' ' Cinema Romantico

Monday, May 23, 2022

Deep Water

Having its theatrical release delayed from 2020 to 2021 to early 2022 means that “Deep Water,” billed as an erotic thriller, conveniently opened into a world suddenly lamenting the lack of sex in modern movies. The current season of Karina Longworth’s beloved You Must Remember This podcast goes long on that topic with “Erotic 80s” and the pop culture website Vulture spent an entire week demanding to Make Hollywood Horny Again. And that Disney, which came into possession of “Deep Water” after its merger with Fox, seemed almost embarrassed by it, scratching it from the theater and digitally releasing it on Hulu instead, gives the movie an unexpected veneer of, like, a magazine in a paper bag at the convenience store. And though it’s based on a Patricia Highsmith novel set in 1954, there’s something shrewd in director Adrian Lyne setting it now rather than then so than then, allowing the estranged, sexless marriage of the main characters to reflect this modern world. How “Deep Water” holds up beyond the moment, I don’t know, though the psychological weirdness and richness it teases in the beginning might have helped more than the conclusion going off the deep end. Still, a movie called “Deep Water” going off the deep end feels right too, and even the parts it gets wrong kind of wind up cosmically right.

Ben Affleck plays Vic Van Allen, even though he looks nothing like a Vic Van Allen, maybe more like a John Ashforth, but that’s not the point, a wealthy but young retiree married to Melinda (Ana de Armas) with whom he has an adolescent daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins). Vic is taking a long bike ride as the movie opens and when he returns home, he and Melinda look at each other, distantly, like they’re both wanting something they know the other is not willing or able to give. If it’s sort of an inadvertent joke that exercise is no substitute for sex, it also establishes the dynamic of their relationship, further illustrated in a later scene at a party at a friend’s house where Melinda immediately ditches her spouse on arrival to cavort with some young himbo while Vic watches through an upstairs window looking...well, what? 

Affleck utilizes his mid-career (current career) penchant for gloomily downplaying to full poker face effect, ensuring you’re not quite sure if he’s happy, sad, indifferent to, or even turned on by this peculiar marital situation. You might think he’s just dim if not for his collecting and sniffing snails, less a plot point than an emblematic window into his unlikely weirdness, and makes you wonder if he’s capable of murder when his wife’s boy turns up dead. Vic jokes, in fact, that he killed him, which in Affleck’s tone of voice really does sound like it could be mere morbid humor, or something else, an open-ended question from which “Deep Water” derives much of its slow-burning suspense.

The early scenes in which Lyne frames Vic and Melinda beneath archways of separate bedrooms initially suggests a movie of dual perspectives. Yet, when we see Vic looking down at his wife from above at the ensuing cocktail party, Lyne never reverses the shot, underlining how the point-of-view remains yoked to Vic. That doesn’t give de Armas much to play to and rather than meeting Affleck on his level, she ricochets right off, turning her performance up to 11 by reducing her character to primal urges. Then again, in essentially walling Melinda off from us, Lyne is also underscoring how Melinda is walled off not just from her husband but her daughter too. Indeed, the most fascinating relationship in “Deep Water” unexpectedly proves to be dad and daughter, as Trixie both openly taunts her mother and is consciously portrayed as being quietly cognizant of her father’s murderous transgressions. It’s a virtual sort of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” origin story just hanging out on the periphery.   

Vic is such an obvious suspect in these deaths that you might wonder how his friends seem oblivious to it. That he is drawn as a robotics engineer, however, who made his fortune installing the chip that made drones more effective does not come across like mere topicality but an evocation of such shrugging indifference. The only person who comments on his profession and on his possible role in the disappearance is a family friend(ish) mystery writer, Lionel (Tracy Letts). This subplot feels trucked in from a different movie entirely, and that’s how Letts plays it, not folded into the rest of “Deep Water” but standing outside it, like he can’t believe he’s part of this world in the first place. And that’s why even though the overcooked nature of the conclusion doesn’t seem to work on the surface, I also felt like it did, utter madness to an outside observer that merely proves part and parcel to this swanky life of endless parties hosted by an assembly line of beautiful, rich people.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: No Way Out (1987)

