Growing up, Cobra was one of those cinematic anomalies in the career of mainstream Hollywood action star Sylvester Stallone, a blip that was drowned out by the summer of 1986 in which Top Gun and Aliens projected fascistic rumblings, dreaming of an infantile militarized Americana. Although Cobra did decent business at the box office, the film wasn’t well received by critics. While the Wikipedia entry points to ‘overuse of genre tropes’ as a point of criticism, this in many ways is one of the undeniable strengths of the film, that it converses with a gamut of genres and does so in a way that renders it a charming pastiche. Most visible and transparent are the neo noir and horror accents, which contradicts the hard body action tag used to market the film. In 1986 Stallone’s stock was high and he had just departed from the Beverly Hills Cop project that would eventually launch the international career of Eddie Murphy. Cobra is certainly derided mainly because at that time Stallone was becoming a self-parody, explicating a narcissism that is fetishized in all aspects of the film. While the film is an obvious vanity project for Stallone’s international stardom this puerile aspect of the project is augmented by a neo noir sleaziness and exploitation horror aesthetic that recalls the vigilantism of Dirty Harry and the dystopian neon landscapes of The Terminator. Cobra is a melange of genres and film styles, and in many ways exudes an uncertainty about its own cinematic existence. You can almost hear Stallone saying back to himself; ‘how can I sell this to audiences?’
The original work print of Cobra was significantly longer than the theatrical version, around 2 hours in length. Now that does not necessarily mean the work print is probably a better film just because it is longer; some of the best films are those that comprehend the lost art of narrative economy. The problem here is we know that Stallone butchered the work print as he panicked when he saw the final product and edited the life out of the film, in fear of the filmic competition that year and also because he apparently didn’t trust or have faith in director George P. Cosmatos. Cosmatos had already worked with Stallone on the hugely successful Rambo 2 so this argument doesn’t really hold any credence with me. Furthermore, Cosmatos’s reputation as a more than competent genre director has been maligned by stories about his presence as a pseudonym, a cipher through which actors would perform directorial exegesis. This seems to be the case with both Cobra and Tombstone, two films that apparently Cosmatos did not direct but was merely on the film set cracking jokes with his cast and being paid handsomely. It doesn’t help that stars including Stallone have actually validated the perception of Cosmatos as a hack. Unsurprisingly, Rambo 2, Leviathan, Cobra and Tombstone, four of Cosmatos’s best genre work, is never really acknowledged as such, but instead derided and reduced to a fluke.
Cobra is certainly not one of the best films of neither 1986 nor the 1980s but it is worthy of a second look as it feels closer in tone and spirit to a loose collective of films that emerged in the mid to late 1980s, such as RoboCop, which project a vision of urban American society as not just nightmarishly dystopian, but manifest a nasty vigilantism, critiquing gender politics and decentring the establishment. I’m not arguing Cobra does all of these things but only be reclaiming genre cinema of this kind which is often glibly scorned upon can we begin to really fully contextualise and track the development and slippages of mainstream Hollywood cinema in this particular moment in time. But that also means giving Stallone’s career the candour that it deserves. In some ways Cobra already has been reclaimed, but by Nicolas Winding Refn, who has acknowledged the film’s influence on Drive, another genre pastiche.