket killer before throwing a knife into his heart, then shooting him. Forget the complicated socioeconomic factors that breed crime and create criminals. In Cobra, criminals are cockroaches, and Cobra is a sentient can of Raid.
After dispatching the grocery-store murderer with extreme prejudice, Cobra winds up on the trail of the Night Slasher, a fiendish force for evil who has killed 16 people in a single month. The police, those rule-bound dopes, think they’re dealing with a single serial killer, but Cobra realizes they’re dealing with an entire army of them. As part of his investigation, Cobra becomes the protector of Ingrid Knudsen (Brigitte Nielsen, Stallone’s ex-wife to be), a witness to one of the crimes committed by New Order. Ingrid is as flummoxed by the existence of “rights” for criminals as the film is. “There’s all these crazy people out there! Why can’t the police just put them away and keep them away?” she Cobra. He retorts, “Tell it to the judge!”
Later Cobra, now in sleepy-charmer mode, looks purposefully at a plate of french fries covered in ketchup and, in what I imagine represents flirtation on his home planet, sleepily asks Ingrid, “You have a life preserver?” Ingrid understandably looks confused and asks why. Cobra deadpans, “’Cause your french fries are drowning there.” Cobra’s slight smirk, and the fact that he doesn’t kill anyone while uttering the line, suggests he’s making what could generously be deemed a “joke.” Yet it’s hard to see exactly where the humor would lie. Is this grim, joyless super-cop with only murder in his heart and a body count to rival many small wars anthropomorphizing french fries as tiny little potato-men who need adorable little life preservers in order to avoid dying in an ugly red sea of ketchup? Or is he suggesting that if Ingrid were to shrink down to the size of a french fry, she would need a life preserver, or she would perish in a yummy red tide?
This exchange would seem odd bordering on inexplicable in a romantic comedy. In a movie about a sociopath whose life is all about wasting scum, it feels especially bizarre. But Cobra has little time for romance or levity, because it has cop-murders to get to, and heavy-handed points to make about how society’s weak-willed reliance on “the Constitution” and “the rule of law” will destroy America, unless heroes like Cobra ignore them in the name of keeping us all safe.
In the film’s climax, the Night Slasher—in an especially dramatic instance of someone misjudging another person’s character—taunts Cobra by suggesting he’s such an inveterately rule-bound rule-follower and handcuffed Constitution-respecter that he couldn’t possibly shoot a suspect rather than take him into custody. “Even I have rights, don’t I, pig?” he says, taunting a man whose hobbies include glowering, killing, chewing on a matchstick, and flagrantly violating criminals’ rights. He offers a number of insults in this vein before Cobra predictably answers, “This is where the law stops. And I start. Sucker.” Then he impales the guy on a dangling hook and sends him sailing into a furnace.
Cobra never gives a moment’s thought to the notion that New Order’s philosophy of ignoring the law, fetishizing violence, and worshiping brute strength as the highest ideal society can aspire to fits snugly into Cobra’s own worldview, where violence is the answer to all the world’s ills.
Including Cobra in a column about forgotten blockbusters is a bit of a cheat, since the film has something of a cult following, though it’s seldom mentioned in the same breath as Stallone’s iconic blockbusters. Part of Cobra’s scuzzy charm can be attributed to how perfectly it captures the sleazy excesses of its times, from its chilly electronic score to the curious preponderance of patriotic, MacGruber-style light-rock ballads to its lurid neon color scheme to its Reagan-era-friendly conception of law and order.
Though I would recommend Cobra to bad-movie aficionados as an unintentional yuk-festival of the highest order, the best way to experience it might be through a YouTube supercut that combines all the most sublimely ridiculous moments into a five minute mash-up. Then again, that might be unnecessary, or at least redundant: at 84 minutes, it’s already a crudely stitched together Frankenstein’s monster of a movie that’s all sexy, preposterous, violent moments, with minimal attention to plot, characterization, and coherence.
Up next: Hancock