In the opening sequence of Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 film Cobra, images flash back and forth between a lone biker riding out before a rising sun and the eerie clanking of grisly, subterranean axes. Soon, the watcher bears witness to that lone biker, with a shotgun in hand, taking over a supermarket, an everyday aspect of American life. Supermarkets provide the United States with sustenance, and in this nightmarish landscape, they’re in danger.
Stallone’s character, Marion Cobretti (aka Cobra), a cop working through the LAPD’s fictitious “Zombie Squad” and thus functioning on the outskirts of the law himself, confronts this self-proclaimed “hero” of the New Order. Informing the “hero” that he is merely a disease to which Cobra himself is the cure, Cobra coldly guns down the lone biker to media disapproval only to discover this criminal is one among many of an army of cancerous tumors plaguing the city of Los Angeles. This infernal body of disease is eventually revealed to have a head of sorts, a maniac serial killer known throughout the movie only by the vicious derivative of Richard Ramirez’s real life media moniker of “Night Stalker”, the name “Night Slasher”.
Panned by critics upon its initial release for derivative storytelling, Cobra, possibly by fusing Hollywood genres as disparate as action and horror, has turned into a cult classic. But even more than its formal structure, this film has a certain je ne se quoi lurking beneath its surface that allows it to resonate with the primal feelings of its audience. To give voice to and better understand this je ne sais quoi itself, we must delve into the deeper meaning of Cobra’s plot where we will discover how it is the very precariousness of today’s social order itself that allows this film to resonate so clearly with its many fans. Moreover, it is this tuning into the horrifying sounds always bubbling beneath the surface of any great society that makes this action extravaganza a story worth telling.
The heart of Cobra’s action revolves around a burgeoning war between Cobra, as a representative of social order and justice, and a nascent New Order. Cobra’s New Order (first mentioned by the supermarket terrorist), as described by Wikipedia, is “a supremacist group of social Darwinist radicals that despise modern society and believe in killing the weak, leaving only the strongest and smartest to rule the world.”
This statement gives voice to Cobra’s overall moral compass. In the eyes of the New Order, our decrepit “modern society” allows the weak to flourish. Now, from a Christian moral standpoint, this is actually a “good” thing. For, Jesus Himself says “the meek shall inherit the earth”. Thus, continuing our journey through this world of morality, we must recognize Cobra’s New Order as a satanic force. This gives Cobra’s story a religious core. For, although Cobra himself functions on the outskirts of law and order, his goal is to protect the “weak” from the self-perceived “strong”. Whether those “strong” are so in objective fact or merely subjective opinion isn’t at issue. What remains is that Cobra is a “shepherd” protecting his “flock”. That flock being the entire city of Los Angeles, perhaps the entire United States, and by extension, perhaps, even the entire world.
The New Order being birthed in Los Angeles’s subterranean underbelly has the power to potentially reach anybody anywhere with its random acts of violence. Any one of us could be Ingrid Knudson, Cobra’s female protagonist hunted by the New Order for no apparent reason other than that she saw their leader, the Night Slasher himself, standing beside a broken down car earlier in the day she was first attacked. This chance encounter turned the devil’s gaze upon her. However, reason itself is a chimera in the New Order’s world. The New Order doesn’t need a reason to hunt anybody. Unlike in Cobra’s system of moral merit where the weak get special privilege to receive protection from the strong, the New Order alone determine who should survive. They have determined Ingrid Knudson to be weak and, therefore, not fit to live. Just as they determined the same for the citizens who happened to be shopping at that supermarket when the lone gunman entered. Just as they determine the same for all the Night Slasher’s hapless victims.
