Junkfood Cinema: Cobra

By  · Published on June 3rd, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; stuffiness is the disease, we are the cure. This is the only weekly internet column to actually be slapped by Jamie Oliver, slapped right in its meaty face. I am like the mean older brother, each week slapping around the black sheep of Hollywood until they cry.

But then, like any good older brother, I release them from the grip of my sardonic Indian burn and give them a loving bro-hug of ridiculous praise. I then take them to Stuckey’s and treat them to a delicious, movie-themed snack item. Whether you like it or not, this is Junkfood Cinema.

This week’s target: Cobra

What Makes It Bad?

I worry that eventually we’re going to have to rename this column Sylvester Stallone Is Incapable of Turning Down Roles Cinema. Here, Stallone plays Marion Cobretti, who plays by his own rules even when he can’t remember what game he is supposed to be playing; he tries to cheat at Candyland by shoving face cards up his sleeve. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the defining characteristics for Stallone’s characters just got lazier and lazier as his career progressed. Rocky: he’s a hustler from the streets with dreams of being a champion. Rambo: he’s a tortured veteran tired of being kicked around by the society he gave his all to protect. Cobretti: His name sounds like Cobra. Seriously, the entire construction of this role involved nothing but a trench coat, a pair of sunglasses, a box of chewable matches, and a spackling of five o’clock shadow. The man’s entire persona is confined to a pearl-handled gun which smacks of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry except Stallone didn’t have a backlog of seminal westerns to earn him that leeway. And how Stallone was able to reduce his already grizzly bear grumble of a voice down to the octave of a cement mixer full of dying sea turtles, I’ll never know.

Step right up ladies and gentleman and marvel at Hollywood’s gravest mistake: The Completely Face Value Movie! Now, I’ve seen enough action movies, far too many by most psychiatrists’ estimations, to understand that they are usually light on subtext. But Cobra has the esteem of being 100% subtext free. Hell, it even trims the excessive fat of vital exposition. Not one damn thing in this film is explained beyond what the audience immediately sees on the screen. How did the Night Slasher amass this cult? Is he their deity? What’s with all the axe-banging? We are shown bizarre images in glimpses and then expected to immediately accept everything without so much as a second thought or, God forbid, a question. It is a film that alienates the viewer’s comprehension and makes it perpetually feel as if you’ve come in just at the midpoint.

Let’s talk for a moment about editing and music, and about how Cobra would have been better served by a complete absence of both rather than what we actually see and hear.

First of all, I’m not sure if it’s some sort of mandatory Cannon Films edict, but the songs in this movie qualify as God-awful even if the God you worship is a owl pellet wrapped in used catheters. The song about working too hard and trying to make a living demonstrates that there is in fact more than one loose cog within The Miami Sound Machine. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the Angel of the City montage. This is where horrid music and piss poor editing combine their powers to summon Captain Bush League! The random triplets of quick shots laid over drum machine beats perforate the film and are especially unwieldy in this montage. Okay, so we’ve established that Cobra is a cop that gets results via brutality and other not-so-legal means. So why is this a montage of him politely talking to random scumbags? You are reckless Cobretti! But the bigger question, if it isn’t important to the film at all that resident 80s amazon freak Brigitte Nielsen is a model, why in poo-perfect hell do we need establishing shots of the robots next to which she is posing interlaced into said scumbag-interviewing montage? No, no. No, no. Why the hell is she posing with robots? For a few moments, the film presents the notion that the Night Slasher cult is comprised of leftover props from Lost in Space.

Cobra also features the first instance I’ve ever seen of what I have dubbed, The Movie Balk. Now typically in an action film, especially those anchored by the muscular dumbbells of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, the hero and villain square off before the hero eventually corners the villain, delivers a snappy (read: slap-headed) catchphrase, and then shuffles said villain from this mortal coil. It’s a trademark of the genre that we all know and love…or abide. In Cobra, Stallone has two separate instances at the end of the movie wherein he delivers a sharp, biting catchphrase that should by all rights be followed by a flash, a bang, and a spectacularly dead bad guy, but then infuriatingly fails to bring any sort of closure. It unfolds a little something like this…

Bad guy: “I am the future.”

