Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Cobra
As Crow T. Robot once observed — er, sort of — a good action sequence deserves to be at Christmas. And while the internet is falling over itself debating whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, let’s instead consider Cobra‘s membership in that august club of action movies set at the holidays. It is also part of the club of Christmas action movies not written by Shane Black.
The plot concerns one Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone), a tough Los Angeles cop who plays by his own rules, but gets results. He’s a member of the department’s elite Zombie Squad and as the Yuletide nears, Cobretti — or “Cobra” if you prefer — finds himself caught up in a devilish case. When he’s called in to defuse a hostage situation at a supermarket, he learns the hostage taker is part of “The New Order,” a neo-Marxist cult obsessed with social Darwinism. But what the cult member does not know is that Cobra has his own Darwinistic views on modern society. Namely: crime is a disease and he is the cure. Cobra shoots the guy and saves the hostages, much to the dismay of a local television reporter and LAPD Detective Monte (Andrew Robinson).
Meanwhile, The New Order initiates a string of murders mistakenly attributed to a single serial killer. When model Ingrid Knudsen (Brigitte Nielsen) happens to get a good look at the cult’s leader (Brian Thompson) — a man the script only ever identifies as “the Night Slasher” — she is taken into protective custody. Unfortunately, The New Order’s reach is wide and one of the uniformed LAPD officers on Ingrid’s detail belongs to the group. After the cult leader tries to kill Ingrid a number of times, Cobra begins to suspect he is dealing with a larger armed force and not a single suspect. His superiors doubt his theory, but OK his plan to move Ingrid out of the city. The New Order’s mole on the force also goes with them.
Following her lead, the New Order tracks Cobra and Ingrid to a Central California farm town. The besiege it, but find they are no match for Cobra and his deranged ethos. He kills a lot of cult members, strings some up on meat hooks and even makes sure the Night Slasher ends up incinerated in an industrial furnace. The LAPD lauds his efforts and Ingrid falls in love with him. Surveying the path of destruction he left in his wake, Cobra and Ingrid ride into the sunset on a bike formerly belonging to one of the cult members.
And if the whole thing sounds like Stallone is once again stroking his own ego to the point that he needs medical attention, that’s part of the charm. Based on the novel Fair Game — which was adapted again as the 1995 Cindy Crawford vehicle Fair Game — Cobra is really the distillation of Stallone’s brief time as Beverly Hills Cop‘s Axel Folley with the broad strokes of Paula Gosling’s novel offering a narrative throughline.
Prior to Cobra, Stallone was signed to star in Paramount’s action/comedy. But being Stallone, he elected the rewrite the film; removing nearly all of the comedy and expanding the action scenes well beyond what the studio’s planned budget. Stallone left the project. Director Martin Brest restored it to the action/comedy tone, but Stallone never let his vision of a balls-to-the-wall action film go. He reformed his draft of Beverly Hills Cop script into an original piece inspired by Fair Game and found funding with our old friends The Cannon Group. Rambo: First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos was hired to direct the film, but cinematographer Ric Waite maintains Stallone did much of the directing himself.
It definitely shows in the finished product. Cobra is an untouchable superman who swats criminals like so many bugs. The very notion of the New Order as a multiracial ecumenical gang of miscreants plays into a popular view of criminality Stallone and others at the time believed: there was always a charismatic evil doer at the center and not a level of inequality being exploited. Nonetheless, Stallone envisioned Cobra as the man who cut through bureaucracy to catch the charismatic evil doer. He was a Dirty Harry for the 1980s. Nevermind that Dirty Harry was still appearing in movies during the decade.
The sense of Cobra’s invulnerability permeates the action scene as he just mows people down in every set piece. By the end of the film, Cobra kills nearly double the amount of New Order goons they themselves killed during their spree. The Central California town they invade is left in ashes, but it’s fine because Cobra managed to stop the larger threat. Like I said up top, he gets results. It’s all very cliche, of course, but in the hands of Stallone and Cosmatos, it is almost magical for being so standard. Similarly, the story’s derivative nature makes it a nice, light confection and its breezy 87-minute runtime never gives you the chance to get bored.
Also, did I mention this movie is set at Christmas for no discernible reason?
There are other inexplicable things, too. Like the way Cobra cuts a slice of cold pizza with scissors, his reliance on his computer files and a bizarre montage of Cobra and his partner, Gonzales, patrolling the streets while a set dresser gets some robots ready for Ingrid’s next modeling gig. Flourishes like these make the movie far more enjoyable than the route action picture Stallone devised in his script.
Performance wise, Stallone is … well, he’s Stallone. He’s more Rambo here than Rocky, but he made sure to suggest a lighter side by giving Cobra the first name of “Marion.” Apparently, it is an emasculating name and nothing is funnier to late-80s Stallone than emasculation. Other actors like Nielsen, Robinson and Reni Santoni as Gonzales all play their usual screen personas with nothing truly remarkable to show for it. The again, they’re here to service Stallone and his ego.
Which is really the source of the Christmas cheese here. The movie is a monument to Stallone’s sense of self. In lieu of building a character like Rocky Balboa, what really matters here is how cool he looks shooting fools with an UZI while riding on the back of a moving truck. Its a boy’s giddy fantasy of playing a cop and it is easy to see that Stallone expected to return to Cobra for years to come. The fact he didn’t makes watching Cobra all the more sweeter. Consider adding it to your Christmas movie watchlist today.
Cobra is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It also appears on a number of budget DVD and Blu-ray sets, often paired with The Specialist or Tango & Cash.