Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cobra: Action Film as Conservative Propaganda

The 1986 Sylvester Stallone film, Cobra is essentially one hour and thirty minutes of pro Reagan conservative era propaganda. Reagan's photo is even featured prominently in one of the scenes.  The narrative follows thusly: L.A. has descended into a nightmarish haven for lawlessness and corruption, a place where crime goes unpunished because lawyers work to get criminals off and back on the streets. Stallone plays the titular character, a cop who has reached his limit as far as this is concerned. Though he is a police officer, he is seemingly above the law. He even states in the film's conclusion that "this is where the law stops and I start." Cobra's attitude is vital given that there is a gang terrorizing L.A. This gang is headed by a hulking man called the Night Stalker (Brian Thompson). Their primary activities are killing people and then later meeting in abandoned warehouses to beat axes and shovels together while chanting about the New World order. The members of this gang are very aware that the scales of justice are tipped in their favor. However, they make a major error when a women named Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) witnesses one of their murders, escapes and ends up in protective custody. Cobra is the cop who is protecting her and, as mentioned before, he gives zero fucks about the law.

Like Commando, this is a film about a modern-day knight. Ingrid, a statuesque model, is the damsel-in-distress. Cobra becomes her nurturer and protector, although in a somewhat unknightly manner, he does end up becoming sexually involved with her. The scenes preceding their introduction feature some of the most aggressively 80s moments ever captured on film. Ingrid is modeling in sparkly, spangled 80s clothing while a synth-heavy soundtrack plays. Her posing is interrupted by a montage of the gang chanting and committing criminal monstrosities. This montage is vital too, not just from a stylistic standpoint, but because it reveals a very specific vision of L.A. In this blending of imagery the glamour and corruption of the city becomes obvious. Since glamour itself is often false or illusory the suggestion is that the corruption shown represents the real L.A.

Too much man?
Cobra is one of the few 80s films in which great size and muscularity are conflated with corruption and evil. When Ingrid sees the Night Stalker standing in the street, with his arms at his side and chest heaving, she is instantly terrified. Thompson, in this role, looks almost like a Cro-Magnon man, his jaw is heavily pronounced and he seems to have a surplus of testosterone which contributes to his bestial appearance. Compared to Thompson, the well-muscled Stallone appears rather small. The suggestion might be that there is a delicate balance of masculinity. Cobra possesses the right amount which makes him courageous and nurturing, whereas the Night Stalker's is in overdrive, which leads to violence and insanity. Cobra, too, seems to represent an old-fashioned kind of masculinity. He drives a 1950 Mercury and even on his day off he keeps the neighborhood toughs in line. Specifically, he roughs up some members of an Hispanic gang who have been hassling him and encourages them to "clean up their act."

The final scene in Cobra occurs where seemingly all 80s films have their dramatic conclusion, in a warehouse that is curiously empty, but is, at the same time, active and with working machinery. The Night Stalker and Cobra battle it out, Ingrid cowers in the corner in terror at the display of aggressive and violent manliness. Cobra kills the Night Stalker by hoisting him into the air and depositing him onto a large hook which then carries him away writhing and screaming into the fire of the warehouse?, foundry?.  Impalement is used in this film, too, as a necessary method for the destruction of the villain. Once the Night Stalker is gone, Ingrid and Cobra embrace and they ride off on Cobra's motorcycle. Cobra has restored order and a normal, regular masculinity holds sway.

Cobra presents all criminals as hopelessly corrupt and unable to be rehabilitated. Cobra and other police officers must be tough and merciless to defeat all the forces working against them, specifically the law and, as presented in the film, a biased and liberal media. The early image of the photograph of Reagan presiding over the police office is telling. President Reagan was notoriously tough on crime and enacted legislation called the "Comprehensive Crime Control Act" which led to tougher sentencing of criminals. He also appointed conservative judges and created the "War on Drugs." The legislation he created made it tougher for those who broke the law to be paroled. Cobra seemingly attempts to focus on the battle between liberal and conservative values as far as controlling crime is concerned, while clearly supporting a conservative agenda. In this film, the criminals are shown as very aware of their rights under the law, often taunting the cops by asserting that an arrest is meaningless. In a way, Cobra is incredibly contradictory--it can't seem to decide if criminality and liberalism are overtaking the land or if upright and conservative values are dominant. Most likely, it is a film about the process of a conservative clean up of a corrupt world.

Source: "No Mercy: Ronald Reagan's Tough Legal Legacy."

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