There is an incredible moment near the end of Roger Donaldson’s very 80s (those totally tubular opening titles) 1987 thriller “No Way Out” when Naval Lt. Cdr. Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) is being pursued for various thriller reasons through the halls of the Pentagon by a pair of villainous CIA agents. To buy time, Tom grabs a CID officer and orders him to arrest him the pursuant agent. “Arrest him!” Tom shouts. “Do it!” It’s not so much what he says as the way Costner says it, his voice noticeably cracking on “Do it!”, a shout becoming a shriek. There must have been more takes of this scene on the cutting room and those takes must have been more flattering. Yet this is the one that remained in the final cut, evoking the looseness of Costner’s performance. If over the years his acting has grown more reserved, and not in a bad way, conveying so much with minimal effort, rewatching his turn as Mike Farrell put into perspective how just a couple years later he would have made “Bull Durham”, cultivating a star power that was rendered by his own brand of easy charisma. 

Mike winds up in a relationship with Washington socialite Susan Atwell (Sean Young) who is also the mistress of Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). Tom does not know this, but knows she is someone’s mistress, and Brice doesn’t know she is seeing Mike, though he knows she is seeing someone which is why, in a jealous rage, he inadvertently kills her. Mike is then brought in by the Secretary of Defense’s right-hand man Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) to unwittingly engage in a cover-up, investigating the murder of Susan that is ostensibly being pinned on a Russian mole that gradually leads straight back to him. This also means the Susan is not so much a character as a pawn of the plot, brought in solely to get killed off. Even so, Young makes a mark, especially in her scenes with Costner. It has become commonplace among some cinephiles to deplore the lack of sex in modern movies but here, despite the secretive nature of their relationship, sex is out in the open, evoked in the famous scene in the back of the limousine. In each other’s company Costner and Young come across at ease and not just in love but in lust. It backs up the big twist at movie’s end.

Working with screenwriter Robert Garland, who is working from the screenplay for the 1946 film “The Big Clock”, Donaldson drums up suspense in all sorts of nifty ways. Pritchard’s early confession that he believes in Brice so much he would anything to help him undergirds every cockamamie move he makes while a blurry photo of Mike that shows up at Susan’s house, enhanced bit by bit by expert Pentagon programmer Sam Hesselman (George Dzundza), is a gratifying narrative bomb waiting to go off, keeping Mike on a clock like Marty McFly’s own vexing Polaroid in “Back to the Future.” And amid all the spy games there is even some statecraft, an unctuous Senator (Howard Duff) using Brice’s troubles against him to push through a submarine project the Defense Secretary doesn’t want, political horse trading rendered in deliberately vague verbiage so as to incriminate no one. In this moment, Hackman does a good job of looking like has heartburn.

Though Pritchard’s fervent loyalty winds up taking villainous center stage, Hackman still scores in a role that feels like it informed his later turn as the President in “Absolute Power.” Arrogant in the early-going, when things go wrong, Hackman has his character virtually revert to little boy behavior, talking about turning himself in but all too willing to let Pritchard try to get him out of it. And when Mike uncovers the truth and push comes to shove, the way Hackman strips every single histrionic ounce out of pleading “I’ll give you anything you want” only makes it sound that much more cringingly desperate. It’s testament to the characterization all the actors give their roles, Costner to Hackman and even further down the line with Dzundza. In most movies, he would have just been a throwaway. But playing a character marooned in a wheelchair, Dzundza evinces a kind of quiet joy in his work and camaraderie with Costner’s character. And when Sam’s reckoning arrives, one he doesn’t see coming, it doesn’t just feel like one more dead body in a thriller but a death that lingers, someone who really, really did not deserve this.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Gene Hackman's Imaginary Last Role

After hosting “an evening with Ana Gasteyer” at the Lensic Center for Performing Arts in Santa Fe, Seth Rudetsky shared a photo to social media of he and Gasteyer with one of the New Mexico capital’s more renowned residents – Gene Hackman. The two-time Oscar winner and star of the still reigning Middling Thriller champion “Runaway Jury” stepped away from acting in 2004. That meant his last movie was “Welcome to Mooseport.” And so even if he has admirably shunned the public eye ever since, there was something dispiriting in how he went out, like if Bob Dylan had called it quits after “Saved.” Still, intentional or not, Hackman left us wanting more, and each time he suddenly pops up in a photo, like the one with Rudetsky and Gasteyer or the one at a Santa Fe bike shop in 2018, it is hard not to dream of the 92-year old returning just one more time to the silver screen. Indeed, in interviewing Hackman for GQ eleven years ago, Michael Hainey did not so ask the retired actor if he would consider making another movie, but just flat-out said, desperate, practically begging, “You’ve got to make one more movie.” 

