Death Wish for the MTV generation: VHS Revival soaks up the neon opulence of a kitsch classic
What do Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy have in common? A fair bit, as it happens. Both are movie stars tied to the action genre. Both are incredibly wealthy, residing in the same affluent Beverly Hills neighbourhood. In fact, there was a time when they were regarded as close friends, the two even working together on a pitch for a third Godfather movie before Francis Ford Coppola ultimately created one of the most contentious movie sequels in all of cinema. That’s right, Stallone and Murphy almost starred in the third instalment of the crime genre’s most famous saga, but somewhere along the line it all turned sour.
Stallone and Murphy, who were both dominant alpha males in Hollywood circles, have each been accused of having pretty monstrous egos during their mainstream pomp. Murphy was the subject of a high-profile feud with director John Landis which came to a head on the set of 1988’s Coming to America, the two almost coming to blows as the shoot drew to a close. Landis described 1988’s Murphy as being almost unrecognisable from the talented newcomer he’d cast in 1983’s Trading Places. “Eddie was such a monster star [after our first collaboration], and it was different [with Coming to America],” Landis would claim. “He had lost the sparkle. He could summon it forth and still be incredibly creative and brilliant, but he was dark on that movie.”
Stallone was also accused of being just a little difficult to work with, something he would later admit to. The pumped-up star was the personification of the Reagan 80s, a fact best epitomized by his conquering of Cold War Russia in the spectacularly gaudy Rocky IV — perhaps a nod, subconsciously or otherwise, to burgeoning phenomenon Arnold Schwarzenegger, who though nowhere near Sly commercially at that stage in his career was making huge waves on the talk show circuit and was certainly the one to watch out for. Hollywood can be a ruthless shark tank, and Stallone and Murphy were very big fish. It was perhaps only inevitable that one of them would bite eventually.
According to author Nick de Semlyen, the trouble began after Murphy hired Stallone’s then-wife Bridgette Nielsen to play sultry villain Karla Fry in 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II. Stallone soon began to suspect that Murphy and Nielsen were having an affair, leading to a rather heated telephone conversation, during which Sly directly accused Murphy of sleeping with his spouse. Murphy flat-out denied the accusation but the damage was done. The two would acrimoniously part ways.
Marion Cobretti: It’s bad for your health, you know?
Punk smoking cigarette: What is, pinche?
Marion Cobretti: [grabs cigarette away from punk’s mouth] Me.
Marion Cobretti: Clean up your act.
[Cobra looks at punk’s shirt, pulls it till it rips and then walks away with a smirk on his face]
Ironically, it might have been Stallone headlining Tony Scott’s ultra-stylish sequel had his high demands not got in the way. Before Martin Brest’s innovative action comedy Beverly Hills Cop transformed Murphy into a bona fide mainstream lead, Sly was set to play smart-mouthed Detroit cop Axel Foley, initially named Axel Cobretti, and was in fact central to the film’s development before walking out on the project two weeks before shooting was scheduled to commence. Stallone envisioned Beverly Hills Cop as being much more serious, eschewing those ultimately groundbreaking comedy elements for a straight-up action vehicle that better suited his musclebound profile. Paramount did not agree, particularly when the star’s various creative demands took the picture over budget.
It was because of this that Cobra came into existence, a movie penned by Stallone that afforded him almost unlimited creative control. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who had become semi-serious players after purchasing The Cannon Group and tapping into the burgeoning home video market with a series of low-cost productions, saw Paramount’s loss as their gain. The pair had already popularised the ninja genre on western shores and a truly high-profile star like Stallone, despite his staggering fees, was just the ticket to propel them to the next level.
Stallone and Cannon both had a gift for exploiting popular trends, and with Cobra they killed two birds with one stone, tapping into contentious Reaganite philosophies while adopting the MTV style of the mid-1980s. With the rise of MTV, music videos and blockbuster movies became almost inseparable, so much that the dominant UK music scene of the early part of the decade fizzled out in favour of blockbuster movie themes such as Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ (Top Gun). Those signature tracks became so dominant that, for a brief period, if you wanted a number one hit you had to attach yourself to the next high-octane Hollywood vehicle. Films such as Flashdance, Footloose and Dirty Dancing would even establish a sub-genre known as ‘dance films’, which ditched original, content-specific musical numbers for a plethora of outsourced pop hits and MTV aesthetics.
