Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sole buddy cop picture, from a director who had already delivered the genre’s defining article (48 Hrs, even though one of the buddies isn’t a cop). The formula is now well established; a mismatched pair, one is funny/crazy the other is the straight man. One was Eddie Murphy, the other was Nick Nolte. Here, one is James Belushi and the other is Arnie. Casting Arnie as a Russian is the kind of bright idea to a Hollywood producer who thinks Austrian and Russian accents are interchangeable comes up with, but the actual stroke of genius is in the attitude of Arnold’s character. The buttoned-down, taciturn Ivan Danko is a perfect fit for the actor’s limited thesping skills. And Danko’s minimalist responses to Belushi’s wisecracking makes this is one of his funniest performances.
Arnie was soon to go from reliable (rather than spectacular) box office draw in medium budget movies to mega-stardom. Within the space of about three months, Twins came out. He would continue as one of the reigning champs for much of the next decade. Red Heat was one of the first Carolco pictures, a production company with a propensity for out of control budgets. This approach would eventually lead to bankruptcy, but not before they had financed two of the star’s biggest hits, Total Recall and Terminator 2.
Budget might be the only area that Red Heat isn’t excessive. So much so the movie at times borders on self-parody. A hyperbolic tone is struck in the first scene. Arnie’s Moscow Militia captain has tracked a criminal to an underworld sauna, where we duly get to ponder his mighty Austrian butt. When the fisticuffs begin, the connects have the tenor not of typical body blows but minor explosions. It’s very silly, and Walter Hill seems intent on keeping it that way.
The opening scene also establishes an amusing homoerotic subtext. The sauna bulges with sweaty musclemen wearing only flimsy aprons to conceal their pride. The presence of a collection of naked ladies seems like a purely ironic touch, as if to announce “There’s nothing remotely gay about all this, honest”. As if to underline that no one was really looking at the women, a scene later Arnie’s Militia comrade is joking about how everyone knows he’s circumcised now. The funniest exchange revolves around whether it is unmanly of Ivan to keep a pet bird.
Ivan: Time to feed parakeet.
Ridzik: What’s that? Russian for jerking off?... I guess not.
Ivan: What’s wrong with parakeet?
Ridzik: Nothing. I didn’t say there was anything wrong with parakeet.
Ivan: You think that parakeet is feminine?
Later Josip (Tengiz Borisoff), right hand man of drug lord Viktor Rostavili (Ed O’Ross), dresses as a female nurse in order to kill a hospitalised witness. Arnie unholsters his mighty weapon and cuts down the pretty blonde Russian drag queen in an adoring slow motion eruption of crimson squibs. There’s no reason Josip couldn’t have just dressed as a doctor, except that it allows the consistently mistaken Ridzik to ogle “her” from behind and then announce “Ah, what the hell. It was a guy” on inspecting the corpse (Arnie’s reaction to any attempt to impugn his staunch heterosexuality is orgasmically violent, whereas Belushi displays blithe indifference).
Ridzik: I give up. This whole thing's very Russian.
Perhaps Hill was out to have a bit of fun in a now over-familiar genre. Since 48 Hrs he’d attempted a broad comedy remake (Brewster’s Millions) a Faustian blues movie (Crossroads) and a stylised rock-and-roll biker fable turned box office bomb (Streets of Fire). He then retreated to action with Extreme Prejudice, but his only post-Red Heat hit would be the running on empty Another 48 Hrs. This year, a decade long hiatus from cinema screens ended with his return to the buddy cop movie (although, as with 48 Hrs, it features a cop and a criminal), the lacklustre Bullet to the Head.
The oversized nature of Red Heat extends to the glorious Soviet choir heard over the opening and closing credits while Arnie stands rigidly in Red Square (the footage was grabbed on the sly, as the makers did not have a permit to shoot in the Soviet Union). Appropriately, the picture culminates in a car chase with a difference; it employs buses. The violence is very, very, bloody, and the language is very, very crude.
Ridzik: I hate to break up this romance, but I’m parked in a Red Zone. No offence.
And for the first 40 or 50 minutes this looks like it might be the perfect example of its genre. James Belushi’s slobbish, cocksure Chicago Detective-Sergeant Art Ridzik is the perfect comic foil for Arnie (Ivan has been sent to secure Viktor and return him to the USSR, although Viktor will obviously escape in short order). Arnie’s impassivity in response to Belushi’s steady stream of one-liners, cheap shots and general vulgarity makes for a perfect marriage of opposites. Speculating over what Viktor must have done to earn Ivan’s wrath, Ridzik asks if he took “a leak on the Kremlin Wall or something?” His one insight into Ivan’s country comes from watching Dr Zhivago. Arnie’s broken English fuels many of the best exchanges. Ridzik asks for a translation of Viktor’s response to a question and Ivan replies, “He says go and kiss your mother’s behind”. Told that prisoners are protected by Miranda Rights and that “You can’t even touch his ass”, Ivon replies steadily, “I do not want to touch his ass”. His attempts to get to grips with American vernacular are just as funny; “I am not shitting on you,” he tells Ridzik, who has offered, “You gotta be shitting me”.
The only trouble is that, like 48 Hrs, the picture runs out of interesting things to do with our heroes during the final third. Which becomes a protracted, sporadically effective, but disappointing extended shoot-out/action sequence (Hill also shows a weakness for laboured “someone gets in the way” stand-offs). Really not helping things along is a tiresomely distonal James Horner score. It hasn’t aged well and switches into wall-to-wall noise every time a gun goes off or a chase begins. On screenplay duties were Hill, his collaborator on Extreme Prejudice Harry Kleiner (who also co-wrote Bullitt) and, bizarrely, Troy Kennedy Martin (the man behind Z Cars, The Italian Job and Edge of Darkness).
Somehow the trio managed to frontload the movie with all the best dialogue and character scenes and leave nothing for later. Peter Boyle plays Ridzik’s captain. He’s a man who keeps a fish tank in his office for stress relief (“I think it all may be a pile of shit”) and asks how the Soviets deal with such problems (“Vodka” comes Arnie’s reply). Brion James is absolutely hilarious as sleazy pimp reluctant to spill the beans. There’s also a scene that drops in from nowhere when Abdul Elijah (Brent Jennings), the leader of an African American prison gang, explains his mission to addict as many white people to drugs as possible. Noting the Soviet Union’s capacity for oppression, he observes that he is “the only Marxist around here”.
O’Ross is a strong presence as Georgian Victor, but unfortunately the script gives him most meagre of motivation; before long he’s become an indiscriminate killing machine. Laurence (Larry) Fishburne is suitably smug as Ridzik’s by-the-book superior, while Gina Gershon does her best (and looks very pretty) in a terribly undercooked role as Victor’s wife-of-convenience. There’s also a sighting of a very slim-line Pruitt Taylor Vince as a hotel manager.
In the Arnie pantheon, this is mid-range fare, an improvement over most of his action pictures up to that point but unable to hold a candle to signature vehicles Terminator and Predator. For Belushi, this is about as good as things got.