Crime is a disease. Meet the cure.
Studio: Warner Bros. :::::::::: Release Date: May 23rd 1986
Director: George P. Cosmatos :::::::::: Starring: Sylvester Stallone
Budget: $25M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $57.3M
U.S Box Office: $49M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $105.2M
When Los Angeles finds itself terrorized by the brutal Night Slasher and his New World cult, Marion 'Cobra' Cobretti of the Zombie Squad is called in to hunt them down. An unconventional cop, he represents the police department's last resort. But when a witness to a Night Slasher murder escapes with her life, Cobra must go on the run to protect her, even if means taking on the killer and his entire army.
By the early 1980s, Sylvester Stallone was already a major star. He'd seen dramatic and financial success with Rocky and its sequels and given American another everyday hero in the guise of John Rambo and First Blood. The actor had proven himself to be something of an all round talent, capable of not only acting, but writing and directing too. Yet when a troubled script came his way, one that had already been through numerous re-writes and over a million dollar's worth of development, even he wasn't sure they'd got the right person for the job. Nonetheless, Stallone signed on the dotted line to re-write and star in Beverly Hills Cop.
How Beverly Hills Cop came into existence is a tale of some dispute. According to an interview published in the New York Times to mark the film's release, Michael Eisner claims the idea was inspired by an incident that took place in Hollywood in the mid-1970s. Driving a station wagon that had clearly seen better days, he was pulled over for speeding, and found himself impressed (and annoyed) by the police officer's efficient manner and condescending attitude. Reflecting on the incident a short time later, he realised the cop was more offended by the car (than his crime) given that it didn't fit the Hollywood image. Returning to the Paramount lot, he talked with his assistant Don Simpson, and stated there could be some value in a story about a Beverly Hills police officer and his day to day dealings with the rich and famous. Yet despite numerous attempts, no one was able to crack the story.
However, Simpson claimed he came up with the idea for Beverly Hills Cop a couple of years after Eisner's run-in had taken place, and that it was he who also introduced the 'fish out of water' angle - that being an East-LA cop relocating to a Beverly Hills precinct. He pitched the idea to screenwriter Danilo Bach in 1977, who began working on the concept, only with little progress. Further attempts were made to develop the story, but it was only when Bach returned to the idea in 1981, that he cracked it. Beverly Drive as it was then known featured a Pittsburgh cop named Elly Axel, who comes out to Hollywood to investigate the murder of an old friend and butts heads with the local police force and a successful businessman, who he is convinced is behind the crime. At this point the script was more straight action than comedy, and after Bach gave it another pass, Simpson bought in other writers.
After Flashdance became a smash hit in 1983, Simpson along with his producing partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, decided to brush off the Beverly Drive script and make it their next project, hiring Daniel Petrie Jr. to rework it. Petrie punched up the fish out of water elements, finally creating a good balance between action and comedy. The producers (and Paramount) loved what had now become Beverly Hills Cop. Elly became Axel Foley, a Detroit cop out in Hollywood investigating the murder of an old school friend. Simpson pushed to cast Mickey Rourke in the lead role, and paid $400,000 to keep him under contract while further changes were made to the script. Delays would see Rourke leave the project; he opted to appear in The Pope of Greenwich Village instead. Some time later, and with some surprise, the producers received news that Sylvester Stallone had now signed on to star as the lead, and having read the script, planned on re-writing it to his strengths.
By his own admission, Stallone thought the script had been sent to him by accident. The actor had spent many years struggling to make a career (he made his debut in the soft-porn feature The Party at Kitty and Stud's) and ended up taking on numerous bit-parts before landing a starring role in the 1974 drama, The Lords of Flatbush. A year later he appeared in Capone and the cult classic, Death Race 2000. However, it was what he did next that essentially set up his career for life. The history behind Rocky's creation is the stuff of Hollywood legend. After watching Muhammad Ali fight Chuck Wepner, Stallone came home and wrote for three twenty hour days, at the end of which he had the script for Rocky. He began to shop it around various studios and was offered $300,000 by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff for the rights, who planned to hire Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds for the lead. However, Stallone had other ideas, and held fast - if the picture was to be made, he was to be the star. After much discussion and a substantial cut in its proposed budget, the actor got his way.