Cobra didn’t manage to bag itself a number one hit (John Beauvoir’s title track Feel the Heat peaked at No. 73 on the Billboard Hot 100), and the accompanying video received limited screen time as a consequence, but the film’s stylistic and commercial intentions were clear, and it did produce a another power ballad infused LP to cream over, with tracks from Rocky IV alumni John Cafferty and Robert Tepper among other pop luminaries. Whether it’s burning hearts, feeling the heat or the glory of love, there were empty sentiments aplenty in the high-octane realms of mainstream action vehicles, and the Cobra OST is certainly a monument to that. If you’re a child of the 80s, it’s difficult not to succumb to the film’s shallow charms.
Cobra is one of those mid-80s movies that frolics in swathes of incongruous neon, framing LA’s grainy, scum-laden metropolis like an episode of Edward Woodward’s The Equalizer. The film’s opening stand-off features supermarket refrigerators that emit so much steam you’d think our protagonist was a rock star emerging from a smoke-strewn fantasy, and that’s exactly what George P. Cosmatos sets out to achieve in Cannon’s endearingly decadent exercise in machismo. The film is basically an extended pop video designed to immortalise Sly as a pop culture figure and presumably launch a Death Wish style franchise that sadly never materialised.
It’s surprising that Stallone and Cannon didn’t take the Cobretti character further. The film may have been widely panned for its paper-thin delineations, imitative template and the kind of unconscionable violence synonymous with Golan-Globus action vehicles, but it made a shitload of money, and Cobretti is somewhat iconic in a shamelessly generic sense. As a response to Arnie’s ever-growing repertoire of cute one-liners, Stallone and Cannon pile on the quips too, many of them contenders for the most beloved of the era.
The film’s pop presentation can be so inappropriate for such a violent endeavour, but it makes for an utterly unique experience that has Golan-Globus, who had even managed to tap into break dancing culture in their insatiable quest to exploit every trend imaginable, written all over it. The action sequences are pretty memorable too, especially the film’s fondly remembered chase scenes, which are well above what you’d expect from a Golan-Globus production. With Stallone onboard they went above and beyond in that respect. As proven by his time attached to Beverly Hills Cop, Sly wouldn’t have accepted anything less at that stage in his career.
Stallone’s Lieutenant Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti is a transparent derivative of so many mainstream stars that the character comes across as ludicrously formulaic, but that’s part of his and the movie’s appeal. So hackneyed are the performances, so glaring the genre tropes it often feels like you’re watching an episode of McBain minus Schwarzenegger clone Rainier Wolfcastle. This is Dirty Harry, Mad Max and angel of death Paul Kersey rolled into one, a vigilante with a badge who can be identified by the fact that he looks like a beefed-up Arthur Fonzarelli when the rest of his precinct dress in standard issue uniforms or washy corporate suits that reek of bureaucracy. Cobretti’s license plate reads ‘AWSOM 50’, and he takes absolutely no shit from anyone, especially his superiors, who are understandably sick and tired of the almost ceaseless death and destruction dished out on a daily basis. When he’s not ruffling bureaucratic feathers, Cobretti can be found smoothly chewing on a match while dishing out the kind of zero tolerance policing that underpinned American social politics during the mid-1980s.
Marion Cobretti: Hey dirtbag, you’re a lousy shot. I don’t like lousy shots. You wasted a kid… for nothing. Now I think it’s time to waste you.
Back under the Reagan administration, the “War on Drugs” was in full swing following America’s inner city ‘crack epidemic’. While turning a blind eye to cocaine importation during the infamous Iran-Contra affair, loosening laws on the distinctly affluent powder cocaine, Reagan placed the blame squarely in the laps of low-income minorities by sanctioning excessive penalties for the possession of small quantities of crack-cocaine, a cheaper, more addictive drug more synonymous with the ghetto. Rather than attempt to understand addiction as an illness, inner city minorities were demonised by the media and ultimately prosecuted in a court of law. Parents were separated from children, families became estranged, and the number of US prisoners skyrocketed to levels never before imagined, the vast majority of them young, black males.
