Back in 1988, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t only the premier action star in Hollywood, he was one of the biggest superstars in the entire world. Success came naturally to the industry’s most unlikely megastar. The ‘Austrian oak’ had already left behind provincial life to become one of the most successful bodybuilders in history, and in a decade of bigger is better, Arnie’s musclebound excess not only fit the action star profile, it defined it. Schwarzenegger wasn’t a particularly good actor. To begin with he was terrible at best, struggling to adapt to the English language and failing to loosen his clunky diction, but what he had was determination in abundance. He was also incredibly charming beneath the brick wall façade, and, most importantly, he knew how to get ahead in the dog-eat-dog realms of commercial capitalism.
After being shrewdly cast by James Cameron as the suitably cold Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Series 800 Terminator, Arnie would star in a succession of cult action and sci-fi blockbusters that launched him to a new cultural stratosphere, mainstream winners such as the ludicrously hypermascualine Commando, dystopian Stephen King adaptation The Running Man and John McTiernan’s Jungle-bound classic Predator. By 1991, just as Cameron had unleashed a newly reprogrammed ‘good guy’ Terminator in what was then the most expensive movie ever made in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Arnie was in the midst of excepting only family-friendly roles as he looked to ingratiate himself with political circles, and we all know how well that went. Despite the critics and naysayers eager to pigeonhole Arnie as a bumbling birdbrain, whatever he turned his hand to he came up trumps.
For those of us weaned on a diet of Arnie’s cheap one-liners, the majority of those movies were a blast. People may have been critical of Paul Michael Glaser’s gaudy take on The Running Man; they may have cried foul over Paul Verhoeven’s similarly mainstream Phillip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall. Hell, there were some who wrote Arnie off as lowbrow trash whatever the movie. But you don’t get to the top of the mountain off the back of sheer dumb luck. There were a thousand and one gripes that could be levelled at Arnie and the majority of his star vehicles, but that was besides the point. What Arnie had in abundance was that illusive, almost intangible quality known as charisma; and not your typical kind. He wasn’t loud or fast-talking or in your face; he wasn’t particularly handsome or skilled or knowledgeable about the creative side of things. In fact, he was quite the opposite: careful, considered and emboldened by a quiet sense of ironic self-awareness. Ultimately, he was a true original.
In the realms of mainstream Hollywood, it seemed that Schwarzenegger could do no wrong, but were his movies really as consistently entertaining as many of us remember? To be honest, I always seem to go back to those same movies over and over. Since their release, I must have seen Commando and The Running Man fifty times apiece. Predator, The Terminator, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day? I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced those movies in my lifetime. I’ve even seen James Cameron’s inspired action comedy True Lies at least a dozen times, and I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for the likes of Twins and even the absolutely ludicrous Kindergarten Cop. There’s just something about Arnie’s delivery, whether the material is playful or not, that tickles me just right. Stick the guy in a juxtaposing predicament and I’m immediately sold.
But what of those action movies that I rarely, if ever, return to? Specifically, I’m thinking of John Irvin’s violent, 1986 actioner Raw Deal and Cold War buddy flick Red Heat. The latter, in particular, was a movie that got me hyped as a young action fan; the fact that I hardly remembered it made me particularly curious upon a recent re-watch. I was somewhat surprised, then, to discover that the movie was actually written and directed by Walter Hill. This was the same Walter Hill who revolutionised the buddy cop picture with Eddie Murphy action/comedy 48 Hrs., the same who brought us iconic, splash panel gang warfare flick The Warriors and penned Alien 3, the sobering follow-up to James Cameron’s balls to the wall Alien sequel Aliens. Hill had a knack for cynical comedy. He was also renown for violence and gritty aesthetics. In fact, when I read his name on the poster I narrowed my eyes a little. Arnie and Walter Hill? It was a pairing I never imagined existed.
I’d already seen Red Heat long before I even knew who Walter Hill was, or even what a director was. The most I could remember was that is starred Arnie and James Belushi, someone I recognised from another, slightly less conventional buddy cop movie in 1989’s K-9 — admittedly a favourite of mine as a youngster. In my mind, none of this added up. Could Walter Hill really pair Schwarzenegger with the likes of Belushi to produce something in the Hill mode? This wasn’t the blue-mouthed Eddie Murphy and a no-nonsense Nick Nolte we were dealing with. It was Arnie and James Belushi! Could he really get enough out of them to forge something genuinely against the grain?
