Black Cobra is about fathers and sons, race and class, exploitation, and the remnants of apartheid in South Africa. Okay, it wants to be about those things, however, it ends up not being about any of them. Just because a character mentions them once, doesn’t mean they’re important in your movie. The only one of these themes that are introduced early that actually remains beyond the opening scene is the fathers and sons.
Martial arts student Sizwe Biko (T.J. Storm) must sell some diamonds that have been in his family for 100 years (there’s an inevitable “family jewels” joke lurking in here somewhere) in order to get his dying father out of prison. Sizwe longs to be near his father, a former political activist, once again.
The man Sizwe sells his diamonds to, a Los Angeles Yakuza named Tanaka (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), is a father himself. While Sizwe is a good man, the kind of man you’d be proud to call son, Tanaka’s son is a constant disappointment, disloyal, greedy, and spoiled. It is this contrast that… well… I’m not sure what this dichotomy is supposed to accomplish, but it’s there.
This emptiness is indicative of Black Cobra, and the result is a messy, slapped together attempt at a martial arts movie. In spirit it is a throwback to blaxploitation chopsocky films like Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones and Hot Potato. Too bad it pales in comparison. Those films are campy and fun, and Black Cobra is just terrible on all fronts.
Perhaps the biggest sin is the lackluster fight scenes. You can forgive a lot in a low-budget martial arts film, but the one thing you absolutely cannot do is have lame action. If your movie is built around fighting, the fighting can’t suck. But it does. Storm is a decorated martial artist and stunt veteran of dozens of action films, but the hand-to-hand scenes are so cut up that they’re damn near unwatchable. There’s an edit after almost every punch or kick, and the finished product is jarring to watch. There is absolutely no flow.
Overly obvious dialogue weighs Black Cobra down. Characters say things like, “I haven’t seen you since San Diego State,” that no real person would say. Combine this with unnecessary characters—like a pair of private investigators—and asides that never amount to anything or go anywhere, and the movie is as jumbled and confusing as it is cheesy. Sizwe goes to visit his sensei before travelling to LA—why you’re not sure, he’s only going to be gone a few days—but at first it’s like he just went into the woods to fight some guy who doesn’t talk. This scene plays out like a hazy dream, and you keep waiting for him to wake up, or anything to make any sense at all.
Various segments of Black Cobra has a different visual style and it seems like every act is directed by a new person. But it wasn’t. Scott Donovan directs the whole thing. One scene every edit is a fade. Each shot fades to black then back in again, almost like a movie trailer. There is while where a shaky-cam style takes over, the already mentioned rose-tinted dreamy sequence, and an attempt to pull off multiple split screens. This mishmash of styles is jammed together into a messy ball that threatens to break apart in your hands.
These are just a few of the bigger problems, but there are tons more to contend with before you finish Black Cobra. It throws you into the story with no set up. A tired running gag where people riff on Sizwe’s name just won’t die. Swizzle stick, Swizz, Sizzling Bacon, are a few of the choicest gems. One poorly placed flashback derails what little pace there is. And of course there’s an absurd catfight between two women who are only in the film to do just that, which devolves into a pillow fight.
The longer Black Cobra goes on the more ridiculous it becomes. For a second—just a second—you get the idea that things might get so silly that it could redeem the movie. Unfortunately the film never goes that far overboard, and you’re left with a steaming pile.
This one instance epitomizes what is wrong with Black Cobra. When a character is asked, “Why did you betray me?” his answer is, “It’s more complicated than that,” and nothing more.
The DVD of Black Cobra is similarly dull. Eleven minutes of deleted scenes are made up of awkward scenes between Sizwe and his wife, and moments that would have stretched out already painfully long scenes. An alternate ending is a tedious attempt to set up a sequel, one that is even worse than the try left in the finished movie. A blooper reel is exactly what you expect; flubbed lines, actors forgetting their lines, and botched kung fu moves. There is not much here worth paying attention to.