Rocky was a phenomenal success, both critically and financially. It went on to be nominated for ten academy awards, winning three of them. The writer/actor quickly moved into directing with Paradise Alley in 1978 along with a starring role in F.I.S.T. A year later he returned to writing, producing the screenplay for Rocky II, which he also starred in and directed. Again, the film was a smash hit, grossing over $200M worldwide. He went on to appear with Michael Caine in war drama Escape to Victory and in the well received thriller Nighthawks, opposite Billy Dee Williams. 1982 saw another successful Rocky sequel, along with the birth of a new hero (and franchise) with First Blood, in which Stallone appeared as Vietnam veteran John Rambo, a man who gets on the wrong side of a small-town sheriff and ends up unleashing hell. By the time the script for Beverly Hills Cop came to him, the actor was one of the most successful in the Hollywood.
Stallone got straight to work and the first thing he stripped out was the comedic fish out of water elements, replacing them with a lot more bloody action and violence. Axel Foley became Axel Cobretti, the character of Michael Tandino became Cobretti's brother and childhood friend Jenny Summers became the love interest. An ultra violent opening and lavish end sequence which included Cobretti driving a Lamborghini into a train saw Paramount voice their concerns about the budget. With pre-production well under way and a start date set, the studio called a meeting with Stallone and the producers. Paramount still wanted their fish out of water story, and they wanted it cheaper than the current Beverly Hills Cop was set to cost. Stallone wanted to make his version, and after two days of discussion, agreed to leave the project. According to Daniel Petrie, the actor was given the choice to go back and make the film he originally signed on for (based on Petrie's script) or take what he'd added to the story and make his own project - providing it didn't end up involving a cop in Beverly Hills.
Stallone chose the latter, leaving Paramount frantically scrambling to find a replacement lead for Beverly Hills Cop just two weeks before shooting had been set to commence. Simpson turned to actor/comedian Eddie Murphy, with whom he'd already discussed the role around the time Paramount were getting cold feet. Murphy agreed and the picture's production was delayed a month while the script was re-worked again. The young actor added his own unique ideas during shooting and the picture went on to become one of the most successful comedies of all time (even without taking inflation into account, it is still amongst the biggest R-rated movies in box office history). Meanwhile, Stallone saw a major misfire with musical Rhinestone and the Saturday Night Fever follow up, Staying Alive (which he directed). He soon returned to his roots with back to back hits Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part 2, both released in 1985.
In the same year the actor signed a multi-picture deal with Cannon, the first project being a remake of Angels with Dirty Faces, set to co-star Christopher Reeve. Such was the backlash that the proposed film was soon scrapped. Instead, Stallone began work on what would come to be known as Cobra. While he used some ideas from his aborted Beverly Hills Cop script, a bigger influence was Paula Gosling's 1974 novel A Running Duck (later re-issued as Fair Game). Gosling had sold a movie treatment of the story to Warner Bros and all but forgotten about it. Indeed, the author didn’t even know Cobra was based on her story until a friend spotted her name in the film's credits during a preview screening. Despite serving as the basis for the movie, the finished screenplay bore little resemblance to A Running Duck.
With a completed script, Cannon and Warner Bros (who would act as distributor) signed off on Cobra and the search for a director could begin. For reasons unknown, Stallone declined to helm the project despite having directed five features by that point. Instead, he turned to George P.Cosmatos, an Italian director he'd worked with on Rambo: First Blood Part 2. Cosmatos made his directorial debut on the Raquel Welsh picture, The Beloved, before coming to prominence with Rappresaglia (also known as Massacre in Rome), a World War 2 drama starring Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni. Other pictures followed including The Cassandra Crossing and Escape to Athena. He teamed up with Stallone to work on the First Blood sequel, and the actions of the duo on that feature may well have been the reason why they worked together on Cobra. It has long been rumoured that Cosmatos was just a front man on Rambo, with Stallone actually calling the shots on both sides of the camera. Similar stories would circulate on Cobra, strengthened by comments since made by cinematographer Ric Waite.
Given that the movie cost $25M to produce, it had a relatively small central cast, with only three leads and two supporting actors for the most part. Stallone had a hand in casting, with his then wife Brigitte Nielsen winning the role of female lead Ingrid Knudsen. The Danish born actress had started her career as a model in the early 1980s before landing the role of Red Sonja opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the same year she appeared with Stallone in Rocky IV as Ludmilla, the wife of Ivan Drago. As the cast and crew would soon find out, casting the real-life partner of the main star would create its own problems. Taking on what would be the final lead role, that of the Night Slasher, would be newcomer Brian Thompson.
