Rob Cohen | Subjects | Visual Style

Films: Miami Vice: Evan | The Nasty Boys: Fire and Ice | The Rat Pack | The Fast and the Furious

Classic Film and Television Home Page

Rob Cohen

Rob Cohen contributed to many of the glamorous action TV shows of the late 1980's, such as Miami Vice, Private Eye and The Nasty Boys. His style on such shows was just as personal as in his current works. He has remained true to a personal vision of cinema.

Rob Cohen: Subjects

Some common subjects in the films of Rob Cohen: Locations:

Rob Cohen: Visual Style

Visual style: Imagery: Color: Costumes and Color: Costumes:

Miami Vice: Evan

Evan is an episode of the TV series Miami Vice. Evan was written by Paul Diamond, and first shown May 3, 1985.

William Russ

William Russ' character and performance here were the rough sketch for his later (1988) character Roger LoCocco, on Wiseguy. This was one of the most interesting characterizations of the 1980's. Both characters: Cohen's theme of relations between men gets a rich airing here.


Cohen is interviewed in the book The Making of Miami Vice (1986), by Trish Janeshutz and Rob MacGregor. Cohen expresses great enthusiasm about his experiences directing Miami Vice episodes. John Diehl, who played a detective in Miami Vice, would later portray baseball player Joe DiMaggio in The Rat Pack.

The Arms Trade

Evan forms an expose of the arms trade, one of the most sinister of all commerces in the modern world, and one all too rarely discussed by the media. This is another example of Cohen's commitment to political filmmaking.

The Nasty Boys: Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice is an episode of the series The Nasty Boys (1990). This short lived TV cop show dealt with a bunch of masked cops who went up against drug dealers in Las Vegas.

Fire and Ice was first shown on February 23, 1990. The script was by Robert Palm, based on a story by Dick Wolf.

Red, White and Blue

Bright colors are everywhere. The car instruction scene involves a blue car and red equipment against a background of white buildings. The red, white and blue color combination really stands out.

Later, red-white-and-blue campaign scenes will be common, and equally vivid, in The Rat Pack, which deals with a Presidential election.

Architecture and Geometry

One well-constructed pan opens with a composition showing the two men in what seems to be an octagonal room in a large, elaborate house. We see three sides of the room, which has both a mezzanine above, and arched rooms under the mezzanine. We see through one of the arches in the foreground, while we can look into two other arched rooms in the back. The whole image makes a highly elaborate composition. The image is notable for its mathematical quality: the octagonal room, the repeating arches, the angle which exactly frames both the arch and the sub-rooms. It puts us into a mathematical universe. Then the men walk under one of the arches. The camera pans with them as we see them enter a room through the arch. They step down, and the camera keeps turning with them. They go past a huge fireplace, and enter a second room reachable by the first, as the camera starts peering into this room in turn, showing us a corner where the men eventually sit. The whole effect is architectural and mathematical. It is pleasantly smooth - in some ways it is a simple camera pan - but it also captures various architectural features at their most interesting point of view.

An earlier, outdoor scene between the two men also has architectural and mathematical features. It concludes with the head of Zada in front of a series of arches, while Bratt is in front of a round green tree top. This gives something very striking associated with each man, and yet completely different. The tree and the arches differ in color, shape, depth - the tree is flat, the arches stretch off in perspective. Before this, the gently moving camera had looked through the arches, then gone through them - somewhat similar to the later pan in the house. The background of the image is full of red rectangular windows and doors. These give a geometric feel to this world, like a Mondrian painting. They also echo the equally rectilinear tool case Bratt is carrying. There are also circular planters in this courtyard, further constructing a geometric world.

The Finale: Neon Signs

There are a huge number of camera set-ups in the finale. Despite this, it does not feel like a montage sequence, somehow. Each set up is carefully composed.

The entire finale takes place in a junk yard of Las Vegas neon signs, most of which are illuminated. The signs are gigantic, and are sitting on the ground, forming a huge maze through which the characters wander, and have their shoot out. It creates an entire world of color, geometric pattern and light, through which the characters flow. This wonderful set is presumably the creation of Art Director Gary Diamond.

