PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Fathers & Sons, Race & Class, Exploitation & Apartheid, but Not Really: 'Black Cobra'

A martial artist selling black market diamonds gets in over his head.

Black Cobra

Director: Scott Donovan
Cast: T.J. Storm, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Ursula Taherian
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-05-22

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.