There are exactly two categories of human on this earth: Those who can recite most of the 1986 Sylvester Stallone film Cobra by heart, and those who only know it as, “That movie where Sly eats a piece of pizza with scissors.”* I believe what I have to say here will be of interest to both groups and will be a valuable addition to modern Cobra discourse.
*You’ll occasionally run into someone who claims they haven’t heard of this movie, but there’s no reason to engage with them; we don’t platform Cobra deniers here and will not be doing so in the future.
There is a point where cinema becomes so iconic that all context and nuance gets lost. That’s why most people under 30 only know The Godfather as that movie where a fat guy in a tux says, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” while stroking a cat. It’s tragic that they will never understand what significance that scene holds in what is universally considered a masterpiece (that “the offer” Marlon Brando is referring to is the peanut butter he intends to smear on his balls to get the cat to lick them). So my goal is to make the beloved pizza-scissors scene from Cobra fresh to your eyes, to explain how it defines who I am as a person and who we are as a society in 2020.
First, for those of you too young to have experienced the 1980s in person, you should know that Sylvester “Sly” Stallone was the most eighties of action heroes and Cobra is widely believed by experts to be both the Stalloneiest and eightiesest action movie ever made. To convey the subtle genius at play here, let’s take in the poster, which seems straightforward on the surface:
But what’s that, on the grip of his .45?
“A cobra, like the title of the movie!” you say. Sure, but have you ever seen anyone store a handgun this way, so that an act as simple as carrying a laundry basket will almost certainly result in a hollowpoint-exploded scrotum? No, look at the careful arrangement of the symbols at play here. Do you see it? I’ll just draw you a diagram:
Normally I would cite this as an example of beautiful synergy between prop designer, costumer, screenwriter and star, but considering that we already know Stallone wrote the screenplay and mostly directed this movie, I believe we can thank exactly one man for making sure Cobra appeared at all times to have a cobra-headed dong peeking out of his jeans. “Wait, is Cobra saying Cobra’s dong is a cobra? Or that his gun is a cobra? Or that his gun is a dong?” Yes.
So, just to set the stage for the pizza scissors, the plot is that Marion “Cobra” Cobretti has to protect a beautiful model, Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) from a massive underground army of serial killers. He’s part of a team of supercops called the “zombie squad” and I know what you’re thinking: “With an assignment that dangerous, I bet he’s a real stickler for playing by the rules, since they exist to keep everyone safe.” But here’s where Cobra is already toying with our expectations: This cop actually doesn’t play by the rules.
Ingrid is in danger because she briefly witnessed one of the serial killers doing a crime. To silence her, the army of psychopaths lays siege to the small town where she’s holed up, presumably creating thousands more witnesses in the process. Cobra kills all of them in a series of car chases until he finally confronts the serial killers’ king in a lava factory and impales him on a giant metal hook. This was all pretty standard stuff for the era, and also for the movies made in the era.
The iconic pizza scissors scene comes just a few minutes in. We first meet Cobretti in the act of outwitting an unstable hostage taker in the opening action sequence (his strategy involves loudly and repeatedly telling the perpetrator that he is going to kill him, and then killing him). Cobra then heads home for a brief scene intended to establish what this man is like when he’s off the job. He rolls up to his oceanfront apartment in his police vehicle (a nitrous-boosted, custom-modified 1950 Mercury Monterey) to find some minorities are in his favorite parking spot on the street.
Cobra would literally rather see the whole world reduced to ash than settle for his second-favorite parking spot, so he uses his bumper to push the Latinos’ car out of the way…
… at which point the enraged owner steps out, shouting, “That’s my car, man!”
This exchange ensues:
(Literal translation, “Your mother would not approve of this behavior, cobra-dong!”).
I should note that approximately 60% of the comic relief scenes in 80s action movies depict what would now be classified as a hate crime and the other 40% were some form of felony sexual assault. Also, the most popular YouTube upload of this scene is titled “Best Scene from Cobra ” and the description is, “This is the most hilarious and enjoyable scene from the 1986 Sylvester Stallone movie COBRA. Enjoy,”.
Once inside, Cobra walks to his freezer and withdraws a pizza box and an egg carton, then carries it over to the area he’s converted to a home crime lab (including a computer setup with access to all case files) …
He opens the pizza box and inside finds a single slice of presumably-frozen pizza. “Does he put it in the microwave?” you ask, because you’ve never seen an 80s action movie before. You have to understand that Reagan-era tough guys weren’t just bachelors, they were a unique breed of ultramasculine hyperbachelor. Microwaving that pizza would be a type of cooking, an act as emasculating to the hyperbacherlor as literal castration, or performing oral sex on a woman. Instead, Cobra picks up a set of heavy shears from his desk and uses them to scissor off a small, frozen triangle of pizza …
…and pops it into his mouth. “Then what in the hell is he going to do with the eggs?” you ask, growing nervous. “He can’t even swallow them raw like Rocky, these have to be frozen solid! Is he going to bash them to powder with a hammer and snort them like cocaine?” No, remember, we’re seeing the habits of the fictional character Cobra here, not the actor, Sylvester Stallone. Instead, he opens the egg carton to reveal a gun cleaning kit…
… and, while still wearing his gloves and sunglasses indoors, begins cleaning his gun while chewing his little triangle of frozen pizza. It’s so surreal that it’s almost Lynchian.
