Sylvester Stallone was one of the top action stars of the 80s. After breaking through as Rocky, then establishing a second cinematic icon in Rambo, the muscular leading man introduced yet another big-screen hero in Lt. Cobretti, LAPD officer and one-man army, in 1986’s Cobra. Unfortunately this didn’t spawn a franchise, but Cobra remains one of the most hypnotically excessive action movies of the 80s, and a cult classic of sorts.
Let’s take a look back at this extremely 1980s action thriller, with some facts about Cobra you may not have known…
20. Cobra personally kills 41 people in the film
As hard as this is to imagine, Sylvester Stallone wasn’t always the shoot-’em-up hero we know him as today. Rocky obviously never shot anyone, and in the original Rambo movie First Blood, the troubled hero is only responsible for a single death. However, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II significantly upped the ante: the title character notches up a whopping 75 kills, setting a precedent for Stallone’s future action roles.
As such, Cobra sees Stallone’s Cobretti kill 41 people, primarily via gunshots, with a few explosions, incinerations and stabbings thrown in for good measure. On release, this was Stallone’s second-highest body count, but today it barely makes the top ten: by far his biggest kill count is in 2008’s Rambo, in which he kills 252 people.
19. Stallone quit Beverly Hills Cop to make this film instead
Before Cobra, Sylvester Stallone was actually attached to another police movie: Beverly Hills Cop, which became one of the biggest hits of 1984 with Eddie Murphy in the lead. However, it became clear early on that Stallone had a very different vision for that film than producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Stallone rewrote the script, removing the comedy and turning the project into a large scale, bullet-ridden bloodfest which the producers had neither the taste nor the budget for.
Ultimately Stallone agreed to leave the project. After also turning down the lead in Romancing the Stone, 1984 instead saw him star alongside Dolly Parton in musical flop Rhinestone, which he has since expressed regret about. However, Stallone kept hold of his Beverly Hills Cop script, and ultimately reworked it into what became Cobra.
18. It was Stallone’s first collaboration with Cannon Films
While Cobra was distributed by Warner Bros, it was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, owners of Cannon Films. Possibly the most notorious film company of the 1980s, Cannon was built on low-budget B-pictures, but with ambitions way beyond their standing. Golan and Globus produced dozens of films with Cannon in the 80s, notably the Death Wish sequels, a slew of Chuck Norris films and various ninja movies.
Later, expensive box office bombs such as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Masters of the Universe led to the company’s gradual demise. Stallone’s next film after Cobra was 1987’s Over the Top, another Cannon production directed by Menahem Golan himself, which was a critically derided flop.
17. Stallone’s concept for Cobra was “what if Bruce Springsteen had a gun?”
In devising his street-wise, take-no-prisoners cop, Stallone had a perhaps surprising role model in mind: Bruce Springsteen. In the mid-80s, the denim-clad New Jersey rocker was one of the biggest music stars in the world, and he was in part the basis for Cobra’s persona. Stallone explains his idea was, “what if Bruce Springsteen had a gun? That was rock’n’roll meets drama.”
Certainly Cobra has a very rock star look, with his mirrored shades, black shirts, tight jeans, biker gloves, and a matchstick perpetually in the corner of his mouth. However, it remains one of the great mysteries of cinema as to why Cobra cuts cold pizza with scissors and eats it while still wearing his gloves. Is that what rock stars do? Seriously, we don’t know.
16. The Zombie Squad was inspired by a real police unit in Belgium
Lt. Cobretti and his partner Gonzales work the LAPD’s ‘zombie squad,’ who take the dirty jobs that most regular cops would rather leave alone. As we learn early on, the general zombie squad tactic is to shoot to kill with no mercy – and that’s about it. While there is no official zombie squad in the LAPD, Stallone claims to have taken inspiration from a real police unit.
The actor and screenwriter says he modelled Cobra’s team on a zombie squad from Belgium. This rough-and-ready unit would reportedly go out at night to take down the worst of the worst.
15. Cobra was named after John Wayne (or, rather, John Wayne’s real name)
Stallone had originally come up with his character’s surname when attached to Beverly Hills Cop; his rewritten script changed the hero’s name from Elly Axel to Axel Cobretti. (With Eddie Murphy in the role, he would finally be renamed Axel Foley.) When Stallone moved most of his abandoned Beverly Hills Cop material to Cobra, the surname came too – but he had other ideas for the character’s first name.
Envisioning Cobra as something of a modern day cowboy, Stallone named him after the most iconic big screen cowboy of them all: John Wayne. While Wayne was a famously macho movie star, the name he was born with was not so conventionally manly: Marion Mitchell Morrison. In tribute to Wayne who passed away in 1979, Stallone gave his ultra-macho cop the full name of Marion Cobretti.