The polygonal shapes of the signs, and their brilliant colors, are the center of Cohen's compositions.

The final confrontation of Benjamin Bratt and Ramy Zada takes place in close-ups. Bratt is shown with a blue lit-up sign behind him, Zada with a red one. This gives a dramatic contrast to the two men. Both colors are rich.

The Rat Pack

The Rat Pack (1998) is a biopic, dealing with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, who together formed the show biz alliance known as the Rat Pack. The film is mainly set in the early 1960's, and centers on Sinatra's successful efforts to get John F. Kennedy elected as President of the United States. The film is deeply political. It focuses on Sinatra, and his involvement with the Kennedy campaign, and Sammy Davis, Jr., and his fight against racial discrimination. Peter Lawford, who was Kennedy's brother-in-law, also has a major role. By contrast, Dean Martin's character is under-utilized, and Joey Bishop hardly appears in the picture at all, except as support in group scenes.

The Rat Pack is a two-hour feature length film, made for cable television. Both the TV screenings, and the beautiful-looking DVD, are in traditional TV aspect ratio, essentially 1.33:1. The film shows every indication of being composed for this ratio. Cohen has done much TV work, and is familiar with this traditional format.

Visual Style: Composition and Geometry

The Rat Pack has a superb visual style. Most of the shots show carefully composed, geometrical patterns, often centered on the use of architecture. They convey the sense of being in a mathematical world. The patterns are formed out of brilliantly colored regions, often using bright shades of red or pink. Several of the scenes show patterns made out of bright lights, which glow in brilliant colors on the screen.

The film is recognizably in the same style as The Nasty Boys: Fire and Ice (1990). The geometric patterns recur throughout that earlier work. And that film's finale, set in a junkyard full of Las Vegas neon signs, prefigures the use of lights throughout The Rat Pack.

Just as The Nasty Boys: Fire and Ice clearly draws on the efforts of its Art Director, Gary Diamond, so is the visual look of The Rat Pack plainly based on the work of Production Designer Hilda Stark Manos. Hilda Stark Manos rose to fame with the TV series Crime Story, which was also a historical work largely set in Las Vegas. Cohen and Stark Manos have clearly worked together to create the film's look. Cohen's framings emphasize and bring out the mathematical qualities of the sets. Cohen creates a mathematical, geometric world, one closely based on the sets Stark Manos created for the picture. This is an integrated work of visual style.

The stand-up comedian is shown against a huge red curtain. Next, he stands against a repeating series of three red sections of the theater wall. Such repetition helps create the mathematical feel of this world. Sinatra will soon be singing against a curtain with repeated red folds, while his band, in yellow jackets, will be in alternating bandstands in two rows. The mise-en-scène here is of an abstract, highly colored world of mathematically arranged shapes.

Sinatra's office is wood paneled, like a top executive's office in the 1950's. The wood is a pink or red tone. The panels are full of rectangular and square sub-regions. These are echoed by the chairs in the room, which are both a matching shade of pink, and made up of a series of rectilinear solids. There are also windows with numerous square panels, and ceiling skylights of the same pattern. Four framed platinum records add circles to this rectilinear set.

Sinatra's home in Palm Springs is shown in exterior, with both a pool and its patio stretching away into the background, making rectangular regions, as do two right-angled sections of the house behind them.

The main interior of the house also is introduced in a shot showing a series of rectilinear regions receding into the background. The rug is covered with an irregular series of small rectangles, like a dark-colored Mondrian. Several curving pink light fixtures are reflected in the polished black surface of a coffee table. A similarly colored and curved pink jar is on the table. As the camera moves, the jar is fixed with the position of the camera, while the reflections sail underneath the table, in counterpoint to the movement of everything else in the shot. It is a striking effect.


The Sands casino is introduced in an elevated angle shot. It shows two rows of slot machines from above, forming a receding grid. More importantly, there are four conical light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, each surrounded by a cylindrical, annular ring. A framed wheel in the back adds another circular counterpoint to these, being vertical, while the lamp rings are horizontal. The wheel is spinning. The shot is of an elaborately geometrical world.