The young actor was a year out of drama school when he auditioned for Cobra. He got into acting by chance when he offered a friend a ride home from school and found out he was trying out for a play. At his friend's suggestion he auditioned for the role of a Russian ballet instructor in You Can't Take it With You. Bitten by the bug, he attended college to study music but ended up doing a Masters in Fine Art instead. It was during his last year of study that he secured an agent, which led to his cinematic debut as one of the three punks who face off against Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. Thompson shot the part in one night, after performing in a three and half hour Shakespeare play.
When it came to Cobra, he ended up auditioning seven times, nearly losing out during the fourth attempt when Stallone came to watch and deemed Thompson too nice. Still, the actor was called back again and again, and eventually given a screen test in full costume and make up - which left no one in any doubt he could carry the role (interestingly Thompson found out he'd won the part while performing in a Conan the Barbarian stage play).
Rounding out the cast was Reni Santoni as Cobretti's partner, Sergeant Tony Gonzales and Lee Garlington, as a cop with an ulterior motive. There was also a small part for Andrew Robinson, who had famously portrayed Scorpio in Dirty Harry (a picture that had also featured Reni Santoni) and Art LaFleur, who played Captain Sears.
With a $25M budget in hand (almost half of which was rumoured to be Stallone's salary) and casting completed, shooting could commence for a May 1986 release date. Within days the film was running into problems with the script and the schedule, both of which would be altered on the fly. According to Brian Thompson, Stallone's ego was also out of control, holding up filming while he fooled around with his new wife or showed off to his bodyguards (who, in the words of cinematographer Ric Waite, were hired to laugh at the actor's jokes and stories). The supporting cast and crew were also forbidden from speaking with the actor when not filming. As he was rumoured to have done on Rambo, Cosmatos took a back seat on Cobra, leaving Stallone to call the shots - or rather inform the director of the shots he should be making. Evidence of this came to light when, after viewing dailies the previous night, Cosmatos turned up on set with a list of notes he claimed to have made about the footage - only it was in Stallone's handwriting. Again, according to Waite, this continued throughout the picture.
Being that Cobra was his first major role, Brian Thompson was eager for direction and to discover the motivations of his character (and the cult he led). In a conversation Thompson recalled for the MovieGeeksUnited podcast, Stallone compared The Night Slasher (or Abbadon as he was known in the script) to Hitler. Thompson didn't see the comparison, and stated that the cult didn't really do anything for most of the film except chase down one girl. Further discussions about the character weren't forthcoming, leaving the actor to write his own three page New World manifesto to help fill in the blanks. The actor was further dismayed when he discovered his climactic foundry speech would be shot opposite a script girl as Stallone was off watching a basketball game.
When shooting began to fall further behind, Stallone approached Ric Waite and told him and his crew to work faster. A cinematographer of some experience, Waite was noted for being one of the fastest in the business and put the cause of the delays back onto Stallone and his antics, both on and off-set. Shocked that someone would talk to him like that, he cleaned up his act and began working to schedule, if only for a few weeks. Shooting continued but changes were still happening at a regular rate - notably the proposed night shoot for the motorcycle chase that takes place near the end of the film. Despite all preparations for the sequence having been made, Stallone decided to scrap it in favour of a day shoot, concerned that mosquitoes would make filming at night difficult. For Thompson, there was one final disappointment. As shooting came to a close, Cosmatos informed him that "You could have been good if you had listened to me."
While the edit was being finalized, work began on assembling the soundtrack. John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band supplied the track 'Voice of America's Sons', which played over the end titles, while Sylvester Levey produced a number of instrumental pieces, not all of which made it into the finished film but still ended up on the soundtrack album. Robert Tepper, who had performed No Easy Way Out for the Rocky IV OST provided the song Angel of the City, which became the picture's unofficial theme. Bizarrely, Stan Bush wrote The Touch to be used in Cobra - without knowing anything about the film. According to an interview with Geektyrant, Bush agreed to write and perform a track not long after the release of Rocky IV, and based The Touch more on the content of that film than anything in Cobra. Ultimately the track wasn't used, ending up in Transformers the Movie instead. In a further odd development, the soundtrack album to Cobra wasn't released until 1988, two year's after the film's debut.
The first version of Cobra ran for around 130 minutes and was initially edited down to a two hour director's cut. The amount of on-screen graphic violence saw the picture run foul of the MPAA who slapped it with an X-rating, all but dooming it from a wide release. Cuts were made to some sequences, with a number of the killings being edited down, shown off screen or removed altogether. The first murder was heavily modified, removing the shots of the victim having her throat cut and hands severed. Similarly, the murder of Ingrid's photographer friend removed excessive axe blows, while an autopsy scene omitted lingering shots of mutilated female corpses. The violent end of the Night Slasher was also reduced and other graphic moments were sped up to lessen their impact. Conversely, because of the now choppy editing, some parts were actually slowed down to disguise the fact. Upon being re-submitted, the MPAA granted Cobra an R-rating, and everything was set for the May 23rd release. Then Top Gun happened.