But what movie would it be? I imagine Marvel knocking on Hackman’s door and the redoubtable actor opening it, quizzically squinting at Kevin Feige’s sweaty pitch, and then shutting the door right back in Feige’s face without saying a word. Clint Eastwood, one year younger than Hackman and having just made a movie last year, could possibly be the only person in present-day Hollywood to coax Hackman back in front of the camera. After all, he convinced Hackman to do “Unforgiven” when the actor was reluctant and helped him get his second Oscar. It wouldn’t even have to be a true supporting turn. It could just be like Joe Pesci’s one scene walk-off in “The Good Shepherd.”

The key, though, I think to unlocking the possible next role of Hackman was proffered by Hackman himself in that same GQ interview. When Hainey begged him for another movie, Hackman replied “I don’t know. If I could it in my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything and just one or two people.” Hmmmmmm. In his own house? With just one or two people? I recalled Jeremy Strong’s December profile in The New Yorker, the one where the “Succession” actor became the butt of all that day’s social media jokes, revealing his intense method (not The Method!) and feverish adoration of Daniel Day-Lewis. Apparently Strong worked as Day-Lewis’s assistant on “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” which he took as an opportunity to be “the sorcerer’s apprentice.” “He got so engrossed in his menial tasks,” Michael Schulman wrote of Strong, “that some of the crew cruelly nicknamed him Cletus, after the redneck character on ‘The Simpsons.’ ‘His whole brain was focused on Daniel Day-Lewis,’ one person recalled. ‘I never really saw him unless he was standing outside Daniel’s trailer.’” Hold the phone.   

Standing outside Daniel Day-Lewis’s trailer? What if we cast, say, Ryan Gosling, since he is equally adept at playing comedy and drama, and cast him as burgeoning, overly serious actor who worships Gene Hackman and starts standing outside Gene Hackman’s house? (Gosling has also always struck me as a gentleman, meaning he wouldn’t disturb anything at Hackman’s home). Take it wherever you want to go, boys.

But I don’t know. The further I get into this post, the more I realize my heart isn’t it. If there is something disappointing and a little strange in Gene Hackman’s final role being “Welcome to Mooseport,” there is something inspiring, even beautiful in it too, like the late Marvelous Marvin Hagler, my favorite boxer, who famously lost his last match to Sugar Ray Leonard (even though Hagler always claimed he won), retired, and then contrary to just about every boxer since the beginning of time eschewed a rematch with Leonard or even a comeback at all and simply, magnificently stayed retired, newly and joyfully indifferent to and done with boxing. If there is nobility in sports, I always thought it resided right there, in Hagler not consumed by fine-tuning his legacy but having the self assurance that his legacy was already secure. And if any actor would have emotional and mental brawn to know their legacy was already secure, regardless of any “Welcome to Mooseport” blotch, it’s Hackman. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

In Memoriam: Fred Ward

Fred Ward was born on December 30, 1942, in San Diego, California as Freddie Joe Ward, a name that sounds like a pugilist. As it happens, Ward was an amateur boxer for a time, leading to three or four broken noses depending on which source you consult, and evocative of a future actor who in no way took a conventional route to Hollywood. It’s apropos, really, that in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player” (1992) Ward played not some Tinseltown studio bigwig but a studio security chief, more befitting of a man who despite briefly taking acting lessons in New York got his true start in the pictures working in the 20th Century-Fox mail room in 1965, just as it was appropriate that he would portray author Henry Miller in 1990’s “Henry & June” given his self-described restlessness yielding a real-life sojourn from the Air Force to New Orleans to California to Alaska to Europe, working in construction and as a logger and in TV movies with Roberto Rossellini. That restlessness is why Ward’s movie career essentially did not start until his late 30s, early 40s, in movies like “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Silkwood,” and as Gus Grissom in “The Right Stuff,” having already “aged into a persona,” to quote Steven Hyden writing about Gene Hackman in 2015, Ward’s been around twice countenance innately readymade for such roles.

