Skip to main content

Time to feed parakeet.

Red Heat
(1988)

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.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…