Such attitudes inevitably made their way into the movies, a medium that is inherently fascist, and the ever exploitative Cannon were front and centre. Michael Winner’s Death Wish II, a film that demonized and executed those same minorities, was the subject of a huge mainstream backlash from racial and women’s groups crying foul over a movie that relished in acts of rape, sodomy and murder, embellishing those same stereotypes propagated by the media. Winner, who had been desperate for a hit to revitalize his career, approached the film with controversy in mind, and even openly baited his detractors in a series of talk show interviews, smugly chomping on a cigar and smiling wryly at their accusations. He knew full well that he was onto a (ahem) winner.
There were four Death Wish sequels in total, Death Wish II and 3 proving rather lucrative on the scale to which Cannon were accustomed, each managing roughly $16,000,000 domestically, but with Stallone in tow and Warner Brothers onboard as distributor, Cobra was a chance to take that formula mainstream and make some real money. Ultimately, Stallone was everything Golan-Globus had hoped for and more, Cobra becoming their most successful movie of all time with a domestic gross of $49,042,224 and an incredible worldwide gross of approximately $160,000,000. This was clearly a case of star power over quality because when Golan-Globus managed to coax Stallone back into the fray for 1987’s Over the Top with obscene fees, the movie bombed dramatically, recouping only $16,000,000 on a budget of $25,000,000. “Menahem Golan kept offering me more and more money, until I finally thought, ‘What the hell — no one will see it,” the star later admitted.
Cobra promotes the same variety of vigilante justice, mocking fictional journalists for being too soft on criminals and offering vocal support from citizens who believe that scumbags like our mindless opening scene killer are completely undeserving of human rights. It’s basically a cocaine-fuelled riff on the opening of Dirty Harry’s Magnum Force. The character in question is so thinly-sketched and beyond the realms of plausibility that he isn’t human at all. In fact, there’s hardly a human being in the entire movie. The film’s unconscionable gang of ax-clanking sociopaths have as much capacity for redemption as a child-sacrificing cult. The film doesn’t waste time with social commentary. There’s no rhyme or reason, no perspective whatsoever. It merely locks and loads and exterminates with the insouciance of an arcade shooter, and it’s a hell of a ride. In what may be the film’s most accurate and almost certainly coincidental observation, the cops are worse than anyone. Cobretti has more bodies on him than Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees combined. The only thing separating him from the animals he hunts is a badge and a ludicrously constructed screenplay. The whole thing is as hypocritical as the politics it represents. In the movie’s most iconic line, Cobretti lays out his hard-line approach to crime in no uncertain terms. “You’re a disease, and I’m the cure,” he tells a soon to be toast bad guy. It’s truly priceless stuff.
Cobra opens with Sly listing the city’s overblown crime rates, the kind that had real-life citizens bolting their doors and reaching for their shotguns, lamenting an America that had become almost unrecognisible. He has the low, gruff monotone of The Man With No Name, and he’s looking to blow holes in people of a very distinct variety. Action-wise, the film plays out like a game of Operation Wolf, fetishizing custom-made laser pistols and the kind of ostentatious muscle car that must spend most of the year in the shop since every ride turns into an absurdly destructive, high-speed chase. Cobretti is the kind of guy who guns down men for sport (they have families too, you know), kicks jukeboxes into action and partakes in a little on-the-job romance with none other than Bridgette Nielsen herself, who certainly got her money’s worth out of their soon-to-be failed marriage.
This was Nielsen’s second successive role in a Stallone vehicle following a memorable turn as the leggy Ludmilla Drago in Rocky IV, and with Beverly Hills Cop II only months away, her last until Drago’s return in 2018’s Creed II, at which point the two must have put their differences aside. This results in some rather palpable onscreen chemistry, Sly displaying the kind of boyish charm that Arnie couldn’t conjure in a million lifetimes. He may be an invincible bad ass, but there’s a humility to the character that sets him apart from the likes of Bronson’s wooden and emotionless harbinger of death, Paul Kersey, Cobretti ditching the dusty cowboy boots for pure, neon-laced indulgence. That such a sweetheart spends his days making graveyards out of the LA suburbs is an emotional paradox that is worth its weight in gold.