Ward could simply walk onscreen and project authority, as he did in “Chain Reaction,” and summon a backstory just in his air, as he did in “Tremors.” It was the work of a character actor, I suppose, rather than a star. Even when Ward optioned the rights to the book that became George Armitage’s gnarly 1990 cult classic “Miami Blues,” installing himself as executive producer and putting himself on the inside track to the tantalizing lead role of sociopath Frederick J. Frenger, Ward knew he had to acquiesce when the studio indicated they wanted younger blood for the part. That paved the way for Ward to play second banana to an admittedly excellent Alec Baldwin. Still, as a paunchy detective with dentures, Ward was his more youthful co-star’s equal. “How many Hollywood leading men are sufficiently divested of vanity that they would not only play a character who gets his dentures stolen,” Glenn Kenny asked on Decider of Ward’s work, “but then subsequently spend a good portion of their screen time gumming it up trying to retrieve them?” And though Baldwin’s character is technically from California, the scene in which the two men have pork chops and quite a few beers is like a Florida Man Algonquin Roundtable, with Ward not playing so stupid that he doesn’t know what’s going on but so stupid that he doesn’t much care. 

Ward’s one real shot at a starmaking role was in 1985’s “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” the title of Guy Hamilton’s adaptation of The Destroyer novel series by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, betraying its intent to make more of them. But the movie flopped, and though Ward still earned some leading parts, in the aforementioned “Henry & June” and the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “Cast a Deadly Spell,” his oeuvre was predominantly the in support kind. Not that this was something to be grieved. Supporting turns can sometimes make or break a movie and no movie Ward was in ever splintered apart because he failed to deliver. It’s why when I read that Ward died last week at the age of 79...well, first I thought of him losing his dentures in “Miami Blues.” But then I thought of “Corky Romano.” That Chris Kattan-led 2001 comedy was terrible, so terrible I don’t remember a thing about it other than Ward’s requisite bad guy getting into a lawn light fixture duel with Kattan’s eponymous character at movie’s end. What you’re watching, though, is less the movie’s hero vanquishing the villain than the actor playing the villain heroically holding up his end of the bargain. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Some Drivel On...So I Married an Axe Murderer

Mike Myers followed up his ultra-successful “Wayne’s World” (1992) with “So I Married an Axe Murderer” (1993), which proved less profitable, raking in a relatively scant 11.5 million at the box office and finishing nine spots behind “Body of Evidence” and five spots behind “Weekend at Bernie’s II.” On home video, though, it found an audience and became something of a cult classic, not unlike the two movies it was wedged between in those box office dregs – “True Romance” and “Army of Darkness.” Maggie Serota recounted this rags-to-riches-ish story for the movie’s 25th anniversary in Spin where she noted its lack of critical acclaim too, parenthetically citing Roger Ebert’s two-and-a-half star review. I wouldn’t necessarily deem “So I Married an Axe Murderer” mediocre, as Ebert did, but nor would I necessarily deem it “fantastic,” as Serota does. As I often do anymore, I land somewhere in-between, drawn less to Ebert’s opening review line than his closing one – that Myers likes roles of “Eccentrics trapped in worlds that are seemingly normal, yet secretly more bizarre even than their fantasies.” Myers’s next movie, “Austin Powers,” was in a sense sort of an inverse of this observation, its time-traveling 60s English spy normal for his time and place but rendered an eccentric in the normal modern world. And that might be why I’ve always preferred “So I Married an Axe Murderer” a little more, the way the real world feels just off-kilter, which ostensibly is what the emergent axe murderer subplot is supposed to tie into. Yet, for all the delightful comic eccentricities and eccentrics that Myers surrounds himself with, the primary problem is, well, him. 

