Unconventional Chicago cop mismatched with stoic Russian cop? That'll be the 80's then. Relentlessly decent crime knockabout
If there's one film that I was dubious about seeing again it was this, for the simple reason that I remembered really liking it and feared finding out how wrong I was about it. I needn't have worried, somehow it's survived the ravages of time fairly well and even in this age when the culture clash / buddy comedy genres have been stretched past breaking point, it's a more than decent example of sleuthing, guns and the ever reliable mis-matched partners device.
Walter Hill's career has seen some variable quality, with every good film (Last Man Standing, 48 Hours) balanced by a utterly bap one (The Warriors, Another 48 Hours). While there's no real case to claim Red Heat as an astonishing work of unparalleled genius, there's enough merit here that it's doesn't really deserve it's position as a largely unremembered work in the collection of Arnie films.
In 1988 you wouldn't have though about doing a comedy with Arnold Schwarzenegger in it. Fresh from shooting a lot of guns in The Running Man, Predator and Raw Deal directors all over the world were looking for new and interesting ways for him to shoot a lot of guns, and Hill saw an opportunity to bring that famous accent into play. Here, Arnie is a Captain in the Russian State Police, Ivan Danko. Can Arnie do a convincing Russian accent? Well, he's aided by the fact the Russia's so damn big there's a natural variance in accents anyway, but there's still the unmistakable Arnie twang underneath it all. This might make the film laughable except for the fact that we've been conditioned by all of his other films to believe he sounds like an American, despite sounding like, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger. As such, his Russian accent immediately becomes the most believable thing he's ever done.
We're introduced to Danko chasing a notorious criminal with his partner. Now, cop film stereotypes dictate that his partner must die for motivation reasons, and it's good to see that's adhered to in short order. The criminal, Viktor Rostavili (Ed O'Ross) makes off to America with the intent to flood Russia with cocaine. The police understandably wish to stop this, and send Danko over to collect Viktor.
In a freak stroke of luck, the Chicago police department have already captured Viktor after a routine police check turned up the outstanding warrant. As that wouldn't be a lot of fun to watch, we instead see unconventional Detective Sergeant Art Ridzik (James Belushi), his partner Det. Sgt. Gallagher (Richard Bright) and their officious boss Lt. Charlie Stobbs (an early appearance of Laurence Fishburne) raiding a suspected drug dealer hangout. Things quickly get violent, but that corner-cutting, unconventional loudmouth Ridzik saves the day. Now, this was a totally played out clich? as soon as Dirty Harry did it better than anyone else back in 1971, but it's to the normally god-awful Belushi's credit that it doesn't seem quite as by the book as by rights it should be.
Danko arrives to bring Viktor to Ruskie justice, but things don't go entirely swimmingly. While Ridzik takes an immediate dislike to the stoic Russian, Gallagher is as polite as possible during the handover. Now, cop film stereotypes dictate that Ridzik's partner must die for motivation reasons, and it's good to see that's adhered to in short order also. The Cleanhead gang, who were dealing with Viktor stage a daring attack during the transfer leaving Danko in hospital and Gallagher in the morgue. Danko has managed to retain a mysterious key, vital to the drug deal.
The stage is pretty much set after that. Danko and Ridzik are assigned to go after Viktor, with Viktor and the Cleanhead gang for the most part happy to let them come to them so they can regain the key. No-one in their right mind would hold the storyline up as a masterpiece of intrigue, but at least the investigation that the mismatched duo undertake is a fairly sensibly tough out and believable one. They start putting the squeeze on Viktor's wife Cat Manzetti (Gina Gershon), they question a captured member of the Russian mob, they shake down the imprisoned leader of the Cleanheads... for an Arnie film it's all astonishingly sensible. The only parts of it that threaten this hardly familiar aura of believability is the body count, which quickly reaches the stratospheric numbers so commonly associated with Arnie films, and indeed Walter Hill films.
While the plot is a serviceable one it's little more than a backdrop for the action, which to be brutally honest is no more spectacular (or less, for that matter) than the many other 80's action films doing the rounds at the time, and at the risk of sounding lazy the whole film can essentially be summed up by calling it Lethal Weapon with a Russian rather that Danny Glover. Hill paces everything well enough and the gun fights are suitably brash and loud. He makes a reasonable stab at building tension and atmosphere in several scenes, but it's hamstrung by James Horner's score which is very obviously a child of the eighties, heavy on the saxophone and new-fangled 'synthesiser' noises that hasn't aged at all well.
Okay, in the harsh light of day this is little more than an average action movie designed to get arses on seats. The action is unremarkable by today's John Woo inspired extremes, but it's no worse than you'd expect from this time frame. It remains Belushi's most impressive work, even if his ranting and raving is far less funny than he seems to think it is. The comedy aspect is saved by Arnie, of all people. He's done more than acceptable comic work since, but this is the first time (his famously cheesy oneliners aside, which don't really count as 'proper' comedy) we'd seen this side of him. He plays one of the best straight men roles in any of these buddy/cop affairs, with absolutely perfect delivery of his lines.
Much of it's vintage Arnie. When asked by the frantic Commander Donnelly how the Russians deal with stress, having run off a reel of New Age bullshit Arnie simply replies 'Vodka'. A disbelieving Ridzik asks if he's 'shitting him'. Arnie deadpans 'No, I am not shitting on you'. It's hardly high concept comedy that'll be preserved in a time capsule for future generations but it fits in this film perfectly, giving the film far more soul than some of it's lesser genre-siblings.
Something didn't seem quite right when I watched this, and it's only towards the end that I figured it out. Nothing explodes. Cars are shot, and they don't immediately fireball. Cars crash without bursting into flame midair. Even buses are hit by trains, and they don't explode. By Hollywood standards this is utterly remarkable, and far more realistic. After all, thousands of engineers have worked thousands of hours to ensure that automobiles don't explode at the drop of a hat (or in Swordfish's case slowly bumping into a kerb). I never thought I'd say this in connection to an Arnie film, but in this respect at least it's more believable than almost every Hollywood action film ever. It's enough to bump it up a mark, in my estimation anyway.
Most people will think this is little more than average judged by today's more metropolitan actions standards, but I've a soft spot for it. As I just said, it's lack of Ford C4 Explodalots bumps it up a little in my book, and any film that has a bus chase culminating in bus chicken deserves some recognition.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
James Belushi (Det. Sgt. Art Ridzik)
Peter Boyle (Cmdr. Lou Donnelly)
Ed O'Ross (Viktor Rostavili)
Laurence Fishburne (Lt. Charlie Stobbs)
Gina Gershon (Cat Manzetti)
Richard Bright (Det. Sgt. Gallagher)