If someone asked you to name five, even perhaps ten Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, chances are none of them would be Red Heat. Even in the context of the 80’s, arguably his most successful period as a marquee action star, Walter Hill’s buddy cop action thriller hasn’t resonated down the ages as a signature Arnie movie. The question is why.
For a start, Red Heat deliberately eschews what by this point people had started to love the Austrian Oak for – his clumsy, cod-American charisma, most effectively delivered in films such as Commando in 1985 or Predator in 1987 (and they would see again later in 1988 with Twins). That isn’t to say that Arnie’s Soviet detective Ivan Danko doesn’t wisecrack—he often does, for deliberate ‘fish out of water’ effect’—but Danko lacks the hard man smarts of John Matrix or Dutch Schaefer. Arnie has to play him more like the T-800 in a Russian costume, with occasional deadpan comic lines. He ports some of this style actually into the T-800 when he plays a reversed, good-guy version of the character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day three years later.
This presents a problem, in that Arnie comes off a little stilted, a little restrained. By this point, as he has settled deeper into the acting persona he has started to develop, Schwarzenegger struggles to play both the straight man *and* comic foil in Red Heat, which is essentially is forced to do. In theory, James Belushi’s smart-mouthed Chicago cop, his reluctant partner Art Ridzik, should fill the comic role but he just comes off as Martin Riggs with the edges filed off, and Belushi—a gifted comic actor—just doesn’t have the material to be more than an annoyance for much of the picture. There’s a reason Art Ridzik never comes up when people talk about the 80’s finest buddy cop characters, you know? Red Heat falls down because the central partnership never really comes alive, and the premise is predicated to an extent on the match up.
The reason Red Heat is perfectly watchable, however, lies in some of the broader aspects to Hill’s picture.
Think about when this came out for a second. 1988. The Cold War would be over in three years. The Berlin Wall comes down just a year later. And here, Hollywood is experimenting with the first American-Soviet cop buddy thriller. Lethal Detente they could have called it. The Kremlin even allowed the production to shoot exterior shots in Red Square, even if the lion’s share of the filming happened in Hungary – still, nevertheless, a Soviet satellite in the grip of fading Communism by this point.
Red Heat is among the wave of Western films which across the 80’s had begun to depict a thawing relationship between the two superpowers, whether it’s The Naked Gun rubbing Mikhael Gorbachev’s birth mark off his head or the James Bond franchise having KGB spymaster General Gogol rocking up at Whitehall for a cup of a tea and a biscuit. Hill’s film is representative of what history will soon bear out, a new (or perhaps nowadays temporary) era of international cooperation between the two ideological enemies, even if Red Heat in the end is not particularly political. Danko may shout “I have my orders!” and ultimately defy them to an extent in order to help Art take down villainous drug kingpin Viktor Rostavilli, but in the end Hill is more interested in the cultural aspect than showing the Soviet Union in a particularly positive or negative light.
The Rush Hour films would replicate this idea later in reverse, when Chris Tucker’s mouthy (read: annoying) LAPD detective would go to Hong Kong and partner up with Jackie Chan’s cop, but Red Heat is principally about the difficult integration of Soviet and American culture, and perhaps a growing anxiety that these two peoples—likely to soon be careful friends—may never quite understand each other. Belushi’s Art is sweary, pervy and angry, while Arnie’s Danko is calm, controlled, collected and even a little bit repulsed by the degeneration he finds in Chicago. Villain Viktor is depicted as a Soviet citizen gone wrong, a blight on its ordered society (which itself is a bit ironic) who oddly may fit better in the sleaze and corruption of modern America. Danko may have a personal stake in bringing him to justice but he seems as much determined to remove America of this Russian stain on its character.
Hill has commented that every film he has ever made has, in some respect, been a variation on the Western genre, and you can see that in Red Heat. The lawman rides into a town infested with crime and works with the hapless local police to clean up the streets etc etc… with the requisite amounts of hard-boiled shoot outs and action sequences in tow. Hill’s films are grimy and muscular, and Red Heat is no exception, but it often works to shrug off the blockbuster colour of such a towering cinematic name as Schwarzenegger, whose appearance brings with it a weight of expectations the movie just can never quite fulfil. Had Hill cast someone with less marquee baggage, the result may have been different. In the end, Arnie can’t make up for the film’s patchy script and narrative (put together on the fly) as he can for some of his other, lesser films.
For this Bluray and 4K Ultra HD release, StudioCanal do manage to assemble a range of extras, totalling upwards of close to an hour, which add flesh on the bones of the picture and sketch in production details and greater context – even if a commentary track by Hill, who is still alive, would have been nice.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Man who raised Hollywood
- Political context of “Red Heat”
- East Meets West – Featurette about Carolco and Red Heat
- A Stuntman For All Seasons – Tribute to Benny Doblins
- I’m Not A Russian But I Play One On TV – Interview with Ed O’Ross
- Making Of
- Original Trailer + Spots
By no means a bad film, and well worth checking out as part of the late 80’s action lexicon, Red Heat nonetheless is more interesting for its place in the cultural context of the last days of the Cold War than as an action movie in its own right.
Red Heat is now available on Blu-Ray & 4K Ultra HD from StudioCanal.