Myers is Charlie MacKenzie, a San Franciscan commitment-phobe who, in a nod to his Scottish roots, buys some Haggis for a family gathering from a comely butcher named Harriet (Nancy Travis) with whom he becomes so smitten he seems like maybe, just maybe, he’ll remain committed for the first time in his life. Alas, he begins to fear she’s an axe murderer and there goes that. It’s neat idea, a comical amplification of his fear of intimacy that feels true to anyone greatest’s anxiety. It’s not so much this plotline trending toward an obvious payoff, because a little filmmaking knowhow can polish that up, as how the plotline becomes a victim of tonal imbalance. The more absurd, the better, because the real attempts at this relationship’s sincerity, conveyed predominantly through lovey-dovey montages and a few earnest attempts by Myers at earnestness, fall flat. The character’s commitment-phobia, in the end, simply does not feel baked into the performance, no matter how much Travis gamely tries in these moments to reel it out of him, and so Myers’s attempts at a Billy Crystal kind of turn come up short, perhaps suggesting why he never really tried it again and instead leaned into the excess of “Austin Powers.”

He is more successful in the coffeehouse scenes where he performs spoken word poems set to music about recent break-ups. That Charlie seems to have no job feels less like some narrative oversight than spot-on, a 90s version of a 50s Beat poet, just hanging out at the coffeehouse and whining about women, milking his mastery of vocal exaggeration (“Wo-MAN”) to fine effect. His vocal exaggeration is even better in his dual role playing Charlie’s much more loutish father Stuart, turning simple boisterous declarations like “Shut it!” into bellicose poetry. The character is also a proud Scottish immigrant, evoked in his Scottish Wall of Fame a la Sal’s Pizzeria Italian-American Wall of Fame in “Do the Right Thing,” and the way he and Brenda Fricker, playing Stuart’s wife and Charlie’s mom Mary, fall into a little arm in arm dance to the Bay City Rollers’ (pride of Edinburgh) “Saturday Night” demonstrates the kind of amusing, romantic warmth that Myers cannot evince as Charlie. Stuart’s best friend Tony Giardino (Anthony LaPaglia), meanwhile, is nothing less than a whole detective movie send-up packaged into a subplot. 

The conclusion, in which Tony journeys through northern California by any means necessary to warn Stuart, is a virtual promenade of cameos, from Steven Wright as a frighteningly casual plane pilot to national treasure Charles Grodin as a bad Samaritan. These cameos epitomize the bizarre world Ebert was noting, but also illustrate just how committed “So I Married an Axe Murderer” is to a comic bit above all else. A scene set on Alcatraz seems to exist to haul the camera out to Alcatraz and show it off since you’re shooting a movie in San Francisco, yes, but also to give space for Phil Hartman, playing a tour guide, to do this Phil Hartman thing. He’s so deep into character he hardly acknowledges Myers and LaPaglia at all. He really comes across like a guy who’s been on Alcatraz all his life. Maybe that’s why I found myself thinking not about Mike Myers’s new Netflix series “The Pentaverate,” based off a few lines of dialogue in “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” but a multiverse movie in which it turns out Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris) took “The Rock” hostage when Hartman’s Ranger John Johnson (everyone here calls me Vicki) was leading the tour rather than Ranger Bob (Raymond O’Connor) and leading to a rescue attempt not by Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) and John Mason (Sean Connery) but Vickie, Tony Giardino, and a very reluctant Charlie MacKenzie. That would have been something else. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

All the Old Knives

As “All the Old Knives” opens, CIA agent Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) is tasked with interviewing his old colleague Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), suspected of being the mole in a years-old operation involving a Turkish flight hijacked in Vienna. She lives in California now somewhere around Carmel, allowing director Janus Metz to revel in second unit footage of Henry’s rental car cruising scenic Highway 1, including Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge. No less an authority than Visit California describes this concrete span as “seen-it-in-a-million-car-commercials,” aptly putting into perspective the inherent handsomeness and predictability of the image. Maybe that’s a strange place to start, but it really stuck in my mind as “All the Old Knives” unfurled its tale of espionage and romance. Based on a novel by Olen Steinhauer (who also wrote the screenplay), this might be a mishmash of “Spy Game” and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” but it yearns to be “My Dinner with Andre” as told by John LeCarre, a conversational spy thriller albeit one culminating in a would-be explosion of (misplaced) passion. As that Bixby Bridge shot foretells, however, “All the Old Knives” comes across almost too elegantly mounted, a twist that I can’t reveal exposing the movie in a way it doesn’t intend, its oft-deliberately reserved performances struggling to open up in the necessary way. 

