Death Wish for the MTV generation: VHS Revival soaks up the neon opulence of a kitsch classic
What do Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone have in common? Other than being movie stars, very little, though the latter was scheduled to play the part of smart alec Detroit cop Axel Foley before Murphy ultimately made the role his own. Stallone had a very different vision for Beverly Hills Cop, a movie that revolutionised the action genre and transformed controversial comedian Murphy into a bona fide mainstream star. Beverly Hills Cop may not be as highly regarded at Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, but its buddy cop mixture of action/comedy would prove a huge influence on the genre at large.
Sly didn’t warm to Paramount’s vision, accepting the role and subjecting the screenplay to heavy edits and rewrites. Stallone has admitted to succumbing to a rather monstrous ego during his mid-80s pomp, one best epitomised by his conquering of Cold War Russia in Rocky IV—perhaps a nod, subconsciously or otherwise, to his infamous decades-long battle with foreign commercial adversary Arnold Schwarzenegger, who managed to edge Sly commercially for much of the 80s and 90s. Stallone envisioned Beverly Hills Cop as being a lot more serious, eschewing those ultimately groundbreaking comedy elements for a straight-up action vehicle that better suited his musclebound profile. The studio did not agree, and as a consequence Stallone simply abandoned the project.
It was because of this that Cobra came into existence, a movie penned by Stallone himself. Made a year after Rocky IV, the two share much stylistically, tapping into the MTV-inspired action formula popularised by Top Gun and giving us yet another soulless soundtrack to cream over. Whether it’s beating hearts, feeling the heat or the glory of love, there were empty sentiments abound in the high-octane realms of the era, and if you’re a child of the 80s, it’s difficult not to succumb to Cobra‘s shallow charms, regardless of its spurious eye-for-an-eye sentiments.
Cobra is one of those mid-decade 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, pop culture fantasy, and that’s exactly what George P. Cosmatos sets out to achieve in this Golan-Globus produced exercise in machismo.
Night Slasher: You want to go to hell? Huh, pig? You want to go to hell with me? It doesn’t matter, does it? We are the hunters. We kill the weak so the strong survive. You can’t stop the New World. Your filthy society will never get rid of people like us. It’s breeding them! WE ARE THE FUTURE!
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 appeal—at least in hindsight. So hackneyed are the performances, so glaring the genre tropes that you often feel like you’re watching an episode of McBain minus Schwarzenegger clone Rainier Wolfcastle. This is Dirty Harry, Mad Max and Death Wish’ angel of death Paul Kersey all 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. His license plate reads ‘AWSOM 50’, and he smoothly chews on a match while dishing out the kind of zero tolerance edicts that underpinned American social politics in the mid-1980s.
Back under the Reagan administration, the “War on Drugs” was in full swing, and the president’s edict was prevalent in much of action cinema. Film is inherently fascist, and the likes of Cobretti will always prove popular with certain sections of American society. In 1982, Cannon Films released Death Wish II after purchasing the rights from Dino De Laurentiis, a movie that was the subject of a huge mainstream backlash. Made with controversy in mind, the film was excessively violent and unashamedly misogynistic, demonising youth culture at a time when middle class white America was running scared thanks to the kind of media-spun rhetoric that put all of the nation’s woes squarely in the laps of lower-class minorities.
In America, there’s a burglary every eleven seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every twenty-four minutes, and 250 rapes a day.
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 undeserving of human rights. The character in question is so thinly-sketched and beyond the realms of plausibility he isn’t human at all. In fact, there’s hardly a human being in the entire movie. Watching the film through neon-tinted spectacles, we’re able to mock the film’s quasi-fascist stance and overlook the implications it may have had on society at large, but at the time many American citizens were well and truly behind the likes of Cobretti and his 5th Amendment extravagances.
