Blaxploitation and martial arts have always been easy bedfellows, and their often dubious and occasionally divine legacy is upheld with Lionsgate’s release of Black Cobra, currently available on DVD. The grit-infused fight movie combines swift-hitting action sequences with heavy handed criminal and political intrigue, but its attempts at genre goodness are stymied by weak choreography, a convoluted and confusing story, and vomit-inducing editing and cinematography so unpleasantly diverting that they debase whatever raw power and energy the film might otherwise have displayed.
After his father, an anti-genocidal freedom fighter, is wrongfully imprisoned by corrupt African government officials, martial arts master and de facto political activist Sizwe Biko discovers his only option is to somehow obtain sufficient funds to pay off a judge and reverse his father’s conviction, allowing them both to flee. Fortunately for Sizwe, his family has hoarded a cache of hidden diamonds on their property, buried in the dirt at a secret location, which his father furtively divulges to him.
Retrieving the stones and hopping a plane to the United States, Sizwe embarks on a sordid quest to trade them for cash on the black market. Hounded throughout his journey by swaggering, ominous, and vaguely racist antagonists who smugly assert that the diamonds must be stolen, Sizwe is ultimately robbed and his mission temporarily thwarted. His only hope of recourse is to rely on the traditional fighting styles he has perfected – in particular, Cobra Style Kung Fu – to defeat his shady opponents in hand-to-hand combat, retrieve his prize, and return to Africa to secure his father’s safety and freedom.
Black Cobra isn’t a totally un-fun movie to watch, and with its cheerful fusion of African pride, Kimonoed Asian bad guys, spontaneous and inexplicable interracial cat fights, and old time folksy martial arts duels, it resonates old-school Blaxploitation tropes like a kettle drum. Two major issues undermine the film, and the first is that its plot is insanely lackadaisical and padded, mostly with extraneous twists and needless characters. The glut of unnecessary detail compounds the pacing issues further by making the film simultaneously over-complicated and confusing. The second, and arguably more important issue is bad fight choreography, enhanced by intensely overbearing editing and slo-mo. The fight sequences don’t actually start occurring until about halfway through the film, and although some of them involve cool stuff like fire and backflips, their garish Chuck Norris editing makes it clear that most of the implied action happening onscreen is not actually happening in real life, making them both mildly distracting, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Lionsgate’s disc boasts a surprisingly respectable amount of filigree for such an obscure release, including deleted scenes, a weirdly mundane alternate ending, and a blooper reel. The movie’s concept is solid classic, and with better resources or a defter directorial hand it could have been a rewarding fight cheapie, but its lack of cohesion unfortunately makes it blandly watchable at best.