“I give up, this whole thing’s very Russian!”
So speaks Jim Belushi’s swaggering Chicago cop Art Ridzic near the end of this typically brutal action romp from Walter Hill, he of the magnificent The Warriors. It’s the kind of line you’d typically expect from a film that took a glance at the rapidly melting Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union and figured it a perfect foil for a deliriously violent buddy movie that’s as heavy handed as Schwarzenegger’s right hook. However, this was 1988, a full year after Shane Black streamlined the banter-filled sub-genre with Lethal Weapon, but not to worry, because Hill was also responsible for that other mis-matched action classic, 48 Hours, in which a nitro-fueled Eddie Murphy and an impossibly grizzled Nick Nolte verbally locked horns to prove that the director had good form. But would Hill’s typically hyper-masculine style score another classic as law men from two opposing super powers butt heads while blowing fist-sized holes in the bad guys?
Boulder-muscled Soviet policeman Ivan Danko is hot the trail of nostril flaring drug kingpin Viktor Rostavili and the only thing more rigid than his work ethic is his Dolph Lundgren-hand-me-down hairdo from Rocky IV, but when Rostavili escapes to the States after pumping Danko’s partner with more bullets than Old Yella, the driven officer is sent by his superiors to Chicago to bring him home. His welcoming commitee contains stunningly cynical detective Art Ridzic who initially is massively dismissive of this communist copper that he and his partner has to babysit while he escorts his prey back home after he’s been caught on a minor traffic violation. However, Rostavili’s men arrive and rescue him while shooting up the place and it soon becomes clear that the criminal has a far greater plan in place that involves him doing deals with powerful American street gangs in order to smuggle uncut cocaine into the Soviet Union. As Danko and Ridzic reluctantly team up to smoke him out, much to the displeasure of their superiors, the bodycount starts rising as fast as a thermometer in the oven as they find out that the villain’s plan is far more complicated as they first thought.
Bullets fly, insults are traded and respect is ultimately formed between the loud-mouth American and the seemingly emotionless Soviet thanks to the sheer amount of scumbags who receive congratulatory toe tags every time our leads clash with gun toting gang gangbangers and Russian drug runners.
Walter Hill is a director whose output was a string of unfeasibly masculine action thrillers that coated themselves in more grit than a gravel driveway, so to expect Red Heat to be the same kind of buddy comedy we get these days may very well lead to some nasty suprises. Despite hitting cinemas in the late 80’s, there’s a fiercely callous sense of the late 70’s that’s infused in the movie’s DNA that really proves that they don’t really made them like this anymore and it’s unapologetic style may even suprise those who thought Schwarzenegger’s output during the decade was solely playing robots or hanging out with Danny Devito. For a start Chicago (like every city in an 80’s actioner that isn’t Die Hard) looks like a filth encrusted sty of an urban shithole with junkies and gang members leaking out of every fire escape and crappy motel as far as the eye can see. The inhabitants of the movie aren’t much cleaner, with all the male characters virtually drowning in cynical toxicity regardless of whether they’re good guys or bad and all the females with speaking roles are either exclusively whores or secretaries with almost nothing to add except a load of screaming, or, in Gina Gershon’s case a boat load of exposition before she inevitably checks out in a body bag.
So, we’ve established that that Red Heat is dirty, scummy and fairly sexist, but if I’m being honest it’s also legitimately fascinating to look back at it from a time when the majority of action epics in this day and age are fairly sanitized. Our heroes are jaded, distrustful, borderline corrupt (at one point they both simultaneously try illegal means to get Brion James’ cameoing scumbag to talk – the breaking of fingers win out over the planting of drugs in case you were wondering) and settle 99% of all crime related issues by shooting chunks out of genuinely vile criminals at the drop of a hat. The violence is hugely exaggerated too, with every punch to the face inexplicably sounding like two boulders smacking together and every gunshot (regardless of the caliber) sounding like the cannons of a damn battleship and this ultimately is what carries us through a fairly derivative action rollercoaster that felt fairly dated upon release thanks to Lethal Weapon rewriting the rules so well. Riggs and Murtaugh are free to bloodily blow away drug dealers in the middle of a crowded street because their backgrounds of widower and family man humanize them in the face of the stylized violence; Danko and Ridzic don’t have any humanising traits at all, unless you take into account that both their partners are both taking bullet-assisted dirt naps before the film is even halfway over.
However, with all the lecturing out of the way, Red Heat may be a fairly inessential entry into the 80’s action genre, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a heap of gruesome, hard-boiled fun. The opening scene where Schwarzenegger infiltrates a ludicrously homoerotic Russian stream room wearing nothing but a handkerchief-sized loincloth for his troubles while having to prove his toughness by gripping onto a boiling hot rock is nothing short of ridiculous poetry and the climatic bus chase is as awesome as it is illogical (you guys are seriously going to chase each other through the city streets in buses..? Fucking Buses!?). I also have to admit that I do honestly miss the absolutely huge bullet squibs movies used to employ and the moment where Arnold runs around delivering crooks into the next world via the lethal discharge of a 44. Magnum that apparently never needs reloading gives me warm feelings that even a therapist would have trouble explaining.
The leads, while never conjuring the same amount of chemistry as some of the other action duos, work fine together thanks to some classic examples of unsubtle culture shock (“You’re shitting me!” Exclaims Belushi at one point “I am not shitting on you.” Is the typically iron-faced reply) and Arnie, despite only changing his W’s to V’s and rolling his R’s, tackles the accent pretty well while Belushi ups the obnoxious arrogance up to Tom Arnold levels. It’s also nice that Ed O’ Ross, a stalwart of similar movies such as Lethal Weapon and The Hidden, gets to play the main villain in the film for a change and is legitimately suprising to see “Larry” Fishburne and Peter Boyle as part of the cast.
However, if nothing else, there’s not much that can beat the sight of Schwarzenegger relieving a crook of his prosthetic leg, exposing the secret compartment with a loud poping sound, pouring a ton of China white all over the ground and then coldly announcing “Cocainum!” as he gives everyone around him a steely death-stare.
An unsubtle relic of a by-gone area, Red Heat has hardly remained evergreen while equally brutal movies such as Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Predator have ascended to action movie immortality, but there’s still much to enjoy here as director Hill cranks out another overwhelming chunkblower with a legitimately sound concept that didn’t age particularly well.
Flack in the USSR.