The next shot shows two pinkish pillars marking out a hallway, from which Dean Martin makes an entrance. In the foreground is a huge roulette wheel, horizontal on a long table, with a spoke sticking up from its center. This too is a geometrical world.

The fund-raiser includes a huge circular photo of Kennedy on stage, flanked by horizontal lines. The real Kennedy is seated at the center of red-white-and-blue semi-circular regions of bunting.

Puccini's, Sinatra's restaurant, has a curved roof, and a series of repeated pillars. Inside, it is a symphony of circles, including pillars, a huge circular light fixture, and an equally large circular table underneath it. Cohen makes a revolving camera movement, going around the inside of the table, showing the people seated there, in turn.

Some of the exteriors show driveways of huge buildings. These drives end in circular turnarounds, that flow around circular holes in their center.

Another circular image: the huge stairwell at the casino. The stair spirals slowly around the edge of this huge well, like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Other circular forms include the outside of the Capitol Records building in LA, where Sinatra has an office.

Even during the credits, a cart drives through a circularly curved backstage hall. The hall is lit up at regular intervals, showing the repeating patterns prevalent in the film.

Lights and Circles

When Sinatra is on-stage at the beginning, spotlights beam down on him, making diagonal lines. Soon, we see shots of Sinatra staring out, seeing nothing but a row of blinding, multi-colored lights.

The Walter Winchell-like radio broadcaster is shown above a brilliant "On the Air" sign. There is also a circular glow of light from a lamp on his desk. A series of clock dials, showing different time zones, adds to the circles in the composition.

Sammy Davis is introduced in a stage scene, with blinding lights on the music stands of his band. The shots are also full of circular drums, which Cohen photographs from tilted angles to make numerous jazzy compositions. Other circles include the horn of the trumpet Davis plays, and the semi-circular extension at the front of the stage.

Neon Signs on the Ground

The musical defiance scene with Sammy Davis is the film's most elaborate use of lights. The nightclub entrance in filled with neon. We see a deep focus shot down the entrance corridor. Regularly repeating blue neon lines recur down this corridor.

And Davis dances in front of a huge neon sign on the ground. This recalls the finale of The Nasty Boys: Fire and Ice, which also centers on Las Vegas neon signs that are incongruously sitting directly on the ground, a highly unusual figure of style. Such signs only occur in these two Rob Cohen works, in all of the cinema, as far as one can tell.


The dialogue in The Rat Pack refers to the real life film starring Sinatra and Martin, Some Came Running (1959), directed by Vincente Minnelli. Cohen shares with Minnelli a rich use of color, and an emphasis on creative composition. The "light art" that runs through Minnelli's pictures also finds a modern-day equivalent in the use of lights in Cohen's films. One wonders if Minnelli is a direct influence on Cohen's style.

Sinatra's office is full of sound equipment, and both he and other characters are shown near telephones and microphones throughout the picture. This recalls the interest in sound equipment by Raoul Walsh. So do the circles that run through the compositions.


The Rat Pack has the glamorous look of a Hollywood film of the Golden Age of the 1930's or 1940's. The heavy use of interiors takes us into a dream world, one that is less concerned with location shooting, and more with a creation of a unique fantasy world. And the glamorized people, in gorgeous clothes, also remind us of Hollywood at its peak. The costumes here are by Jodie Tillen, who did the astonishingly spiffy historical costumes for the TV series Private Eye (1987), as well as the innovative first year of Miami Vice, for both of which Cohen also directed. Both The Rat Pack and Private Eye transpire in a late 1950's - early 1960's world of LA-based fashion.

The title sequence shows Sinatra getting dressed up in a tuxedo, echoing the later scene in The Skulls where one man helps another get dressed in white tie and tails. The second shot is a camera movement over a drawer filled with red-orange handkerchiefs. The repeated V-shapes of the handkerchiefs is an early example of the geometrical style of the film, while their brilliant color sets up the film's red world.

When Joey Bishop enters the picture, in Sinatra's office, he is wearing the same sort of spiffy dark-gray suits worn by the hero of Private Eye. He gets a full entrance, shot from the front, with his arms raised. Like the lead of Private Eye, this suit makes him look more dressed up than everyone around him.


