Monday, January 16, 2017

Red Heat

The more I think about it, the more I consider Arnold Schwarzenegger to be an incredibly underrated actor. I don't mean to say he's Academy Award caliber, but if the goal of a performance is to convince the audience to accept the character, then Arnold does not nearly get the credit he deserves. Arnold had a way of turning would-be limitations - thick Austrian accent, bulky physique, etc. - to strengths.

Take Red Heat (1998), a buddy cop movie directed by Walter Hill. Arnold plays Captain Ivan Danko, a Soviet super cop on the trail of a Georgian drug dealer who fled to Chicago. Jim Belushi plays Art Ridzik, the local detective assigned to be his handler. Neither of them likes the arrangement; Danko is a strict disciplinarian, humorless, obedient to his superiors, and Ridzik, while a good cop in his own right, is a slob, constantly making wisecracks and getting into trouble with his bosses.

Buddy cop movies were all the rage in the 80s, from Lethal Weapon and Tango and Cash to Hill's own 48 Hours. Even science fiction and horror were joining in with the likes of Alien Nation and Dead Heat. There's just something about inherently appealing about odd-couple partners forced to team up to take down the bad guys; they practically write themselves. The plot of Red Heat might be pure formula, but Schwarzenegger and Belushi make a great mismatched team, and Hill brings a slick professionalism to the action, making this one of the better examples of the genre.

Some of the humor is built on the philosophical differences between Danko and Ridzik and by extension America and the Soviet Union. Danko arrives in Chicago and sees the decadence of capitalism: crime, drugs, prostitution, sleazy motels where you put in a quarter for porn to play on your TV, and a police force that goes easy on criminals. As he says, "Very strange city. The crime is organized. The police is not."

Ridzik sees Danko as a stiff jerk from a country that has no freedom. He tries to lecture Danko on the Miranda Rights everyone in America has, including scumbags and informants. The Soviet officials are assured of their moral superiority over the West and want to keep it hush-hush that they have a problem with drugs in their country, going so far as to refer to cocaine as the "American poison," but pretending they don't have the same problems as America doesn't mean they don't.

The film gets a lot of mileage out of playing off Schwarzenegger and Belushi as foils to each other. Danko is serious, under all circumstances, even as the situation gets completely ridiculous; in the opening scene, Danko wrestles some goons in a steam house, mostly naked, until they end up tumbling outside in the snow.

Meanwhile, Ridzik deflates everything. When they get a chance to meet the drug dealers face to face, Belushi initially refuses to give up his gun, but when a thug put a barrel to his head, he's immediately compliant.

Gradually, being the kind of movie this is, the two men begin to respect each other. Beneath their cultural and personal differences, they share a common value system: to uphold the law and bring criminals to justice, even if it means resorting to some underhanded methods at times. While interrogating an informant, Ridzik plants a bag of heroin on him to create legal leverage. Danko just breaks his fingers.

Elsewhere, Ed Ross makes for an effective villain who makes the stakes personal (Arnold killed his brother; he killed Arnold's partner). Peter Boyle handles the thankless role of the disapproving chief with aplomb, and keep your eyes peeled for Laurence Fishburne as a superior who doesn't like Belushi. A young Gina Gershon plays a woman who marries Ross as part of an immigration scheme and finds herself in over her head when the bullets start flying; this subplot disappointingly feels truncated and is resolved in a rather heartless, cold fashion (a more serious thriller could have been built around this angle).

Hill could action in the 80s almost better than anyone. The shootouts are fast and intense, and the final chase involves not cars but buses and trains crashing into each other. More importantly, he balances the serious action with the character-based humor, so one doesn't detract from the other. As formulaic as the plot is, the movie feels natural.

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