‘Cobra’ (1986): A Stallone loner in a franchise era

A decent (and smart) cash-in of then-current Sly currency, but a franchise wasn’t to be.

By Review Staff

Cobra, the 1986 Sylvester Stallone actioner, is the type of flick you’d expect from mid-80s Stallone – hardcore action, explosions, lots of bullets flying and macho humor. You can bet they hoped this would be another franchise…the brooding cop version of Rambo.

The film was directed by George P. Cosmatos, one year after directing Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Present day Los Angeles, 1986. Marion Cobretti (aka “Cobra”), a member of LAPD’s “Zombie Squad” is tasked with securing the safety of Ingrid Knudsen (Brigitte Nielsen, Red Sonja, Beverly Hills Cop II), the only eyewitness to a murder carried out by the mysterious underground “New World Order,” which seeks to rid the world of the weak. Cobra is despised by some of his fellow cops due to his unorthodox crime fighting ways, but the department nonetheless decides he’s best suited to babysit the endangered witness.

And because Sly was married to Brigitte Nielsen, it was a perfect way to share some onscreen time together, too. In fact, the behind-the-scenes notes for Cobra are as interesting as the movie itself.

Stallone and Nielsen were married for two years (1985-87), and this was one of two films they worked on together (Rocky IV was the other). Sly was roughly 40 at the time of release, Nielsen around 23. (Good work, Stallone!) He was in the prime of his career while she was just beginning what looked to be a meteoric rise to superstardom. Despite having already done Red Sonja, some speculate that Nielsen wouldn’t have gotten such high profile roles had she not hooked up with Stallone. That may or may not be true, but she definitely looks like a star.

The chemistry between the two leads isn’t bad, either. The film was made at the height of the Miami Vice/MTV-aesthetic era, and despite it’s dark, violent tone, there’s still time to showcase the leggy Nielsen in a mid-movie music video montage depicting a modeling photo shoot set to Robert Tepper’s Angel of the City.

Nielsen appears confident in her acting ability, and I think she does fine here. Just compare her performance to Cindy Crawford’s in 1995’s Fair Game. (But why would you, you ask? Because Cobra and Fair Game actually used the same book as source material.)

RELATED: Read our review of 1995’s Fair Game

From what I glean through online sources, author Paula Gosling wrote a novel called A Running Duck in 1974, later published under a different title, Fair Game. Stallone reworked much of the book for Cobra‘s film script and even offered Gosling to write a new novel based on the film script. She passed, but Gosling nonetheless received a writing credit on the film.

I screened both movies back-to-back prior to writing this review and, despite some similarities in the overall idea, the movies differ enough that you wouldn’t think they were such “close cousins.” I suspect Fair Game was more faithful to the source material, while Cobra was tuned more towards a Stallone star vehicle. (Daniel Baldwin plays the lead in the other film).

A Running Duck isn’t the only source that has its DNA sprinkled into Cobra. Apparently, it was originally planned for Sylvester Stallone to be the star of 1984’s Eddie Murphy vehicle, Beverly Hills Cop. When Stallone began rewriting and revising the Cop script, he switched out some of the comedic bits with more action-oriented fare to better suit his persona. The producers said no to the changes, citing budget concerns due to the added action scenes, and Murphy wound up with the role to great success (and two sequels, so far.)

Stallone then took some of those reworked Beverly Hills Cop ideas and transplanted them in Cobra. It would be interesting to know which set pieces were originally planned for Axel Foley! It’s interesting to note that Brigitte Nielsen would later star in Beverly Hills Cop II in 1987, which happened right around the time she and Stallone were divorcing. (People Magazine at the time mentioned rumors that Nielsen was linked romantically with her Beverly Hills Cop II director, Tony Scott.)

To get an idea of where Stallone’s head space was during Cobra in ’86, you can look at the films he did immediately prior and afterward. In 1985, he starred in both the first Rambo sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Rocky IV. Following Cobra, he did Over the Top in ’87. There are certain aspects of Sly’s on-screen personality and overall movie aesthetic you can see displayed in all these films, which is great if you enjoyed them.

Stallone plays Cobretti much like a more wisecracking version of Rambo. He’s tough, he can fight, and he’s not afraid to shoot a gun or blow something up. He’s a classic man of action who reluctantly falls for the woman he’s trying to protect, even if it’s not explored with any real depth.

Basically, Cobretti is a slightly more thoughtful, ’80s version of Dirty Harry — he’s the cop that can do what the other cop won’t; he takes some liberties but, damn it, he gets the job done!

Speaking of Dirty Harry, two actors in Cobra also appeared in that 1974 Clint Eastwood flick. Andrew Robinson, who plays the annoying, by-the-books cop who pesters Cobretti about his unorthodox ways, played the role of the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry. Reni Santoni plays Cobretti’s cop buddy, Gonzalez. Santoni also played a cop in Dirty Harry named (wait for it…) González. In Cobra, he’s about the only other person on the force who can stand Cobretti.

Despite the formula, Cobra doesn’t really drag. By only glossing over the perceived romance between Cobretti and Ingrid, a lot of potentially “slow” romantic passages don’t make their way into the film.

I still own a handful of films on VHS from when I was a kid, and this is one of them. (I need to remedy this; it won’t be my last screening of this movie). I probably saw it in ’87 or ’88 via rental and then bought the cassette at some point thereafter. One thing that strikes me with each viewing is how it mixes typical action tropes (such as they were circa 1986) with legitimate horror-like thrills.

The bad guys in the “New Order” are worthy opponents. The leader of the group, known to police as the “Night Stalker,” is legitimately scary. Actor Brian Thompson probably won the part without speaking a word — he has the face of a stone cold killer!

There’s plenty of action and a couple spectacular car chases are thrown in to good effect as well, keeping the film from ever slowing down or getting boring.

Cobra was generally poorly received by critics who felt it was too awash in those genre tropes. They’re not wrong; you can pick out cliché after cliché. But for fans of the genre, it’s also what makes it great.

Watching it over three decades later, you can’t help but think Stallone was trying to throw what he does best at the wall one more time to see if a new franchise would stick. Marion Cobretti (the character) could have translated into more brainless action-adventure outings in the vein of the ’80s Rambo sequels.

But it wasn’t to be. The film earned $160M in worldwide box office and opened at #1 in the US on May 23, 1986, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the critical thrashing it received and, when compared to previous Stallone outings, it didn’t have the firepower. It scored $49M in the US, finishing 15th for the year, well behind the two biggest hits that year (Top Gun, $180M, and Crocodile Dundee, $175M).

After two straight Stallone movies, director Cosmatos would go on to direct the sci-fi thriller Leviathan in 1989 and crowd-pleasing western Tombstone in 1993.

Dark, moody, and sometimes scary, Cobra is a time capsule displaying all the things that were great about 1980s big-star action films. If you’re a fan of Stallone and, especially, the big budget ’80s action thriller, you’ll no doubt be entertained by the film’s 87 minutes.

Collectors needing to upgrade their DVD version (or, like me, their VHS copy) can find Cobra on Blu-ray.

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