14. Dirty Harry was also a huge influence on Stallone’s vision
Stallone also admitted to being a huge fan of the Dirty Harry movies, and taking great inspiration from them on Cobra. When Cobra arrived in 1986, Clint Eastwood had made four Dirty Harry films: the 1971 original, 1973’s Magnum Force, 1976’s The Enforcer, and 1983’s Sudden Impact; a fifth and final film would follow in 1988’s The Dead Pool.
As well as modelling the hard-nosed, rule-breaking, zero tolerance crime fighter Cobra on Eastwood’s character Harry Callahan, Stallone also enlisted some actors from the 1971 original. Andrew Robinson, who co-stars in Cobra as Detective Monte, previously appeared as the unnamed psychotic killer of Dirty Harry. Likewise, Reni Santoni, who plays Cobra’s partner Gonzales, was also in the 1971 film as Harry’s partner Chico.
13. Stallone was worried Brian Thompson was “too nice” to play the Night Slasher
Prior to his casting as the main villain of Cobra, Brian Thompson had largely been a bit part actor, most recognised for playing one of the punks alongside Bill Paxton at the start of The Terminator. It took seven auditions for before it was accepted he was the right man to play the Night Slasher, with Stallone apparently having at first thought Thompson was too nice for the role. However, once the imposing 6 ‘2″ classically trained actor filmed a screen test, all concerned agreed that the part was his.
While Cobra didn’t necessarily propel Thompson to stardom, it set him on a path of playing villainous heavies in TV and film. Thompson’s post-Cobra credits include Three Amigos!, Alien Nation, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and recurring roles on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed.
12. In an earlier script, Andrew Robinson’s Monte was revealed as the real villain
Considering that Andrew Robinson was cast on the strength of his role as the bad guy in Dirty Harry, it’s perhaps surprising that his role in Cobra is that of an ineffectual LAPD rival of the titular hero. Turns out there’s a good reason for this: originally, Stallone had intended for Robinson’s Detective Monte to be revealed as the true villain of the piece. In the first draft of Stallone’s script, the climax revealed Monte as the brains behind the terrifying Night Slasher cult.
The original ending would have seen Monte attempt to kill Brigitte Nielsen’s Ingrid, but – believe it or not – he wound up being shot dead by Cobra instead. For reasons unknown, this twist was written out, perhaps because Brian Thompson was deemed a significant enough adversary for Cobra on his own.
11. Brian Thompson didn’t have that great a time making the film
Even though playing the bad guy in Cobra was a big break for Brian Thompson, the overall experience left a bit to be desired for the actor. Thompson recounts wanting to discuss his character with Stallone to get some insight into his motivation and backstory. Stallone, Thompson says, was dismissive of this, simply telling him the Night Slasher was just evil and nothing more.
Once Cobra made it to screens, Thompson didn’t even get an invite to the premiere, and wound up having to buy a ticket to see the film with a regular audience. Years later, Thompson got his own back at Stallone by writing, directing and starring in 2014’s The Extendables (a spoof of Stallone’s The Expendables, in case that wasn’t apparent).
10. The 1950 Mercury was Stallone’s actual car
As we mentioned earlier, the character of Cobra seems more about the look than anything else – and the supercop’s choice of vehicle is part of that. Cobretti drives a custom 1950 Mercury Monterey Coupe, notable for its distinctive licence plate, ‘AWSOM 50.’ This was, in fact, Sylvester Stallone’s very own car – although you probably won’t be surprised to learn that several replicas were used for the more stunt-heavy sequences.
The car is also notable for having a nitrous oxide boost, 14 years before those were popularised by The Fast and The Furious. Reportedly one of the Mercurys used for Cobra wound up being refurbished for use in 2000’s Gone in 60 Seconds, while Stallone says his original was stolen from storage.
9. The props team built a surprisingly large version of Brian Thompson’s knife for certain shots
Brian Thompson’s Night Slasher is imposing not only thanks to his hulking physique, but also his alarmingly big knife. The ‘hero knife,’ as it was dubbed, was built specifically for the film by knife maker Herman Schneider, and Thompson has confirmed it was genuinely sharp, the actor admitting he cut himself on it many times. However, the filmmakers were also eager to get shots of the light glinting on the blade, an effect they had difficulty achieving.
For this reason, Thompson says, the prop team actually constructed a massive three-foot replica of the knife to shoot from a distance, in the hopes of passing these shots off as close-ups. However, Thompson is uncertain as to whether any shots of this giant knife actually wound up being used in the film.
8. Stallone was in full Hollywood diva mode on set
After the huge success of 1985’s Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II, Stallone was at the height of his stardom when Cobra went into production. By all accounts, this star status showed up in Stallone’s behaviour on set, where his ego was in full force. The actor had a large entourage, and all extras, supporting cast and crew members were forbidden from talking to him on set.
