New York-based private eye Larry Stanziani (Franco Nero) was once a top narcotics cop in Italy known as 'the Cobra.' Presumably on account of his lightning reflexes rather than a tendency to hiss at people. Now he makes a meager living trailing unfaithful spouses. But when another American narcotics agent is killed by a cane-sword-wielding mystery man in a black leather coat (who seems dressed for entirely the wrong Italian genre movie), bureau chief Jack Goldsmith (William Berger, uh-oh) offers Larry a chance to return to Genoa and finally nab Sergei Kandinsky, the drug-trafficking mastermind that got away. So Larry flies home where he reconnects with his little son. He then reconnects with wily old informant Davide (Mario Maranzana), romances frizzy-haired disco DJ Brenda (Sybil Danning) and basically punches, shoots and screws his way through the criminal underworld to unearth Kandinsky's whereabouts. With mob hit-men on his tail, Larry dogs Kandinsky relentlessly yet to his surprise, the faceless crime boss insists someone else was behind the murder.
Few actor-director teams can claim to have both sparked off an entire sub-genre and killed it stone dead but that is what Franco Nero and Enzo G. Castellari managed to do, albeit inadvertently. Their trail-blazing High Crime (1972) kick-started the 'poliziotteschi' genre that proliferated in Italian cinema throughout the Seventies until Day of the Cobra bombed big-time at the local box-office. It is hard to discern exactly why this of all Euro-crime thrillers failed to connect with the audience given it is far from the worst of its type. In fact, aside from Castellari ladling on the sentimentality extra thick with scenes of slow-motion bonding between Larry and his son played by Franco Nero's real-life offspring Carlo Gabriel Nero, and a few too many dull moments when Larry hangs around nightclubs watching frizzy-haired disco dollies in frightful fashions shuffle on the dance floor, Day of the Cobra is a fairly engrossing and entertaining action film.
The story was initially conceived by another cult Italian director, Aldo Lado. In his original vision Day of the Cobra took place in Trieste shortly after the Second World War. For whatever reason Lado dropped out whereupon Castellari relocated the action to a contemporary setting as something of a Raymond Chandler pastiche. Possibly inspired by Michael Winner's then-recent remake of The Big Sleep (1978). Which accounts for all the cutesy Humphrey Bogart references like having Larry dress like Philip Marlowe, hand out chewing gum to anyone he meets and trade would-be witticisms with B-movie femme fatale Sybil Danning. Sybil's heaving cleavage does not stop our hero smacking her in the chops when they meet. In all fairness she pulls a gun on him first. Nevertheless they end up in bed. Campy dialogue strains for the hard-boiled charm of vintage Hollywood crime thrillers but the twist-laden plot is pretty satisfying.
To Castellari's credit he opts for something different from the over-familiar vigilante antics of most poliziotteschi epics. Having said that, the film's most outrageous action sequence (a punch-up in a disco where Franco takes on a karate kicking disco queen/surprise transvestite named Lola!) recalls a similar scene in Alberto De Martino's even more unhinged Blazing Magnum (1977) and the twist ending is suspiciously similar to the one in Stelvio Masi's semi-comedic cop caper Fearless Fuzz (1978) only far better done. Fearless Fuzz had Maurizio Merli, Italy's other mighty mustached crime-fighting icon, in an atypically humorous role. In much the same vein Franco Nero essays a more louche and self-amused crusading cop, playing partly for laughs until the film's big melodramatic moment has him amp up the impassioned emoting with those blazing blue eyes. He is as charismatic as ever. Despite the odd wince-inducing moment (as when someone says of Kandinsky: "He is a homosexual. The worst kind. Violent.") accomplished action auteur Castellari stages a host of thrilling rooftop chases, warehouse punch-ups and street shootouts that more than compensate. Paolo Vasile supplies a funk-tastic score mixing reggae, disco, jazz and electronica into an unforgettable theme song: "Don't give a damn, I am the Cobra!" Damn right he is.