Sylvester Stallone fans who just couldn't stand the suspense got an early look at his latest film, "Cobra," at a Cobrathon that began Thursday night at 10 with an S.R.O. crowd of moviegoers, their attention heightened by a massive advertising campaign.

The film then screened every two hours--through the wee hours--until noon Friday at Mann's Chinese Theater. (As of today, the film opened at 2,131 theaters nationwide.)

The Cobrathon (also staged at theaters in Chicago and New York) was complete with lights, cameras (clutched by eager fans and roaming news photographers) and even a bit of action. (The event, along with two shows in Westwood, garnered "Cobra" at least $18,000, according to a Mann's spokesman.)

The action--some might call it fan frenzy--occurred in the forecourt of the theater when the Man of the Hour, flanked by his bodyguards, made a rush from the theater to a limousine.

Stallone and his entourage--including wife and co-star Brigitte Nielsen and "Cobra" executive producer James D. Brubaker--watched the opening 10 p.m. screening from the private box of Sid Grauman, the showman who built the theater.

"Stallone came to measure the audience's response," said a Warner Bros. representative. (He was quick to add that the first audience of the night "was with the film all the way," responding to "all the best lines," including the one that gave rise to the film's ad slogan: "You're the disease. I'm the cure.")

The theater was decked out for the event. Fake bullet holes on the ticket booth gave patrons a hint of what was to come. The customized 1950 Mercury (license plate: AWSOM 50) driven by Stallone in the film was at curb side.

And the film's logo--a portrait of a gun-toting Stallone against a blood-red background--was everywhere. Most dumbfounding was the 32-foot-high portrait of Cobra hoisted above the theater entrance. It will go to Stallone after the film closes its run. "He asked for it, so we're giving it to him," said a studio advertising executive. But what, exactly, does Stallone plan to do with the mammoth painting? "That's what I'd like to know. What house could hold it?"

Now for the (nearly) blow-by-blow account of the Cobrathon.

Thursday, May 22, 9:04 p.m. "So where's all the ammo? I expected to see some people carrying guns!" The Hollywood Boulevard lookie-loo jokes as he scans the line. It is largely young, male and gung-ho--and displays a studied indifference to the news hounds who comb the concrete for the elusive man in the street.

10:57 p.m. The S.R.O. 10 p.m. crowd is inside whooping it up. The Midnight Club is gathering. A couple snuggled against the box-office at first claims to be merely curious. "We were up, so we decided to come watch a movie," says Ralph Vasquez, 23, of Los Angeles.

Ah, but his wife Gloria, 21, tells a slightly different story. "He wanted to come see this. He likes Stallone. He made me come along." Ralph eventually admits to being "a bit of" a Stallone fan.

He isn't the only one.

"It's not really him that I'm crazy about--but the parts he plays," says Eric Simmons, 24, of Los Angeles. "He always plays someone to look up to--and a protector. But he's a more realistic protector than, say, Superman. The characters Stallone plays are more real."

Hovering nearby are several television entertainment reporters, prepping for their on-the-air missives. ("Hey, Gary," hollers a bystander to KABC reviewer Gary Franklin, "are you gonna give it a 10?")

And then there is one co-ed who speaks for herself and her two companions: "We didn't really come to see Stallone, or the movie. We came because we knew it would be mostly guys here!"

11:53 p.m. There's a rush for free Stallone posters as the first crowd swarms out the doors. (The collected faces are a study in contrast: Critics--at least those immediately recognizable--look none-too-pleased. Those who shelled out six bucks seem satisfied.)

So on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, does the paying audience give "Cobra" a 10?

"It was a damn good film. I gotta see it again," says Brenda Jones, 21, of Los Angeles.

"Are you kidding? It was a good film. And boy, did he look good," says Delora Cooley, 20, of Los Angeles.

"Naw. It was too violent. And it was typical Stallone--no acting," argues James Thomas, 30, of Los Angeles.

And then there is the astute viewer who says of Brigitte Nielsen, "She was sure no super actress. But gosh, she looked good in those tight pants." Friday, May 23, 1:58 a.m. Three adventurous young girls, hiding out in the ladies' room (in order to stay on for the 2 a.m. show, gratis), beg a reporter not to squeal on them. No one knows whether they are flushed out in time by theater management.

Not everyone wants a second helping of "Cobra." On his way out of the midnight show, one man grumbles, "Movies like this make me want to change my species."

Friday, May 23, 3:41 a.m. Who says they don't clean streets anymore? Hollywood Boulevard is as moist and as sensible as Main Street, U.S.A., before a homecoming parade. There aren't even any bag people. Or cops.

Or folks waiting in line in front of the Chinese to see "Cobra." Lisa the ticket girl says they've sold 120-odd tickets for the 4 a.m. screening, but, "they've come in small bunches. No one lined up." She doesn't look disappointed.

As the marquee lights and Stallone's huge likeness blaze down from above, two or three coffee-perked ushers jive around the ticket booth. There are no klieg lights. No limos. No Neo-Rambos looking for phantom Viet Cong--although one man is wearing camouflage Army surplus pants.

Nothing to do but buy a ticket and go in.

5:28 a.m. The 4 a.m. crowd is anything but demonstrative. As Stallone/Cobra mops up the ersatz Night Stalker's army like jelly-filled ninepins up there in 70mm wide screen, the audience burbles and belches a little. But nobody screams "Right on!" or cheers. Not even when the baddie himself gets, um, the hook.

Only when Mrs. Stallone models a micro-swimsuit does the almost wholly 20s-ish male crowd get down a little. Wolf whistles. "All right's." Leg-straightenings.

As people filter out of the theater, two or three unshaven reporters are getting mopey reactions from the audience. The quotes have started to dry up.

"It was pretty good, man." "Pretty bogus." "What time is it?" "You guys are working now?" "Whatta you mean, do I think it glorifies violence? What don't?" A Gary Franklin-in-Training gives "Cobra" "about a 7 1/2. I didn't feel anything for the characters."

Everybody is a critic.

The reporters look slightly lost. Nobody lingers in front of the theater. Nobody's lining up for the 6 a.m. show, either.

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