Cobra (1986)

On its most basic level, Cobra is an R-rated '80s action movie written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, but that doesn't begin to describe what makes it unusual or (with apologies for jumping right to the punchline) awful. Because at the end of the day, Cobra is bad, despite some impressive stunts and a genuine attempt to make something interesting.

Let's back up. For a while, Stallone was looking to play Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, a role that would eventually go to Eddie Murphy. Stallone, of course, had a very different vision for that movie's tone, which (coupled with the budget his vision would require) seems to be the main reason that version ultimately fell through. I have no idea if he perceived Cobra as some sort of proof of concept, or if he just had a bunch of ideas floating around his head as a result of working on the other project. Regardless, he pulled his ideas together, combined them with ideas borrowed from a novel called Fair Game (which the credits claim this is based on, but my understanding is the book was more a point of inspiration), and thus Cobra was born.

Complicating the synopsis is the fact the version of the movie that made it to audiences - indeed, the only surviving version, as far as I can tell - was heavily edited prior to release, resulting in a picture without much in the way of a plot. But I'll do my best.

The title refers to Stallone's character, who almost everyone calls, "Cobra," but whose actual name is Marion Cobretti. Imagine the archetype for the "cop who plays by his own rules," then swap out Eastwood for Stallone, and you'll know precisely who this character is. Though, to be fair, there are a couple scenes in the second half that humanize him a bit by revealing he's got a sense of humor slightly more developed than the barrage of one-liners he spits through the rest of the movie. Beyond that, the character is more or less the exact same he'd play a decade later in Judge Dredd, minus even a hint of self-awareness.

We're introduced to Cobra when he's called in to deal with a psychotic gunman who's taken a grocery store hostage and already executed at least a few people. Cobra of course hunts him down and kills him, with various parties in law enforcement and the media conflicted on whether or not his methods are justified. Also, the movie sort of implies the gunman was a member of a secret cult that comes up later, but if so the police never piece it together.

Meanwhile, there's a serial killer on the loose, murdering civilians seemingly at random. Only unbeknownst to police, he's not working alone: he's aided by the aforementioned cult who assist him in his gruesome crimes. One of them (possibly his girlfriend, though I don't recall that being confirmed) is a cop, providing him both cover and access to police resources. After one murder, a model named Ingrid drives by the crime scene. She doesn't actually realize what she's seeing, mistaking the parked van used by the cult for a breakdown, but she spots the killer, who assumes she'll be able to identify him. So Ingrid becomes their primary target, with the cult spending the remainder of the movie trying to track her down.

But of course Cobra (along with his partner, Gonzales), is trying to protect her, so the whole thing becomes a series of scenarios with the cult trying to kill them but the heroes narrowly surviving. Police leadership goes on complaining about collateral damage but - aside from assigning a third cop to help (conveniently the cult member, obviously) - they don't actually get in the way of Cobra's war on crime. Eventually, the three cops head out of town with their witness, on the logic Los Angeles isn't safe. But since one of those cops is feeding information to the cult, neither are the cabins where they end up. The cult and killer track them there, and Cobra kills them all more or less single-handedly (though Gonzales helps a bit before being wounded, surprisingly not mortally). The final showdown is set in a steel plant, where Cobra hangs the cult leader with a hook then leaves him to burn to death in a furnace. Because, in case it wasn't clear from him spelling it out, Cobra doesn't let the law stop him from doing crap like this.

There are no consequences for any of this, of course. His boss commends him for a job well done, Cobra punches the obligatory pencil-pusher who spent the movie trying to rein him in, and then he rides off with the girl. All pretty generic stuff, aside from a handful of scenes in which Stallone reminds you that - despite what 96% of the script implies - he's actually capable of writing.

What's less generic are some of the stylistic choices made by director George P. Cosmatos and cinematographer Ric Waite. The murders are shot like something out of a horror movie, complete with Dutch angles, exaggerated shadows, and shots of the killer that would be unnerving if the rest of the movie hadn't mistaken edginess for seriousness. The premise essentially boils down to an over-the-top action hero versus the killer from a slasher, which unfortunately sounds more interesting than the final product. The movie was undone from the start by Stallone's insistence on a serious tone, when it should instead be having fun with its absurd excesses. It's a pity, because between the high-concept premise and some cool action sequences (including a great chase and the impressive steel mill set piece), this had to the potential to be something special. Instead, it's just another dumb '80s action vehicle with dated right-wing themes.

I suppose it's possible the cuts made to the film sabotaged the project, but to be honest I doubt another thirty minutes would have made this anything other than longer. The biggest problems with the movie were intrinsic to the themes and the lead character - I can't imagine expanding the world would have helped either. Though maybe it could have filled in some details about what the hell was actually up with that cult - the final movie never really tells us what they want beyond some vague lines about creating a new future.

By now you may have noticed I've yet to mention Christmas, and there's a reason for that. Cobra is, of course, set during the holidays (I wouldn't be reviewing it otherwise), but unless I missed a throwaway line it's never mentioned or addressed. Christmas decorations appear throughout the movie (though they're most absent in the final showdown, perhaps under the assumption they'd undercut the western vibe they were going for at that point), but they're a design detail, rather than a story one.

Strictly speaking, the choice feels like it was made for the obvious reason: contrasting carnage and gore with holiday iconography. In a wider historical context, this becomes slightly more interesting, as the holidays were used in virtually the same way in First Blood four years earlier. That said, First Blood actually delivered some gravitas justifying both in the use of imagery and the movie as a whole. Cobra just kind of feels like cheap, fear-mongering trash in the vein of Invasion U.S.A., which was just a year old when this came out (of the two, Cobra is the better picture, but that's about the lowest bar to clear imaginable).

The movie that seems to have kicked off this trend was 1975's Three Days of the Condor, which would also inspire Shane Black to use the holidays as a setting in Lethal Weapon. Cobra can't hold a candle to anything Black has worked on, but it's worth noting both movies use the holidays in similar ways and - unless I miss my guess - were probably inspired by the same sources.

I know this movie has a cult of its own, but - in my opinion at least - it's really not worth tracking down. At this point, the aspects it handles well have all been done better by countless other action movies, while the flaws remain glaring. At the time it came out, Cobra's graphic violence was infamous - until one of those rounds of cuts, it was in danger of an 'X' rating. But that was 1986 - I can't speak to what was cut, but what remains is just a hair beyond qualifying for a PG-13 by today's standards. It's violent, but it's not shocking anymore, so even if that's what you're looking for, you're better off searching elsewhere.