Stallone also clashed with cinematographer Ric Waite, who chastised Stallone for constantly messing around with his then-wife Brigitte Nielsen and showing off to his bodyguards. Brian Thompson has also confirmed that, in the climactic dialogue scene between Cobra and Night Slasher, Stallone didn’t show up to shoot it as he was watching a basketball game, so Thompson delivered his lines to the script supervisor.
7. Many violent scenes were cut to avoid an X rating
As you might have guessed given the body count, Cobra was a film that had the censors on edge. The initial rough cut clocked in at just over two hours, and on being presented to ratings board the MPAA, it was slapped with the prohibitive X-rating. (X’s replacement rating the NC-17 would not be introduced until 1990.) As this would significantly impact the film’s box office chances, studio Warner Bros demanded huge cuts, both for pacing and fears that the graphic gore was too much for the general audience.
Ultimately Cobra was cut down to 87 minutes, with the violence and bloodshed significantly toned down. To date, no fully restored version of Cobra has ever had an official release, although poor quality bootleg VHS copies of the original work print have been known to exist.
6. More last-minute changes were made to the film because of Top Gun
Cobra opened in US theatres on May 23 1986 – barely a week after another major action film, Top Gun. As that high-flying Tom Cruise film had proved a massive hit for studio Paramount, this prompted last minute jitters about Cobra over at Warner Bros. As well as censorship concerns, opening in the shadow of such a blockbuster was a key reason why the studio insisted on drastically lowering Cobra’s running time to under an hour and a half.
Warner Bros feared their film couldn’t compete with Top Gun, and hoped the shorter run time would help get more audiences to see the film, as it would enable theatres to squeeze in more screenings per day. It’s debatable whether this move really paid off: whilst Top Gun ended its run with then-staggering box office takings of $356 million, Cobra managed a respectable but comparatively meagre $160 million.
5. Stallone was apparently the ‘true director’ of the film, not George P. Cosmatos
Cobra marked the second collaboration between Stallone and director George P. Cosmatos, who had previously called the shots on Rambo: First Blood Part II. However, Stallone is known to have had huge creative control over his films, and crew members have often said that he himself was the true director on both films. It has also been claimed that much the same was true of Cosmatos’s 1993 film Tombstone, which is said to have been unofficially directed by leading man Kurt Russell.
At the time of writing, Stallone officially has eight films to his name as director, including four of the Rocky films, 2008’s Rambo and 2010’s The Expendables. Cosmatos passed away in 2005. His son, Panos Cosmatos, is the director of acclaimed Nicolas Cage horror movie Mandy.
4. It was a smash with audiences but a flop with critics
Although Cobra tends to be thought of as one of the less successful Stallone vehicles, it was actually a very big hit on release. While it may not have done as well as Top Gun overall, Cobra was still the US box office #1 on opening weekend, with takings of $15.6 million. By modern standards that may not sound like much, but it was the biggest opening weekend that Warner Bros had ever had up to that point.
And considering the film cost $25 million to make (again, not much today but a lot back then), its final takings of $160 million marked a very significant return. However, it was almost universally reviled by critics, and clocked up six Razzie Award nominations.
3. Stallone blames the lack of sequels on his divorce from Brigitte Nielsen
Stallone met Brigitte Nielsen when he cast her as Ludmilla Drago, wife of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, in 1985’s Rocky IV. The couple wed in December 1985, and were very much still in the honeymoon period when Stallone cast her as Ingrid, the fashion model targeted by the Night Slasher, in Cobra. This was not to last, however, and Stallone and Nielsen were divorced in 1987.
The split was by all accounts a very unhappy one, and Stallone has intimated since that it soured him on ever revisiting Cobra. He said recently, “[Cobra] should have been another franchise… I blew it. My personal life got in the way.”
2. A (sort-of) remake was released just nine years later
While the character of Cobra was very much Stallone’s creation, his script is in fact in adaptation of a novel. Stallone’s script is loosely based on Fair Game (also known as A Running Duck), a 1974 crime thriller from novelist Paula Gosling. As Cobra’s screenwriter, the main thing Stallone kept from the novel was the core concept of a woman on the run from vicious criminals, with a maverick cop assigned to protect her.
This novel was once again used as the basis for a movie only nine years later, in 1995 box office flop Fair Game. This film gave supermodel Cindy Crawford one of her few major acting roles, casting her alongside William Baldwin.
1. A small screen reboot may be in the pipeline from Robert Rodriguez
While Stallone has pretty much ruled out ever reprising the role himself, we may yet see the return of Marion Cobretti. Stallone revealed in 2019 that he was “trying to bring it back as a streaming TV series.” Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Sin City) is said to be developing Cobra for the small screen, via his TV platform the El Rey Network.
Rodriguez has some history with reworking movies for TV, having produced a series adaptation of his 1997 film From Dusk Till Dawn. However, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the Cobra series onto the back-burner, and there has been no news on the project for some time.