Not known for its subtleties, Cobra opens with Sly listing the city’s overblown crime rates, the kind that have citizens bolting their doors and reaching for their shotguns. 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. It doesn’t matter that the movie’s perpetrators exist nowhere in the world. They’re political target practice, a justification for tougher laws on criminals wrapped in a cute commercial package. It’s underhanded, unrepentant stuff, but nobody did mainstream exploitation quite like Golan-Globus, and after getting by with homemade or has-been stars, in Stallone they finally had a true headliner, someone who could pedal such crowd-pleasing sentiments to the masses.
The likes of Bronson and martial arts icon Chuck Norris may have proved a significant coup for Cannon’s burgeoning low-budget model, but Stallone was in a whole other stratosphere, an Oscar-nominated writer with an unparalleled understanding of what makes a mainstream audience tick. This is a man who transformed First Blood from a film with potential into a decades-long franchise with his “Rocky can’t die” mantra and keen eye for commercialism. Cobra would smash all Cannon box office records with a US Gross of $49,042,224 and an incredible worldwide gross of $160,000,000, resulting in profits of approximately $135,000,000 for a single movie. It would cost Cannon big, Stallone demanding eye-watering fees that were described as ‘unprecedented’, and though Over the Top, his second and last movie with Golan-Globus, proved a monumental flop that all but ended their relationship, it was Sly’s stock that allowed them to take an ultimately doomed punt at the big time.
Action-wise, Cobra plays out like a game of Operation Wolf, the film fetishizing custom-made laser pistols and the kind of ostentatious custom 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 then-wife Bridgette Nielsen, who unsurprisingly lands her second successive role in a Stallone vehicle as the motiveless target of the movie’s serial killer antagonist. This results in some rather palpable onscreen chemistry, and Sly has always benefited from 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 indulgence.
Marion Cobretti: You’re a disease, and I’m the cure.
The plot is a simple one: a gang of axe-wielding killers who promote themselves as ‘The New World’ and generally wreak havoc are public enemy number one in Los Angeles. Their leader has been dubbed ‘The Night Slasher’, though a ludicrously inept FBI are convinced that he is acting alone. This inevitably puts our vigilante at odds with authority as he risks the lives of 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’. The Night Slasher soon takes a liking to model and businesswoman Ingrid (Nielsen), whose beauty qualifies her for round-the-clock protection while the rest of society eek their way through blood-soaked nights of indiscriminate murder. The movie also has something of a horror element, 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 hospital, wielding the kind of shiny custom blade that makes icons out of monsters. If you have a taste for slickly-manufactured trash, it began in the 1980s, and Cannon had it down to an egregious art form.
Back in 1985, pop music videos were a relatively new phenomenon. For a while, their vacuous, style-orientated formula was considered avant-garde and was responsible for the kind of fantasy opulence that would forge the nostalgic lens of a generation. If you were an adult, particularly in Britain, the 1980s were a far cry from the decadent excesses of mainstream popular culture. While Duran Duran sipped cocktails on a tropical beach, Thatcher and Reagan were dismantling worker unions as the coal industry faced obsolescence and unemployment soared, but if you were a kid devoid of responsibility, the decade was a very different time to be alive. Television and movies were influencing society like never before, and all we saw was the glitz and glam of an industry drenched in excess, gorging on the cultural marketing machine like puppies to a miltifaceted teat.
If you were one of those kids, the second-hand wonder that is Cobra will consume you like a candyfloss dream. It is everything about the 80s that you remember: 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. Incredibly, the 120-minute workprint version said to exist is yet to be released.
I’m sure it will happen. After all, Cobra came at a time when successful B-movie peddlers Golan-Globus were branching out, an audacious move that would result in such kitsch outings as Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace—cheapo movies masquerading as big-budget extravaganzas that would ultimately run the company into the ground. Unsurprisingly, Cobra was panned for its paper-thin delineations and imitative template, but hindsight has transformed it into a rather different entity, lending it the kind of cult appeal that more than warrants a full release.
If a director’s cut does materialise I’ll be first in line to see it, but Cobra 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.