George P. Cosmatos
1 Hr., 27 Mins.
Cobra August 27, 2020
ith its sound off, Cobra (1986) is an exceptional entrée into the action genre. It’s a lovingly photographed art object. I’m still thinking about some of its tableaux: a nighttime melee on an apartment roof during which the sunset bathes the deck and walls in citrusy pink; a close-up on the face of the film’s lead, Sylvester Stallone, where the ocean-blue reflection on his aviator sunglasses
takes up most of the screen, his facial muscles accentuated by shadow, his puckered lips holding in place a few-minutes-old toothpick; killers in leather prowling, all shadowy, against cartoon-looking, neon-covered cityscapes and Pepsi signs. At the film’s climax, when almost all the characters are dressed in black and driving in black cars, the only colors we see are the reds and oranges of explosions and fired guns.
With its sound off and with some of its runtime cut, Cobra might have been directed by Kenneth Anger in another timeline, made in a similar mode to his motorcycle-movie-fetishizing Scorpio Rising (1964). When Cobra at one point inserts into the action a series of fashion photoshoots (one of its lead characters is a model) gratuitously, we know it’s just because director George P. Cosmatos wants to add another texture for us to like the feel of.
Cobra is a visual tour-de-force, courtesy of cinematographer Ric Waite. Everywhere else it’s putrid and frequently ideologically ugly. As written by Stallone, who opted to also star in the movie (he dropped out of 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II for it), it’s narratively and thematically a synthesis of everything bad about right-wing-inflected action cinema like Dirty Harry (1971). It believes in violence as a salve for all (if everyone just had a gun… it inherently begins many sentences), thinks of the news media exclusively as a collection of bottom-feeding muckrakers, conflates all gun-control arguments with personal weakness, and doesn’t see the ethical dilemma of a cop initiating a sexual relationship with the person they have been assigned to protect while still protecting them.
Such characteristics are not atypical for the masochistic, machismo-pumped
1980s action movie. It’s just that in Cobra, they’re so pronounced that they hinder our enjoyment of the otherwise streamlined plot: protagonist cop Marion Cobretti (Stallone) is assigned to guard a young model/ businesswoman named Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen, mostly just pouting) as she gets chased down by an über-violent right-wing serial-killing group influenced by Darwinism to a freakishly lethal degree. (Fortunately the film is an economical 87 minutes; somewhere longer, alternate versions exist.) The visual style of the movie at the least influenced directors like Nicolas Winding Refn (much of his Drive, from 2011, paid homage to Cobra) and Costmatos’ own son, Panos, whose horror thriller Mandy has the same inspired use of neon primary colors. But Cobra, so icky inside, is the cinematic equivalent of a physically attractive person who becomes less and less so the more they speak. C+