Action Heroes – Schwarzenegger: Red Heat

It has fallen to me to bring you the retrospective of Walter Hill’s 1988 action/comedy/thriller Red Heat.

It’s an example of that seemingly oh-so 80s a phenomenon, the buddy-cop movie. Now I know there were buddy cop movies, and proto-buddy cop movies before the 80s, but the genre definitely hit its stride in the age of shoulder pads, mullets, Day-Glo and electro pop, and Red Heat fits in perfectly.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career seems to me to consist of definite periods. These periods tend to run in unison with the decades (70s, 80s, 90s etc), but it is a little more complex than that, methinks. Once Conan and then The Terminator really put him on the map, we had a run of memorable hit movies, mostly R18, in an unbroken line, one after the other right up to Terminator 2 in 1991. This is the golden period of course. After T2, things went a little awry (Last Action Hero anyone?!), and the rest of the 90s played out in a more hit-and-miss style, with each new action film being heralded as a ‘return to form’. This variable effectiveness continued into the 00s, culminating in the troubled and unfocused T3, and then of course things changed completely in 2003 with Arnold’s move into full-time Republican politics.

So wind the timer back to 1988 and the producers who brought us Rambo serve up Red Heat more or less slap bang in the middle of my aforementioned ‘golden’ Arnie period. It serves as a pretty good semi-comedic prelude to Arnold’s first (and in my opinion, best) foray into actual comedy, the excellent Twins.

Red Heat sees Arnold starring as Captain Ivan Danko, a big Soviet drug enforcement officer with an even bigger flat top hair-do, sent from Moscow to the USA to escort violent Georgian crime lord Viktor Rostavili (who is in Chicago PD custody) back behind the Iron Curtain to answer for his many crimes. Rostavili had initially fled to the USA from Danko’s clutches after a sting to capture him went severely pear-shaped. This gives Danko and Viktor unfinished business, and they have a personal vendetta which adds to the mix. Before Danko can complete his mission, however, Viktor escapes his clutches again and disappears into the Chicago underworld. This puts Danko together with James Belushi’s wise-cracking Chicago vice cop Art Ridzic. The two men then have to find a way to work out their differences and solve the problem of getting Viktor back in shackles, or failing that, y’know, shoot him a helluva lot. Cue drama, misunderstandings, shouting and cop action.

Naturally, the enormous cultural, procedural and professional differences between the two leads are played around with, and form the core of the tensions and evolving relationship between the two men. Danko begins the movie stereotypically uptight and in complete contrast to Belushi’s pudgy, wise-cracking, snack-munching, apparently borderline incompetent Ridzic. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. He’s not incompetent at all, but he’s certainly no model employee, or much of a team player. In any case, Ridzic has that familiar American, blue collar, mouthy, work-shy but good-cop attitude going on. It’s a tried and trusted formula, and was well established long before Red Heat hit the flix. The USP here of course being the Russian/American dynamic and the way Hill develops this. Of course the story/action plays out much as you’d expect for 100 minutes or so and then the credits roll.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but there are very few surprise tangents here, and it’s mostly by the numbers. Danko comes apart at the seams a little, and softens a wee bit, shows some emotion and warms to Ridzic. Similarly, Ridzic accepts and embraces Danko’s less than ‘by the book’ intentions towards Viktor, and gets to know a little more about the Russian. Eventually they begin to warm to each other as partners. Trust builds on both sides through the famously uniting medium of excessively violent, right-wing, gun-toting policing! Easy peasy!

We have an awkward looking and weirdly inert Gina Gershon, her character dies, and (shock horror) DOESN’T get her lady bumps out. Also popping up is ‘Larry’ Fishburne (interesting to see the great Morpheus as a skinny, young, officious, police pencil pusher). Ed O’Ross plays bad guy Viktor. O’Ross certainly looks the part, and growls out his lines like some kind of Russian Batman. The wardrobe department obviously let the work experience girl stuff him into a bilious and copiously shaggy, ill-fitting woolen suit and long cream greatcoat that looks like he borrowed it from his grandma. Honourable mentions also go to Peter Boyle as the police chief and my man, Brion James. Last but not least is long-time Arnie collaborator, and very great Dane, Sven Ole Thorsen, whom I have loved since he was Thorgrim in Conan.

If we take a look at the movies in Arnold’s aforementioned golden period, it’s fair to say that Red Heat is probably not near the top of the heap for most Schwarzenegger fans, me included. Terminator 1 and 2 hog the lion’s share of the plaudits of course, with fan favourites Predator and Total Recall being other high points. Red Heat even gets lost amid the quirkier guilty pleasure faves like Commando and The Running Man, not to mention Twins, which is a genuinely funny and endearing comedy. It’s reasonable to say therefore, that among this glut of genre classics, box office smashes and fan favourites, poor old Red Heat is left looking slightly cold when viewed from a 2011 vantage point. Schwarzenegger’s giant flat top (did Jedward watch the movie?) and dubiously odd compound Austro/Russian accent, together with Belushi’s comic schtick are not enough to push the movie up over the parapet into the rarified air some of the other movies of this era enjoy. Shame really.

I guess on reflection that sometimes the box office success of a movie does not ensure its longevity or standing within its own pantheon. Red Heat, despite some pretty good dialogue, witty banter, good performances and much kudos for actually obtaining permission to film in Soviet-era Red Square (albeit briefly), doesn’t deliver quite enough to make it really stand out. I think it’s still a good movie. Very Walter Hill (no bad thing), and very of its time. Not a demerit necessarily. In much the same way that it can be difficult for a modern audience to watch clunky unconvincing SFX scenes in older movies, so it follows that certain types of genre movie appear to date more severely than others. Red Heat’s particular brand of (to be fair, surprisingly non-judgmental) USA/Soviet dynamics places it squarely in the age of Perestroika and Glasnost in a literal, chronological sense of course. However, it’s more the downtrodden, lo-fi, seedy Chicago setting, and the buddy cop format itself that really serve to date the movie. It’s 48Hours, but six years on in movieland.
A comparison with McTiernan’s Die Hard is a very good example of my point. Red Heat and Die Hard came out a month apart at most, yet they seem completely poles apart now. Certain fashions, hairstyles, vehicles and technologies aside, Die Hard doesn’t feel as hopelessly 80s as Red Heat does. It’s an eminently more watchable movie to 2011 film sensibilities. It’s a respectable three-star movie in my humble opinion, and worthy of a quote to finish on:

Ridzik: Yeah? Well, tell me something, Captain. If you’ve got such a fucking paradise over there, how come you’re up the same creek as we are with heroin and cocaine?

Danko: Chinese find way. Right after revolution, they round up all drug dealers, all drug addicts, take them to Public Square, and shoot them in back of head.

Ridzik: Ah, it’d never work here. Fucking politicians wouldn’t go for it.

Danko: Shoot them first.

Oh I almost forgot, check out how they had to shorten Arnie’s massive Jedward top for the video box/poster so it would fit!! Awesome!

до свидания everybody!

Ben Pegley

Share this!