Well so after working with one half of the greatest scene in 80’s cinema it seemed that it was only right for Hill to work with the other half
yep that’s right boys and girls, so in 1988 Hill teamed up with perhaps the greatest action icon of the decade to create the second part of what I deem his loose pulp B-movie trilogy, today were going to look back at film number eleven and the buddy cop movie that may have solved the cold war, Red Heat
I really love those 80’s trailers, that voice could sell me anything.
Anyway, Red Heat stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi(stay with me on this one) as Captain Ivan Danko and Sgt Art Ridzik respectively. Danko is a feared detective for the Moscow Militia who when we meet him is hunting down Georgian drug lord Victor Rosta (Ed O’Ross) during a bloody shoot out Rosta kills Danko’s partner and escapes, he flees to Chicago where he begins to set up a lucrative drug deal that will allow him to flood Moscow with heroin, Danko arrives in Chicago hot on his heels and is partnered up with the loudmouthed Ridzik and the two attempt to find Rosta and take him down.
Now for starters Red Heat seems like nothing more than a quickie cash grab for everyone involved, it blends together two genres that were popular at the time, the buddy cop thriller (Lethal Weapon, Tango and Cash, etc) and slagging off the Russians (Rocky 4) it’s a movie that is not really held in high regard and is ignored when many people talk about Arnie’s best work, being right bang in between two of his biggest hits, Predator and Twins Red Heat has some how fallen through a crack, perhaps due to the dated nature of it’s hero. But it is a film that I have always had a soft spot for and will argue that it features Hill and Arnie on fine form throughout.
For starters after Hill returned to action the previous year with Extreme Prejudice he brought with him a new more tongue in cheek style, he seemed to be poking fun at his own image and the industry view of him but still delivered a heart pounding thriller, here he goes one further by poking fun at perhaps his biggest hit (48hrs) and some of the themes of action movies at the time, (particularly those starring Stallone) as I said the plot is not original but it’s how you put the pieces together and Hill does that with a bravura style throughout.
From the opening this movie features an over the top tone, opening in a steamy Russian sauna that looks like something out of the last days of Rome, it is replete with many bearded ripped dudes lifting, naked women bathing in some sort of indoor hot spring and intense synth music. Out of the mist literally walks Danko, are hero Hill shoots him with an upward angle making him look gigantic, also he is wearing just a loin cloth, he infiltrates the Russians by proving how hard he is by holding a hot coal in his hand before knocking two guys out the window to partake in a naked snow fight, screaming in Russian at each other Arnie gets his info punches the dude out (Sven Ole Thorson by the way) and we cut to a shot of the red square with some extremely over the top Russian music playing.
So far it’s off to a rollicking start and Hill has established that the tongue is firmly in cheek here, however as he did before with Extreme Prejudice Hill does keep the film somewhat grounded, although the action may be over the top it is comparatively toned down by Schwarzenegger’s standards and once again the violence that occurs is hard and real, when people get shot in this movie they go down and Hill has a habit of introducing likeable characters in this movie that don’t last very long.
In terms of the cast this movie is filled with good performances and very recognizable actors. As the lead Arnie delivers a good performance as Danko, he’s more low key and stripped down in this than usual, he doesn’t really crack one liners, he plays a driven, serious and determined cop who is alienated by the culture clash. However Hill adds enough little idiosyncratic details to Danko that flesh him out, such as having a parrot which he is devoted to despite being conscious of it being a feminine pet, there are a few mentions of his family life, (it’s non-existent) he is a keen chess player. He displays a dry sense of humour throughout and his stiff line readings work adding to the fish out of water comedy. As the other half of the duo Belushi is actually quite impressive. I’ve never been a fan of his I don’t think a lot of people are, but I always thought he was quite a capable serious actor and much better at it than comedy, this is why he works in Red Heat. Hill directs him similar to Murphy in 48hrs, sure Belushi was known as a sort of comedy actor at the time but Hill gets him to play it mostly straight, he makes jokes but its got more of a sarcastic edge to it, he jokes about how ridiculous his situation is, but at the same time he’s shown to be a highly capable police officer and for the most part keeps up with Arnie in the action sequences, Belushi’s allowed to play Ridzik the character not just stand and throw out jokes, again Hill adds little details, his loyalty to his sister, his dad being a good cop and his desire to catch Rosta out of duty. Both Danko and Ridzik have a lot more to them than the above trailer would suggest. Together they make for an effective pairing, they look funny together and both share a kind of easy chemistry, they bounce off each other well and grow to be genuinely fond of each other, indeed my favourite two scenes in the film are their cafe conversation about each others lives and their final farewell, it’s actually kind of touching, Hill described this movie once as sort of a weird love story, and it kind of is in a way.