The action drama starring Tom Cruise was already gaining a lot of attention prior to its May 16th release date, and even though it received quite average reviews, it opened to a decent enough $8M and some great word of mouth. However, Warner Bros and Sylvester Stallone were wary of the film's potential success; more so given Cobra was to open the following weekend. Perhaps knowing that their film wouldn't score strong word of mouth or repeat business, a decision was made to drastically reduce its run time, meaning it would be possible to insert an extra screening session into the day and make more money in the process. It's estimated that between 30-40 minutes were removed from the then finished (and R-rated) cut. Entire plot points and characters were drastically reduced or removed altogether. The knock on effect of this was that any reference to a removed scene or character also had to be edited out. Any development of the New Order cult was all but deleted, as was most of David Rasche’s role. Yet curiously most of Stallone’s work remained in tact. When all was said and done, the film ran just 84 minutes without credits. Warner Bros. pushed the film with a hard hitting trailer featuring Stallone detailing the amount of violent crimes perpetrated in America on a daily basis.
Critics savaged Cobra upon release, noting its weak plot and graphic violence as being particular sticking points. It currently holds a 13% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Sylvester Stallone was still incredibly popular with the public, in fact it's arguable that the period after Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 saw him at the height of his fame.
The film opened on May 23rd 1986, and while it was a busy summer, the only immediate threat was the aforementioned Top Gun, which had knocked Short Circuit out of the top spot during its opening weekend. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Raw Deal was still a fortnight away, which could give Cobra time to make back its $25M. The film actually got off to a strong start, making around $15M for the Memorial Day weekend and securing the top spot from Cruise & co (Poltergeist 2: The Other Side did give it a good run for its money though). That opening marked the biggest ever debut for a Warner Bros picture at that point, and a week later the film was still in the top spot, adding a further $7.5M. By that early stage it has recouped its budget but when Raw Deal was thrown into the mix the following weekend, Cobra slipped down to third and Top Gun moved back up to number one, continuing its journey to becoming the biggest film of 1986.
Back to School and Ferris Bueller's Day Off opened in mid-June, pushing everything down a notch or two. By this point Cobra was approaching $40M and was all but done in North America. In total it lasted only six weeks in the top ten and ended up making $49M; poor word of mouth and a lack of repeat business being partly to blame. Still the film did a lot better than Raw Deal, which ended up making only $16M. However, overseas Cobra was a smash hit, raking in $110M and pushing the film to an overall global finish of $160M. In the years that followed, the actor came to rely more on the overseas market than the domestic one.
Cobra was a hit all over again on video and cable, where it became one of the most screened films in history. Indeed, Brian Thompson claims that even to this day, almost thirty years later, he is still receiving residual cheques for his work. Elsewhere, Ocean Software, who had secured the rights to produce a videogame based on the movie, scored a critical and financial hit with their tough-as-nails adaptation. This marked the second time they'd collaborated with Stallone, the first being on Rambo: First Blood Part 2. The company was gaining a reputation for its licensed games, and produced a string of them in the mid 1980s and 1990s, including Red Heat, Highlander, The Untouchables and Robocop. They'd go on to work again with Stallone on Rambo III. Paula Gosling's novel A Running Duck, which had already been re-issued as Fair Game, was re-launched as Cobra. Despite the finished movie having little in common with the book, it didn't stop Stallone offering to share a co-writing credit on the re-issue. Gosling politely declined.
In many ways, Cobra marked a turning point for Sylvester Stallone. His next film, arm-wrestling drama Over the Top earned only $16M in the February of 1987. A return to Rambo a year later didn't fair quite so well either, especially compared to the second movie's box office performance - the situation wasn't helped by Rambo III costing (a very expensive at the time) $63M. Thankfully it did better overseas. Lock-Up did barely better than Over the Top, while the popular buddy movie Tango & Cash made $63M off a $55M budget. Even a return to his roots with Rocky V didn't work, the film failing to recoup its $42M costs. The actor attempted to reinvent himself in the early 1990s, as a comedy player but both Oscar and the disastrous Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! flopped. Cliffhanger in 1993 was a major hit, especially overseas, where it made over $170M. Sadly, this was followed by another string of costly, albeit somewhat enjoyable movies, including Demolition Man, Assassins and The Specialist.
