Thursday, May 9, 2013

"R" is for Red Heat

 When I was crowd-sourcing suggestions for The ABCs of Movie Masochism, I asked for a "terrible romantic comedy" to round out the genres being covered. In jest, someone suggested Raw Deal, but I always get that movie mixed up with Red Heat, which is kind of a romantic comedy, right?

 Twenty five years before he returned to the big screens with Bullet to the Head, Walter Hill (The Warriors) brought audiences another mismatched buddy cop movie with an edge, Red Heat. Watching them in (reasonably) close proximity, it's hard not to notice many similarities between the two. Yes, most "buddy cop" movies are about clashing styles between the two leads, set in an iconic city, but it's hard not to see Bullet to the Head as a "lesser than" to Red Heat. No offense to Sylvester Stallone or New Orleans, but let's take a look at what Hill brought us back in 88.

 Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand) plays Soviet Captain Ivan Danko, a no nonsense cop in Moscow who we meet in an undercover sting in a bath house. He burns his hand to prove some bad guys that he's no a cop, and then proceeds to beat the hell out of them outside in the snow. Because this is Arnold and you need to remind people of his indomitable prowess early on, but to Hill's credit, you know right away not to mess with this Russian. His partner is killed while trying to arrest drug dealer Viktor Rostavili (the immediately recognizable Ed O'Ross) who then flees to Chicago to avoid Danko.

 When Danko's superiors send him to the windy city to pursue Vikor (with lethal force, if necessary), he's paired up with Det. Sgt. Art Ridzik (James Belushi). Ridzik just busted a few drug dealers who were working with / for Viktor, so their cases line up, even if they clash repeatedly over cultural difference, police procedures, and detective work. Ridzik is considered something of a "loose cannon" in his own department, but Danko's blatant disregard for Miranda rights or any form of "police procedure" threatens his already tenuous standing.

 I guess it's worth mentioning to people born after Red Heat came out (and I know a few of you) that once upon a time the U.S.'s number one enemy was Communist Russia (the USSR) and that the idea of teaming up a Soviet cop with an American cop was novel storytelling. Within a few years of Walter Hill filming in Moscow (true story), Mr. Gorbachev would indeed "tear down this wall" in Berlin and symbolically bring down the Iron Curtain and this would happen, and I have to wonder what Russian audiences thought when they saw their best and brightest exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, he was a big star but... really? And remember, this was three years after Swedish Dolph Lundgren played Ivan Drago, the previous example of Soviet superiority in Rocky IV.

 Where was I going with that? Just an observation, I guess. I mean, if you're Walter Hill and Arnold is available, maybe you just said "what the hell." They front load it with statues of Marx and Lenin and play on how little Americans know about the Soviet Union, and then let John Belushi's brother make fun of it for the next 90 minutes.

There are a lot of (mostly unfunny) jokes told by Belushi about Soviets and communism and how that doesn't "work" for us in the United States. Danko is portrayed as almost fascistic in his pursuit of Viktor, makes fun of Belushi's 44 Magnum (including a "Who's Dirty Harry?" joke) and for some reason thinks Miranda is an actual woman... So okay, the same lame "we're different" wisecracks I groaned at during Bullet to the Head are on full display. I guess I was more lenient this time because I knew Jim Belushi wasn't going to be funny or charismatic.

 (There is one kind of funny joke, when Ridzik correctly identifies how Danko likes his tea while in a diner. When Danko inquiries how he knew, he replies that he's "seen Doctor Zhivago." It was out of left field enough that I chuckled.)

 Well, Red Heat is still fun, even if the jokes fall flat (maybe I just don't quite jibe with Walter Hill's sense of humor, which tends to be vaguely misogynistic - I can't keep track of how many times woman are referred to as "bitches" in the movie - and full of lame observations you'd hear in hack-y comedy routines. On the other hand, the action is pretty good and Hill manages to make a medium speed game of chicken between two buses still be tense. The gunfights are pretty good and Schwarzenegger is surprisingly convincing as a Russian.

 Red Heat also has quite an impressive cast of familiar faces that keep things moving along when the tiresome "banter" between Belushi and Schwarzenegger begins to tax the patience.  So in addition to Ed O'Ross (seriously, if you don't recognize his face immediately, have a look at how many movies he's in that you've probably seen), Red Heat also features Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein) as the exasperated police chief, Larry Fishburne (Apocalypse Now) as a by-the-book cop looking to ruin Ridzik, Gina Gershon (Killer Joe) as Viktor's American wife, Richard Bright (The Ref) as Belushi's partner (also killed by Viktor's men),  Pruitt Taylor Vince (Natural Born Killers) as the desk clerk at Danko's hotel, Mike Hagerty (Wayne's World) as Ridzik's brother-in-law, Brion James (Blade Runner) as a perp who Danko "interrogates," and Sven-Ole Thorsen (Mallrats) as Nikolai. Sorry, I don't quite remember who that was but I'm guessing it's someone Danko fights early in the movie.

 I was hoping that Red Heat might have a bit more 80s cheese than it did, but if I'm comparing this to Bullet to the Head - and I sort of have to considering they're both Walter Hill movies with roughly similar premises - I'll give the edge to Red Heat. Chicago is definitely more interesting as a backdrop than New Orleans was in Bullet to the Head (they even film inside of Joliet), and Belushi at least delivers his non-stop barrage of shitty one-liners with a sense of exasperation. While I enjoy the older Stallone, he can't compete with Arnold (arguably) in his prime, and the way the bus chase ends is almost worth the price of admission. Game, set, and match to Red Heat.

 Up next: Wes Craven tries to start a new horror franchise after A Nightmare on Elm Street but before Scream. Can you guess what it is? (Hint: not The Hills Have Eyes 2).

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