This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we look back at Cobra’s journey to the screen.
Cobra isn’t one of Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stallone’s most popular movies, but it’s undoubtedly one of his best, especially if you’re a fan of ridiculously entertaining action flicks with an edge. The film was savaged by critics when it was released in 1986, but Stallone has always had an affinity for his maligned baby and has even toyed with the idea of making a sequel. These days, however, Sly seems more interested in rebooting the underappreciated actioner as a series for a streaming service. Let’s hope he presses ahead with bringing Cobra back to our screens in some capacity because the movie really is one of the shiniest gems in the treasure chest that is Stallone’s filmography.
Loosely based on the novel A Running Duck by Paula Gosling, but clearly inspired by Dirty Harry, Cobra sees Stallone play Marion “Cobra” Cobretti, a take-no-prisoners law enforcer who must protect a witness (Brigitte Nielsen) from a gang of deranged cultists. He’s the kind of detective who shoots first and asks questions later. He’s also so badass that he chews on a matchstick and cuts his pizza slices with scissors. If he runs out of bullets, he’ll impale a bad guy on a giant meathook. Crime is a disease, and Cobretti is the cure. Plain and simple.
Stallone created Cobra as a vehicle for himself during his commercial peak. However, the genesis of the film can be traced back to the development of Beverly Hills Cop. Before Eddie Murphy portrayed the wisecracking detective Axel Foley, the part was Stallone’s for the taking. Back then, Sly’s agent, Ron Meyer, felt the project would have been a positive career move for the actor. Not only did he feel confident that the movie would be a massive hit, but he also wanted his client to showcase his comedic side.
Meyer recalled the events in James A. Miller’s Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency:
“I called a group together at Sly’s house with all the people who were close to him — his inner circle. I said, “I have an offer for Sly for a movie I think he should do. I think it’s an important film for him to do in every way. I don’t want someone else to do it, because it’s going to be a huge hit.” And I said, “I have a copy of the script for each of you to read, and I’m going to call you all in the morning, but I want the answer to be yes. I don’t want any second-guessing.” The next morning, everybody said, “Yes.”
Unfortunately, Stallone didn’t want to make audiences laugh. He was too used to playing tough guys and didn’t feel the movie in its original iteration was right for him. Naturally, instead of rejecting the gig, Stallone took it upon himself to rewrite the screenplay to suit his own macho sensibilities. In Sly’s version of Beverly Hills Cop, the main character’s name was changed from Foley to Cobretti, and the comedy was replaced with action set-pieces and hard-edged violence. If Paramount pressed ahead with Stallone’s script, the film would have cost even more to make. Unable to see eye to eye with their star, the producers replaced him with Murphy. The decision to ditch Stallone paid off too, as Beverly Hills Cop was a huge hit.
Afterward, Stallone repurposed his Beverly Hills Cop ideas and Cobra was born. The Cannon Group — which was probably the only studio that would happily give Stallone $25 million to make a violent vanity project — stepped up to the plate and supported his vision. George P. Cosmatos was hired to direct the film, but it’s believed that Stallone was the real captain of the ship. Of course, that rumor is hardly surprising considering that Stallone has a history of overseeing his own projects. Whoever really helmed Cobra did a great job.
Upon release, Cobra was a box office hit, grossing $160 million worldwide. And while the film’s critical lampooning and subsequent Razzie Award nominations effectively killed any interest in a sequel right away, a ZX Spectrum game was released to coincide with the film. The game bears little resemblance to the movie, but it’s a fun little romp all the same. However, if you want to see a movie that exists because of Cobra, I highly recommend Black Cobra starring Fred Williamson. Unlike Stallone’s gem, Black Cobra spawned three sequels.
Still, it’s a shame that Stallone’s renegade detective didn’t receive further cinematic outings. Cobretti is a great action hero, and Stallone is clearly a fan of the character. Rocky Balboa and John Rambo are his golden geese, but Cobretti was the hero with franchise potential that got away. I’m sure he has no regrets about turning down Beverly Hills Cop, though — the actor is still kicking ass to this day. Furthermore, Stallone being fired from the other ’80s classic led to two great movies being made as a result. In the end, fans of action cinema were spoiled.