Stallone (appearing from around a corner with a gun and the overwhelming drop on said bad guy): “No! You’re history.”

Woohoo, he’s history! Give him a body ba – what? No kill? That’s a balk. Audience take your base. Try again Cobra!

Bad guy: Some nonsense about the courts being civilized.

Stallone: “But I’m not. This is where the law stops, and I start.”

Bang? Stab? Boom? Nothing?! Balk! Audience take another base. Seriously, one more of those, and I’m going to the bullpen to call in my closer (a.k.a my copy of Judge Dredd)

Why I Love It!

Say what you want about Sly and the bare bones script of Cobra, as I just did for several paragraphs, but this is how Stallone should be; he’s a blunt instrument barely audible enough to deliver his miserable one-liners. There’s no wealth of emotional underscore to this character, he’s a perpetually pissed off defender of the innocent with no scruples about blasting dirtbags into tiny chunks. He is fearless, mean, and lives like a total animal. He asserts his dominance by inexplicably ripping the shirts off those who dare get in his face. But he also knows how to dress to present the most formidable, impossibly cool facade and drives an archaic vehicle with a NOS fuel-injection system that only furthers his badassery. In other words, he is the walking id of the 80s male. He is the alpha man stripped down to his most basic, primal elements. Cobra is therefore the most Aristotelian Stallone film ever made. The proximity of those two words to one another may have just triggered a quantum imbalance that will inevitably unmake existence. Sorry, that one’s on me.

I love the action sequences in this film. Every shoot out is epic and breathtakingly photographed. The car chase in Stallone’s massive jalopy is thunderously entertaining and, although I desperately wanted to, would not allow my raised fist to relent for nearly twenty minutes. The axes and blades in the hands of the murders are brilliantly designed and filmed with the same fetish as would be found in a giallo film. The small town under siege culminating in the battle in the refinery is chock full of memorable kills and crashes. Stallone’s readiness to draw down on a baddie makes it seem as if he’s not so much operating within the physical world of the film, but instead deeply engaged in playing the Cobra arcade game that never was.

This movie features Sly Stallone batting not one, not two, but an entire cult of serial killers. How can you not love that? It’s like a gaggle of Hannibal Lecters! A flock of Jigsaws! You know, I don’t actually know what the scientific term is for a grouping of serial killers. Let’s work this out…

A murder of serial killers? (Too on-the-nose)

A quiver of serial killers? (Applies more to our hero I think)

A mischief of serial killers? (Sounds adorable, so no)

A flight of serial killers? (That’s too terrifying to contemplate)

A squishment of serial killers? (Totally made up)

I can’t help but imagine how great this film would have been if put in the hands of William Lustig. Don’t get me wrong, I like George P. Cosmatos a lot; Tombstone is one of my favorite films. But with the gritty backdrop of the city actually being the most fully-developed character in the film, and with the script already allowing for sensational stunt work, I pine for Lustig’s knack for infusing layered performance into a b-movie blueprint. It’s a cinch that Bill would have flushed out themes of vigilante justice and urban-fostered madness to their fullest. It doesn’t hurt that the wacko in the supermarket at the beginning of the film closely resembles Joe Spinell from Maniac.

Junkfood Pairing: Pizza and Beer

In still further testament to Stallone’s inescapable manhood, he subsists almost entirely on pizza and beer. But simply gorging on those two y-chrome snack foods would not suffice for one so manly as Marion…er, The Cobra. To wit, Cobretti drinks a beer while in the middle of a hostage situation at a grocery store before announcing to the perp that he is going to waste him and cuts his pizza slices apart with a pair of scissors. This is exactly the sort of male-centric ingenuity and expert timing that has kept us in the top two sexes of humans on the planet.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.