Elsewhere in the cast Ed O’Ross is another fine addition to the Walter Hill villain catalogue, whilst lacking the all out craziness of Luthor and Ganz and the depth of Cash Bailey he is none the less an intimidating and malevolent presence and seems like a more than formidable adversary, he won’t hesitate to kill and is shown to be coldly calculating in a way previous Hill villains haven’t, he is perhaps the smartest so far.
Rounding out the supporting cast we have a very young Gina Gershon as Victor’s wife in name, she’s perfectly fine in the role but it doesn’t require much from her, same can be said for Peter Boyle who is given the thankless role of stern police captain, he’s a good actor but the role is merely a stock character and the idea of him kitting out his office with soothing sounds of the sea although amusing doesn’t really work, Lawrence Fishburne also pops up rocking a Malcolm X look to play the tight arse cop who hates Belushi because he’s a loose canon, Fishburne is again fine but nothing really strenuous is required from him and he disappears from the film without nary a mention. However Richard Bright makes an impression as Ridzik’s doomed first partner, Gallagher, he comes across as funny, likeable and seems fond of Belushi, making him a loss and in a brief role Brent Jennings is suitably creepy as the blind prison bound gang lord Abdul Elijah. And bonus points for a cameo by Luis Contreras reprising his Extreme Prejudice character.
Visually Red Heat is really quite a striking looking film, Hill focuses on contrasted the two worlds of Moscow and Chicago, he gives both a heightened look, Moscow is all grand old palaces and ancient architecture, some of it is almost crumbling away, the scenes here are stark and bleak without an emphasis on the contrast of the white of the snow with the buildings, the Chicago is shot as a grimy, neon lit, sweaty urban hellhole, Hill focuses on the seedier side of the city and uses a lot of Red neon street signs reflecting off the wet streets during the night scenes, the final showdown with Rosta and Danko is shot with a heavy use of steam to show both characters emerging in silhouette from the shadows.
I feel this is a good time to talk about the action scenes in Red Heat. As expected Hill shoots them well, the opening snow fight is brief but entertaining, Ridzik’s introduction storming a crack den is shot well and makes great use of apartment complex and its outer stairwells the main set piece of the bus chase finale is well executed and is exciting however all these scenes seem somewhat brief, compared to the action orgy of Extreme Prejudice the sequences here don’t really have the same zip to them. Bar one, the motel shootout with Danko and the clean head gang is expertly staged, Hill seems to like using hotel shoot outs and he does them well, I’d argue this is his best one, Hill uses the long corridors and many adjoining doors of the motel floor to add suspense and tension, he wrong foots you to Danko’s location and Rosta’s motives through clever cross cutting and the use of rain and thunder adds atmosphere as Arnie skulks around the corridors.
Well despite all these positives Red Heat is not perfect, like I said the action save for a few moments isn’t particularly memorable, and the supporting cast are talented but generally given one dimensional roles that serve either as foils to our leads or to drive the story forward, another thing that bugs me is how Boyle and Fishburne always talk about how much of a renegade Belushi is when throughout the film he seems to be fairly reasonable and level headed. And therein lies the problem with Red Heat, for all it’s fresh approaches to well worn ground and gimmicks to liven up a formula it is still a formula and never fully stands out from the great buddy cop films like Lethal Weapon or Hill’s own 48hrs.
Though I don’t really mind that, I still really like this film, sure it’s not going to win any awards but it’s an entertaining ride with two charming performances. Everyone should have a film like this in your collection, a breezy, funny action thriller that always feels like home when you revisit it. Not bad at all.
Well next time I’ll tackle the final part of Hill’s B movie trilogy with Mickey Rourke and some plastic surgery in Johnny Handsome