The social Darwinism espoused by the New Order wouldn’t be so terrifying if it weren’t the case that on some level many of us believe the New Order’s system to be “true”. We’re all the weak. There’s no such thing, in the world we inhabit, as the strong. We’re all potential victims of the circumstances of natural disease, and as Marion Cobretti himself says, that’s precisely what crime is: a disease. Like with any virus, it has no brain, no mind, no intention. None of us are immune to its vicissitudes. It might attack any one of us at any point in time. Perhaps, the most terrifying aspect of crime itself is its inherent randomness. There are certainly motivated crimes, but for many of us (whether it’s a result of breaking and entering, aggravated assault, and even rape or murder) it will happen randomly, destroying our senses of agency and making us feel as if we are weak regardless of how strong, either internally or externally, we may actually be.
For many of us, the causes of crime are as unknown as the New Order’s motivations. There may be social mechanisms at work when crimes occur, but we can’t see them in action. All we see are the results. This is the truth Cobra hits upon, and this is what Cobra is fighting against. We’re terrified we may actually be the weak simply because we aren’t strong enough to control our external worlds. However, no human being can control her external world. That’s what makes Cobra such a compelling character. Regardless of how terrifying the scenarios portrayed in this film may be, by means of his will and his weaponry, Cobra continuously controls his external world. He does this by turning the very violence we’re so afraid of back upon itself.
That’s what eventually creates such a mesmerizing final scene. Much like how the opening sequence’s rising sun symbolizes the terrifying future the New Order hopes to bring to fruition, as Cobra turns the tables on a fist fight with the Night Slasher and lifts the murderer onto a hook to send him screaming into a foundry’s flames, we see the primal solution to our fears branded onto celluloid. It’s violence that terrifies us, and it’s violence we believe will save us. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is, on the level of primal justice, as Cobra’s cult status certainly proves, it rings true for the audience.
This leads to the ethical dilemma Cobra poses: Is violence required to combat violence? To return to our Biblical morality, the Hebrew Testament exhorts ancient Israeli citizens to take “an eye for an eye”. In this way, peaceful ends justify violent means. Social order justifies those who act outside that order in order to maintain it. However, there’s also always the more contemporary approximation of this Biblical ideology, often attributed to Mohandas Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. In this formulation, peaceful ends do not justify violent means. For, there is no end to the cycle of violence. In fact, using peaceful ends to justify violent means could potentially allow for the justification of any violence. The New Order themselves could make the claim that when their purge is complete a peaceful, well-ordered world will result. Therefore, they are the righteous. Those combatting them, Marion Cobretti included, are the wicked allowing this world’s current chaos to continue.
However, there’s another way to interpret the call of an eye for an eye, and that is the formulation that leads to salvation in William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist: “Evil shall see itself, and it shall die”. Perhaps, it’s not the act of violence itself that brings an end to violence, but rather, it’s the reflection of violence back upon itself that brings an end to violence. For, if evil shall see itself and it shall die, then violence shall see itself and it shall cease. Like multiplying two negatives together, violence reflected upon violence becomes a positive.
This formulation of “the law” is embodied in Marion Cobretti. For, it’s his overabundance of violence that brings an end to the New Order’s violence. Their psychopathy is reflected back upon them in the form of Marion Cobretti’s own compulsive sociopathy, and it destroys them. There’s no way for them to combat it. From the supermarket terrorist to the Night Slasher himself, they can only succumb. Now, whether this formulation of “the law” is true in abstract reality doesn’t matter. What matters is this appears to be the formulation of the law Cobra believes.
And this formulation of the law continues to gain adherents because we all see Cobra’s chaos bubbling beneath the surface of our stable societies. We see violence in the news. We know there are crimes occurring in the world beyond our doors because we fear they may strike our children on their way to school. On some level, we’re all afraid any one of us could be in that supermarket when the terrorist strikes. We believe in the necessity of Cobra. We believe violence must combat violence. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a police force. We wouldn’t continue to enforce the death penalty. And we certainly wouldn’t condone the reality of war. Society’s stability is a piece of water-logged detritus we cling to while floating in a sea of chaos. We all know this. But does this make Cobra’s violence “right”? Will we continue to urge an eye for an eye, or will we finally insist we all must turn the other cheek?