Look, great art should be about questions, not answers. “Why does Cobra store his gun cleaning kit in an egg carton? Why does Cobra store that egg carton in the freezer? Why does he snip off that little hunk of pizza before eating it, instead of just taking a bite out of the slice itself? Why does Cobra keep those huge shears on his desk?” You might be tempted to think that Cobra offers no answers to these questions, but it totally did, in the previous scene. The answer to those questions, and all questions that begin with “why”, is to rip off your shirt and tell you to clean up your act.
“Actually,” some of you are saying, “I kind of can’t get my mind off the casual hate crime this off-duty cop committed on the way in, are there seriously no consequences for that?” Oh, sure. Later in the film, Cobra again approaches his apartment and, once again, the Latino man is parked in the spot Cobra has decided is his. This time, at the sight of the approaching souped-up Mercury, the man jumps behind the wheel of his car and pulls forward, making room. He nervously waves at Cobra as he walks past and Cobra says, “You’re a good citizen.”
See? Everything is fine. Cobretti simply had to show the man who’s boss, that’s all. To put him in his place, if you will. The threat of violence corrected the behavior, as it always does. I don’t even know what you were worried about.
“Okay, I’m one of the readers who hasn’t seen this movie and I’m confused. Is this a comedy? Is Stallone making fun of these action movie tropes and the glib, casual horrors of the era? Or fully embracing them? The way you’re describing them doesn’t make it clear.” I assure you, watching the film will leave you equally confused. No one involved with this production knew the answer. The most important thing to understand about the 80s is that cocaine chemically inhibits the human brain’s ability to process irony.
The closest I can come to a modern comparison is 4chan. You know how the kids there used to make “Hitler did nothing wrong” memes as a form of shock humor? Then, a few years later, some of them started attending actual Neo-Nazi rallies and buying assault rifles, with no idea as to whether or not they were still doing a wry in-joke? Well, we were all 4chan back then. The year before Cobra, Stallone made a Rocky sequel in which he punched a Russian boxer so hard that it ended the Cold War and to this day, no one is sure if he meant it.
This, kids, is why people my age are the way we are.
Before we go, here are some additional thought-provoking details that you can bring up with your children when it’s time to sit them down for the Cobra discussion:
1. As you can see in the screengrab above, Cobra already had his gun stuffed down the front of his pants when he stood up out of his vehicle — meaning he keeps it there while driving. If you have a penis and access to a Colt .45, try sitting in a car with it in that position while wearing some vacuum-sealed denim like Stallone’s. Congratulations: you now have a permanent gun-shaped dent in your scrotum that will give the emergency room staff a funny story to tell later.
2. When Cobra first enters his apartment, he casually walks past a telescope that is pointed at a neighboring building. This is never seen or referenced again.
3. That apartment, with zero renovations, would sell for approximately $10 million today.
4. In addition to the shears, Cobra has scattered around his home crime lab some other old-timey tools — I see an antique manual drill and what looks like a scythe leaning on his window.
“But why?” you might ask. “Is he secretly Amish? Are those murder weapons from cases that he stole from the evidence locker, ruining the chain of custody? Are they the tools Cobra uses to murder minorities who inconvenience him? Are they what he eats tacos with? What could he possibly … HEY! MY SHIRT!”
5. The first time we see the model Ingrid at work, she is doing a photoshoot around some robot sculptures. They gave this one on the left a tasteful little robot wiener:
6. Incredibly, Cobra is based on a novel, A Running Duck by Paula Gosling. No, the novel does not contain the pizza-scissors scene, I checked. In fact, Stallone rewrote the script from scratch, apparently using story elements he had originally developed when he was cast in Beverly Hills Cop before he walked away from that project and changed the entire trajectory of blockbuster cinema. Even more incredibly, A Running Duck would get a second adaptation a decade later, as the 1995 Cindy Crawford/William Baldwin bomb Fair Game.
I have also written a novel, called Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick and I have in fact sold the film and TV rights to those characters via the first book in that series (really). If Stallone were to get involved in the project and rewrite it entirely into Cobra 2, I would do everything in my power to get onto the set, to try to have lunch with the man at least once. I would insist on pizza, then I would just sit back and watch, holding my breath.
You can pre-order Jason “David Wong” Pargin’s book Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Bookshop or any place books like this are sold. You can also follow him on Twitter, his Instagram, or Facebook, or YouTube or Goodreads, or any of the many accounts he’s forgotten about.