The real Frank Sinatra was a famous womanizer, and there are two brief scenes towards the end of the picture showing Sinatra in bed with women. However, most of the film focuses on Sinatra's involvement with men. The dialogue repeatedly makes clear Sinatra's love for his fellow Rat Pack members, who he calls "my guys". This affection is returned, in a successful real-life relationship. And also Sinatra's intense feelings for John F. Kennedy. The dialogue also uses the word "love" here. This relationship is far more painful. Sinatra's intense affection for Kennedy is exploited by Kennedy and the Kennedy family for political gain, and not really returned. This central relationship in the film is essentially a story of unrequited love. The film anticipates The Skulls, whose working class hero develops an intense feeling for a rich, glamorous young man, and who tries to enter into his world, with painful and sinister results. Here, the working class Sinatra tries to enter into the wealthy and powerful world of the Kennedy's, with equally painful consequences.

When Dean Martin's character enters the picture, clad in a black tux in Vegas, the shot also includes another muscular man in a similar black tux, seen from the back. Soon the camera moves over to reveal a good-looking young man in a spotted, leopard-print tux, who grins at Martin in admiration, plainly thrilled to be seeing him. This is part celebrity worship, part just plain admiration. Later, when Dean leaves the casino, we see the young man in the leopard-print tux again, once more staring after Dean.

John and Robert Kennedy wear matching white bath robes, indicating male bonding. This contrasts with earlier shots of Sinatra in a shiny black dressing gown, the kind that was popular in the 1920's.

The Fast and the Furious

Glamorous Worlds - and Visual Creativity

Rob Cohen's recent theatrical films The Skulls (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001) have a consistent approach. They are action films, centering around male bonding. They take place in a visually elaborate world, one full of brightly designed machines, rooms and architecture. This visual brilliance is often eye popping, and is very enjoyable to watch. The films tend to lack a surface realism, taking place instead in a wish fulfillment fantasy world. They are in a "action" paradigm that was popular in the 1980's, one fusing glamour and excitement, not in the 1990's "special effects" mode, which concentrates on endless special effects of things getting destroyed. Cohen is into creation, not destruction. He tries to build up an elaborate, complex, highly colored world in which his characters can live.

The Fast and the Furious is very much in his personal traditions. The brilliantly colored cars in this racing film are as chromatic and delightful as anything in the current cinema. They recall the row of brightly colored Corvettes in The Skulls.

The racing scene towards the beginning, in which the two protagonists drag their blindingly bright cars down an L.A. street, is a genuinely exciting sequence. The scenes here have a little of the feel of Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels (1995), which often showed fast camera movements down Hong Kong streets. The special effects, which re-create the feel of racecar driving at incredibly high speeds, are a welcome change from the recent rotten tendency of Hollywood cinema to use special effects for violence and horror. They are among the more life-enhancing special effects scenes in commercial films.

One can see some differences between The Fast and the Furious and Cohen's The Skulls. The clothes in The Skulls tend to be black and white, and much of the film takes place in indoor sets, which tend to be elegantly gray. By contrast, much of The Fast and the Furious takes place outdoors, as is natural in a race car movie, and much of the color design is vividly multi-hued.

Undercover Heroes

Both The Skulls and The Fast and the Furious deal with a middle class, ordinary guy outsider who makes much effort to get into an exclusive, difficult to join group, only to experience danger once he has joined.

The Fast and the Furious has a plot set-up similar to Peter Werner's No Man's Land (1987). However, there are differences in tone to the characters. The policeman hero of No Man's Land was a working class guy, who had never experienced anything exciting in his life. He goes undercover with some glamorous car thieves, and is awed by their world. They also treat him much better than he has ever been treated by anyone outside his family: we see his rotten superiors on the police force, and the awful things he has to endure from them. Consequently, we can understand his going native with the people he has been sent to infiltrate. By contrast, the hero here in The Fast and the Furious is a glamorous figure to begin with. He is probably a middle class person, but his life already seems light years beyond the lower class existence of the racers he is infiltrating.