Robin’s Underrated Gems: Red Heat (1988)

Now that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political career has come to an end, he is finally ready to make his full-time return to the world of cinema. If you’re in my age bracket, chances are you were raised on such Arnold Schwarzenegger classics as Terminator 1 & 2, Commando, Predator, Conan the Barbarian and Total Recall. However, in spite of being arguably the biggest star in Hollywood during that time period, not every single film of his was a monster hit. That’s not to say he made many outright flops like Last Action Hero, but he would star in the odd film that did decent enough business at the box office, but then would pretty much be forgotten about. For a guy with such a larger-than-life persona, it is surprising that Arnold didn’t do that many “odd couple” buddy comedies during his career. The obvious exception was in 1988 when he teamed up with Danny DeVito to star in the smash hit comedy, Twins. However, that very same year, he also teamed up with James Belushi starred in Red Heat, marking the only time that Schwarzenegger actually starred in an action film which used the mismatched buddy formula. Red Heat was directed by Walter Hill, who had helped popularize the buddy cop film with 48 Hrs., and while the film was a modest success, it was far from a smash hit and remains one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most underrated and forgotten star vehicles. Red Heat follows the buddy formula to a tee and while it doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking, the film is a lot of fun and, if nothing else, is worth watching for the rare chance to see Arnold Schwarzenegger play a Russian!

Well, for starters, let’s just say that if the opening scene of Red Heat doesn’t hook you, then nothing will. Personally, I don’t see how anyone could ever dislike a film which begins with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Russian bathhouse and leads to him fighting professional wrestler Tiger Chung Lee and legendary stuntman Sven-Ole Thorsen in the snow wearing nothing but towels!

Red Heat opens in the Soviet Union and introduces us to its hero, Captain Ivan Danko (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who works for the Moscow Militia. He is on the trail of a Georgian drug kingpin named Viktor Rosta (Ed O’Ross), but after Viktor kills Danko’s partner and Danko kills Viktor’s brother, Viktor escapes and flees to America. Viktor starts putting together a massive drug deal with a black militant group in Chicago when he is arrested after a routine traffic stop. Danko is sent to America in order to extradite Viktor back to Moscow, and a lazy Chicago cop named Art Ridzik (James Belushi) is assigned to be Danko’s escort. However, Viktor’s henchmen soon show up and spring him from custody, killing Ridzik’s partner in the process (this is a not a movie where partners have a long lifespan). Of course, in spite of their vastly different personalities, Danko and Ridzik are forced to work together as partners in order to find Viktor. This leads to the inevitable culture clashes, such as when the two cops interrogate a suspect (played by the late, great character actor Brion James) and Danko does not understand the concept of Miranda rights.

Of course, Red Heat contains all the standard elements and clichés of the buddy cop genre, but the new twist this time around is the Russian angle. Needless say, Hollywood loved using Soviet villains during the eighties in such popular films Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV, and while Red Heat contains the standard evil Russian bad guys, it also makes the unconventional decision to cast a big Hollywood star as a Russian hero. The Cold War was nearing its end by this point, and Red Heat marked the first time a Hollywood production was able to shoot scenes in Moscow’s Red Square. Well, they weren’t exactly given permission, but they did manage to sneak in a few shots of Arnold Schwarzenegger walking through Red Square without getting caught. However, one shouldn’t look at this film as an accurate portrayal of Russian culture and there are so many Russian stereotypes on display here that you expect Yakov Smirnoff to pop up at any moment. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to his credit, dives right into his role and spent three months learning how to speak Russian in preparation. His Russian accent is pretty hit-and-miss, but this is a tailor-made role for the star. Danko is established as a stone-cold professional who takes his job very seriously and displays very little personality at the outset. Arnold’s flat, emotionless readings of his dialogue could easily be construed as bad acting, but it’s actually a very hilarious display of deadpan comic timing and contrasts nicely with James Belushi’s more obnoxious, loudmouthed persona. Their interplay is especially hilarious during a spectacular climactic bus chase that involves Danko and Viktor playing a very bizarre and dangerous game of chicken.

This bus chase and all the other action sequences in the film are very well-crafted by Walter Hill, who had already established himself as one of the efficient action directors around and, by this point, could do a movie like Red Heat in his sleep. Even in Walter Hill’s best films, such as The Warriors, The Driver and 48 Hrs., the plot was always pretty standard stuff, but he would always deliver exciting action sequences and entertaining character interplay to make up for it. Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi have the same type of chemistry that Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy had in 48 Hrs., they do match each other quite well. Danko is the kind of cop who would rather die than fail at his job, a huge contrast to Ridzik’s attitude of doing the bare minimum in order to collect a paycheque. Individually, these two characters might not have been strong enough to carry their own film, but as a mismatched team, they’re quite entertaining and Belushi’s delivery of Ridzik’s ultra-corny Russian jokes is quite funny (“I’m parked in the red zone. No offense”). American character actor Ed O’Ross also disappears quite nicely into his role as a Russian, and makes Viktor into an effective villain. There really isn’t much else that can be said about Red Heat except that it delivers exactly what it promises to its audience. It doesn’t have any pretensions about being anything except pure formulaic entertainment. Red Heat is not one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s all-time classics and even his biggest fans may not have even heard of it, but it is a pretty good buddy picture and fans will appreciate the chance to see the big guy in one of his more unconventional roles.

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