Editor’s Note: This is part of our week-long tribute to the films of Sylvester Stallone. You’ll find links to several more reviews of his films, within. If you don’t see your favorite mentioned, enter the title into the search box to your left; chances are, we reviewed it.
What do Cindy Crawford, Eddie Murphy, and Sylvester Stallone have in common? This movie, by way of a 1978 novel, Fair Game, initially published in 1974 as A Running Duck, written by Detroit born-and-bred writer, Paula Gosling. As result of Stallone’s screenplay rewrite, he wanted a Cobra novel published in 1986 that listed him as a co-author with Gosling. She passed on the offer.
The truth is that the pre-production history on Cobra—and how Gosling’s best seller became part of Stallone’s celluloid catalog—is more interesting than the actual movie itself.
The story goes: When he signed on the dotted line for Beverly Hills Cop, Stallone—as he does in most cases with the films he acts in—rewrote the film, which was initially conceived as a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a cop from the hard streets of East Lost Angeles who transfers to the pampered streets of the Beverly Hills Division.
Before Eddie Murphy and Stallone were attached, Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler, Iron Man 2) signed on for the Alex Foley role, after plans with Al Pacino, Richard Pryor, and James Caan failed. Then, when production problems held up the film, Rourke dropped out due to another film commitment. So Stallone came onboard and renamed the lead character as Axel Cobretti—so he could be nicknamed “Cobra”—and reimaged the film as a straight action piece. And . . . somewhere amid all of this Beverly Hills Cop pre-production hocus pocus, Gosling’s book was brought into the mix to serve as the “source material” for another Stallone Cobra rewrite—with most of the rejected action set-pieces deemed “too violent” and “too expensive to shoot,” such as Cobra playing chicken in his souped-up Mercury with a speeding train, being reused.
So what was the end result?
Beverly Hills Cop became one of the best reviewed and biggest box office successes of 1984; Cobra, in spite of its box office success, was one of worst reviewed films of 1986. Today, while considered a “cult classic,” Cobra is the least remembered film in the Stallone canons. In addition to its nod for Worst Screenplay, Stallone’s “Beverly Hills Cop” was nominated for a total of six Razzie Awards, including Worst Picture, Worst Actor for Sylvester Stallone, along with Worst Actress for Brigitte Nielsen, and Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star for (the very cool!) Brian Thompson’s menacing leader of “The New Order”: The Night Slasher.
I remember iconic film reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, during an episode of their syndicated At the Movies, really tearing into Cobra. They absolutely hated it. Ebert’s biggest issue was that Stallone’s idea of “character development” was his character picking up a slice of three-day old pizza from a messy kitchen crawling with bugs and cutting the slice with a pair of scissors.
“Okay, but what does this all have to do with model-turned-skin cream magnate Cindy Crawford?” you ask.
Oh, yeah, Cindy. I forgot.
So screenwriter Charlie Fletcher, who scribed a European reimaging of the 1974 Burt Reynolds football comedy-drama, The Longest Yard, as Mean Machine (2001), completed a more faithful-to-the-source-material adaptation of Gosling’s book, with the film, in one of the very rare book-to-screen transition, retained the book’s title.
The eventual 1995 film, unlike Cobra, was a box office bomb with a pitiful $12 million gross against a $50 million budget. It was the beginning—and end—of Cindy Crawford’s career who, if you read the press on the film, didn’t want the role in the first place. And it shows. You think Cobra is bad? Be grateful that Cobra at least had a cool car to hold our interest. And to think Gina Davis, Julianne Moore and Brooke Shields were in the running for the lead. I don’t think even Gina Davis, with her Thelma and Louise wiles, could save it.
Can you imagine a novel producing two movies as diverse: one starring Sly Stallone, while the other stars Cindy Crawford? Wait, actually Cindy is the “Brigitte Nielson” damsel-on-the-run and William Baldwin is the “Cobra” who battles the KGB operatives. And William Baldwin isn’t perpetually adorned in aviator shades expounding cool lines through tooth-picked clenched lips like, “You’re the disease, I’m the cure” and “This is where the law stops, and I start,” either.
The difference between the two films—outside of the amped-up ultraviolence in Stallone’s vision—is his substituting the damsel-in-distress divorce attorney mixed up in KGB-Cuban political intrigue of the Fair Game novel with a runway model on the run from a white supremacist group. (I guess Sly thought his then real-life wife, Brigitte Neilson, wouldn’t pass as divorce attorney?) Oh, and William Baldwin doesn’t drive a bad ass, 1950 Mercury Monterey Coupe with a blower-outfitted Chevy 350 that did zero to sixty in four seconds.
“Okay, so that takes care of Beverly Hills Cop and Fair Game. What’s Cobra about?”
Stallone is Marion Cobretti (I know, from Axel to Marion? It’s a John Wayne nod that everyone missed), a member of “The Zombie Squad,” a rules-don’t-apply-to-us elite division of the LAPD that handles the toughest of cases and criminals, who goes all “Dirty Harry” with a shoot-first-ask-questions later Charles Bronson approach to law enforcement. After foiling a bloody grocery store hostage standoff, he uncovers the beginnings of a plan by a Darwinist-practicing, white supremacist group, “The New World,” that sets out to kill off the weak, leaving the strong to survive and rule a society. And in there, somewhere—most likely amid the reported 40 minutes of cut footage—is a deeper message about our disintegrating society weakened by the media and our rising fascination with violence. According to legend, there is a 130 minute cut of Cobra that initially pulled an X-rating for graphic violence—featuring gory throat slashings, severed hands, beheadings, graphic axe swings, and meat hook hangings.
All these years later, with my expanded knowledge of the Italian Poliziotteschi and Giallo films of the ‘70s, I believe Stallone was going for a hybrid-homage of the two genres that would have likely played well to Euro-audiences. Or at the very least: a ‘70s Bronson-styled Death Wish protagonist clashing with a John Carpenter-inspired ‘80s slasher (see Chuck Norris’s Silent Rage). If that was, in fact, Stallone’s original vision, I’d pay to see that movie. Hopefully, one day Stallone would be encouraged—provided that excised footage still exists—to restore the film to its 130 minute, X-rated format which, in today’s post-Saw universe world, would pull an R.
Sadly, in the end, making movies is about making money—not creating “art” or “genre homages”—Siskel and Ebert be damned. And Cobra did make money. It debuted at #1 at the American box office and several other countries to clear $160 million against its $25 million dollar budget.
And besides: William Baldwin can’t brag about a Commodore 64 video game based on his character from Fair Game.