Red Heat’s set-up could not be more predictable. Here we have two men from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain thrust together as the Cold War trudged through yet another year with no real resolution in sight. We had the buzz cut in the ostentatious police uniform and the no-nonsense cop with high cholesterol. It was East opposing West, capitalism against communism, John McClane vs Ivan Drago. It didn’t take a genius to know in which direction this movie was heading. After years of Commie bashing propaganda vehicles such as Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rocky IV and high school front line absurdity Red Dawn, you could have been forgiven for writing this one off from the get-go.
Of course, this being Hill, it isn’t quite so straightforward. The movie is still painfully formulaic at times, but Red Heat is much less polemical than those aforementioned movies, presenting affairs with more of a level playing field. We still have plenty of characters who live up to the Commie regime in ways that are not so flattering, but Arnie’s Ivan Danko (sound familiar?) and Belushi’s Art Ridzik are presented as equals for the most part, with a story at pains to communicate the fact that human beings are human beings wherever they come from (as long as they’re not bad guys or shooting practice extras.)
The movie is refreshing in the sense that it attempts to find common ground between two men who are expected to be politically and ideologically opposed, the two possessing capitalist and communist habits and sentiments that are completely at odds, but underneath the xenophobic veneer they’re more or less the same, even if by the same we mean unconscionably violent, eternally pissed off and only communicating via cheap puns or misplaced aggression. Danko still has to learn how to do things the ‘American way’, which presumably means by the book, but overall he gives as much as he gets. Almost.
It was an interesting narrative tweak at a time when Cold War propaganda vehicles were becoming just a little old hat, and on paper the concept should have worked wonders. Firstly, this character is made for Arnie. Same as with The Terminator, all he had to do was be himself, and with the right screenplay and chemistry the comedy would take care of itself. By now, Arnie was something of a master at delivering cheap one-liners and Red Heat has them by the bucket load. Then there’s James Belushi, younger brother of tragic Blue Brothers legend, John. He had the smart mouth and Saturday Night Live pedigree and seemed like the perfect foil as the funny man to Arnie’s straight-as-a-die Boris. But Hill consciously took it upon himself to tone down Arnie’s wisecracking persona, which in hindsight may have not been the smartest move.
The plot is as thin as one would expect for a movie that lives and dies by its camaraderie. Having witnessed his friend gunned down by a Georgian cocaine smuggler who flees to the US, Arnie goes in hot pursuit, but when he attempts to extradite the crook from American shores, Belushi’s colleague is gunned down during an escape mission, and the commonality each of them need is there for the taking. Even worse, the filthy foreigner in question plans to smuggle ‘America’s poison’ out of the country and back to the Russian Far East, something that threatens to exacerbate international relations at a tenuous time. Nothing unites nations like a conspiratorial dose of bloody vengeance!
Sadly, it doesn’t quite work. For a start, there’s little of the chemistry essential to the film’s setup. In fact, the majority of the jokes miss rather depressingly, and even those that are funny on paper fail to hit the right note. This is even more jarring in the wake of superlative genre flicks such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, movies which added an extra layer of relatability and dynamism to the genre. Much of the problem lies with Belushi. Arnie is Arnie; what you see is what you get, and if everything fits he usually delivers. As the rogue in the equation, Belushi has much more weight on his shoulders, and he never really gets the material off the ground. Arnie has never been one for pairings. He usually has a token love interest or ill-fated secondary companion present to soak up his string of one-liners, but he’d never really had anyone to bounce off of at that stage in his career, and the back-and-forth model fails to get the best out of him. Later that year, Danny DeVito would make a better foil in Twins, a movie that would ultimately dwarf Red Heat at the box office.
Belushi has played this exact role multiple times, but for me he’s never quite been able to pull off the tough guy cop schtick. He certainly has his moments, but on this occasion he’s too unlikable, and for the most part not very funny. The screenplay of course plays its part. It can be inspired at times, particularly when contrasting east and west and highlighting the kind of universal similarities we never really saw in mainstream action vehicles of the era, but some of the material has dated badly in today’s sensitive climate, and Belushi’s character is central to this.
Red Heat is plenty violent with as much action as you’d expect — this is Hill, after all — and it retains that sober aesthetic for the most part, but something seems amiss. As far as I can make out, it seems to want to forge something akin to 48hrs. — action comedy with a little more authenticity, genre filmmaking with a little more bite — but by that point the buddy cop movie had become something of a convenient cliché, a fact that Schwarzenegger and Belushi effortlessly personify.