After her so-called affair with Murphy, Nielsen’s US movie career hit the skids, the actress reduced to lead roles in B-movies and direct-to-video affairs. She was even forced to seek work overseas, briefly collaborating with cult director Lamberto Bava during the mid-90s (she would play the Black Witch in the little-known Fantaghirò series). After divorcing the hugely influential Stallone in July ’87, Nielsen became an industry afterthought almost overnight. An 80s Stallone was a powerful influence indeed.
In Cobra, Nielsen’s self-styled businesswoman Ingrid Knudsen becomes the latest motiveless target of a nihilistic rabble who promote themselves as “The New World” and generally wreak havoc on LA’s denizens. Their leader has been dubbed ‘The Night Slasher’, though a ludicrously inept FBI are convinced that whoever is responsible is acting alone. This character was no doubt influenced by the crimes of Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez, whose highly publicised home invasion crime spree sent shockwaves through the Greater Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas between June 1984 and August 1985 — just the kind of real-life atrocity Golan-Globus would look to exploit in their quest for mainstream relevance. The fictional precinct’s incompetence inevitably puts our vigilante at odds with authority as he risks the lives of countless citizens on a daily basis, indulging in the the kind of cavalier street war that would cost the city millions and have him committed to a psycho ward faster than you can say ‘bad guy’.
Nielsen’s character just happens to be sexy enough to qualify for round-the-clock protection while the rest of society eek their way through blood-soaked nights of indiscriminate murder. The film possesses something of a horror element in the midst of the genre’s 80s boom, particularly during a scene in which the infamous Night Slasher lives up to his name with a slasher-esque stalking of Ingrid through the sterile corridors of a strangely desolate hospital, wielding the kind of shiny custom blade that makes icons out of monsters, all of it captured through a pop video lens. If you have a taste for slickly-manufactured trash, Cobra has it down to an egregious art form.
Night Slasher: The court is civilized, isn’t it, pig?
Marion Cobretti: But I’m not. This is where the law stops and I start, sucker!
Despite its incredible box office numbers, Cobra was written off as a mindless slice of bloodthirsty trash, receiving six Golden Raspberry nominations, including Worst Picture, Worst Actress (Brigitte Nielsen), Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star (Brian Thompson) and Worst Screenplay and Worst Actor (Sylvester Stallone), but if you were a kid weaned on Cannon’s violent excesses, the film will consume you like a Candyfloss dream dipped in a spurious blood-red sauce. This is everything you remember about the decade: brainless action, celebrity fixation, manufactured style and a barrel full of kitsch gimmicks that seemed positively futuristic. At times, the movie plays out like a music video within a music video. It tells stories with the same shallow formula, dreamy lens and underdeveloped editing techniques, and for a movie of this nature it works wonderfully, bringing a synthetic levity to the Dirty Harry mode.
Thanks to the emergence of the MPAA’s censorship crusade, the film is also significantly less violent having qualified for an X rating after being subjected to an incredible 30 minutes of cuts, a fact that not only affects the movie’s graphic nature, but purportedly leaves huge gaps in the story. Though not all of the film’s cuts have been documented, some of those missing scenes include a theatre-bound massacre (Cobretti’s handiwork), a slit throat, a severed hand, an axe to the face and lingering shots of mutilated womens’ bodies. Incredibly, the 120-minute work print version said to exist is yet to be released.
Since its release, Cobra has garnered a rather large cult following in action movie circles and beyond, Cobretti’s match-chewing extravagances even inspiring the likes of Ryan Gosling’s Driver from Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 crime drama Drive, a movie infused with neon 80s excess. Given its enduring popularity, Cobra no doubt warrants the elusive extended cut genre fans have been clamouring for, and if one does materialise I’ll be first in line to see it, but Cannon’s initial shot at mainstream relevance works as a raw slice of action indulgence that needs no refining, because it’s that lack of refinement that makes it so remarkable. For one thing, it recalls the unrefined era of the music video in a way that stokes sentimentality. Those were simpler times, and when it comes to charm a little sloppiness can go a long way.
Ultimately, Cobra is Death Wish for the MTV generation. It may possess all the depth and insight of an arcade shooter, but it proves just as fun and enjoyably throwaway. It is disposable filmmaking that we consume like fast food: cheap, temporarily satisfying and infinitely moreish.