Copland, in 1997 saw Stallone return to the kind of straight drama he'd done with the first Rocky movie, and he won many positive notices for his role as the partially deaf Sheriff Freddy Heflin. The following years were rough for the actor, with only a part in the animated Antz gaining any traction with audiences. The triple failure of Drive, Get Carter and the barely released D-Tox (AKA Eye See You) all but finished his career for a time, the only success of the period being multiple roles in Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. In order to get back into the game, Stallone returned to the two characters that had made his name in the first place. The success of Rocky Balboa and Rambo (parts six and four respectively) thrust the actor back into the limelight. He followed this good will with the ensemble action feature, The Expendables - a solid hit that has so far spawned two further sequels, with another on the cards. Sadly the long awaited (proper) team up of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan failed to generate much domestic box office despite being a solid enough movie. Most people felt it had come twenty years too late. Currently the actor is finishing up work on the Rocky spin off, Creed, which is due out in late 2015.
Brian Thompson took on a number of TV roles after Cobra, working on the likes of Falcon's Crest, Star Trek the Next Generation and Key West, a short lived comedy in which he played a new-age sheriff. In between his TV roles, he appeared in the likes of Moon 44, Fright Night Part 2 and the Sean Connery picture, Dragonheart. In the mid-90s he won recurring roles in The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He recently turned his hand to writing and directing on The Extendables, a picture about a disgraced action star given the chance to direct a movie in Uzbekistan. Brigitte Nielsen followed up Cobra with a showy part in Beverly Hills Cop 2. After a very messy (and public) divorce from Sylvester Stallone in 1987, Nielsen appeared in a string of low budget features including 976-Evil 2, Snowboard Academy and Galaxis, amongst others. Despite never achieving the same level of fame as enjoyed in the mid-80s, the actress has worked consistently, with one of her most recent projects being the all-female Expendables knock-off, Mercenaries, in which she appeared opposite Zoe Bell, Kristanna Loken and 80s action star, Cynthia Rothrock.
George P. Cosmatos directed the science fiction film Leviathan in 1989, which featured Peter Weller and Rambo co-star Richard Crenna. The story behind his next film is long enough for an article of its own. The Kurt Russell project Tombstone had already had its fair share of problems before filming had even gotten underway. Competing with Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp saw the picture struggle to find funding and distribution. Kevin Jarre, who had written Tombstone was fired as its director some way into filming due to a reluctance to cut down his screenplay and for falling behind schedule. Looking for a quick solution (and with a panicked studio on his back) Kurt Russell turned to Sylvester Stallone, who recommended Cosmatos for the job. The new director signed on board and the film was completed. Later, it was revealed by journalist Henry Cabot Beck, who had visited the set during production, that Russell had actually directed Tombstone, and that every night the actor had given his director a list of shots he was to make the next day. The duo even developed a secret sign language to be used on set. Cosmatos made Beck swear he would not reveal this fact until after he had died, and the journalist was good to his word, the information appearing in 2005 after the director's passing.
Paula Gosling's novel was filmed again in 1995, under its re-issued title of Fair Game. It was seen as a star making vehicle for model-turned-actress Cindy Crawford, and also featured William Baldwin. While it stuck closer to the plot than Cobra, it too ended up being slashed to pieces during post-production after poor test screening results. Characters were removed or replaced entirely (Notably Salma Hayek taking Elizabeth Pena's role) and new scenes were shot to increase the believability of Crawford and Baldwin's relationship. In the end it was all for nought, and Fair Game made only $11.5M against a budget of $55M. It also marked the end of Crawford's very short acting career. As for Cobra's original cut, time-coded VHS copies have surfaced in the intervening years but no official release has ever been forthcoming. This rarity reintroduces much of the violence and character development hacked out by the studio, though how much difference this makes to the film is debatable.
Like many action movies from the 1980s, Cobra doesn't stand the test of time, but that doesn't make it any less watchable. The simplistic plot keeps things moving at a fair pace - it's estimated the longest time between action sequences is six minutes. While much of its dialogue is laughable (as it was upon release), this doesn't detract from the violence of the picture, particularly the killings carried out by Brian Thompson's quite formidable Night Slasher. The film continues to be shown on TV with semi-regularity and even played an influence on Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, with Ryan Gosling claiming the matchstick his character has in his mouth was a trait borrowed from Marion Cobretti. While Cobra isn't remembered as fondly as Rocky or even Rambo, it remains as endlessly entertaining.