Much of “All the Old Knives” is simply the dinner conversation between Henry and Celia, old lovers as well as old co-operatives, meaning the dialogue shifts between teasing out how they still feel about one another and more pointed questions and answers about what transpired during the hijacking op. There are other moments sprinkled in too, like Henry offering of the newly pescatarian Celia a bite of his free-range bacon, a not-quite-as-potent-as-it-needs-to-be metaphor for temptation. That romantic dilemma suffers in part from Celia’s hardly sketched marriage and family, blunting the would-be will they/won’t they tension. The flashbacks, meanwhile, to Henry’s other interrogation of their co-worker and Celia’s mentor Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) suffers because of Pryce’s performance, leaning too eagerly into jittery tells, like he’s too excited about playing the murderer in some murder mystery role-playing game. True, his character is a red herring in more ways than one, but he is nevertheless too obviously a feint, and subsequently plays against the notion that Celia ever considered him a mentor in the first place or “like a father.” This guy?

Though Metz conveys the scenes aboard the airplane with more of a handheld approach, and even incorporates Celia’s recurring nightmare about being aboard the hijacked aircraft, the terror of these scenes and the terrorists’ motivations tend to feel distant. That’s not a bad thing. When Henry’s supervisor (Laurence Fishburne) orders he and his other colleagues to contact their sources in the wake of the flight being taken hostage, Henry reaches out to an old Chechen informant (Orli Shuka) the CIA forced him to sell out to Russia. There’s convenience in the plotting here, perhaps, an international incident coming down to a pair of old friends, but it also speaks to how Americans and American intelligence spur radicalization that comes back to haunt them while simultaneously seeking to wipe their hands of it. In this light, the coldness of the hijacking scenes feels true, less real life than a geopolitical problem to solve. 

That lack of feeling trickles down to the all-important romantic relationship. In the present-day scenes, Pine and Newton’s chemistry is more icy than titillating, the two actors consciously playing, like, you know, CIA agents, cautious of their every move, sending up looks and seemingly banal observations as feelers, trying not to betray too much, especially since they both know why Henry is here even if he is not explicitly saying it. In the past scenes, however, where their passion is supposed to be both paramount and genuine, the two actors still seem stuck in their present-day gear, the romantic passion oddly muted. Even if the placement of a mid-movie sex scene is spot-on, staged in the wake of the hijacking going wrong, this being their reaction to it, the whole thing is played and shot in such an artful way that it ironically undercuts any sense of the ostensible urgent release. Their love and their lust, in other words, feels like a put-on when it’s the single element of the movie that is not supposed to be a put-on at all, meaning the movie’s biggest twist, not to be revealed, which could have been scorching, pitting desire and duty square against each other in the center ring, fatally falls flat. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Heat (1988)

“Red Heat” is a movie of its time, which is to say 1988, which is to say when the Cold War was at its tail-end but still in vogue and, even more, when comedies could not only be combined with action but with R ratings allowing for as much violence and nudity as yuks. Indeed, “Red Heat” was directed by Walter Hill, who made perhaps the seminal 80s-styled R-rated buddy comedy in “48 Hours” (1982). There the opposing buddies were Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, black and white, outrageous and gruff, and (several) years later “Red Heat” adjusted that formula with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi, a Russian (Soviet) and an American (Chicagoan), terse and boisterous, like if Ivan Drago buddied up with Carmine Lorenzo from “Die Hard 2.” That means Belushi is playing more of the straight man, even though he’s supposed to be funny, and Schwarzenegger is playing more of the funny guy, even though he’s got the air of a straight man, a unique role reversal resulting in more of an lol movie than the LOL of “48 Hours.”

The movie opens with Schwarzenegger’s Ivan Danko (which sounds suspiciously like Ivan Drago now that I think about it) going undercover in a Soviet foundry’s sauna to bring down a Georgian drug kingpin, Viktor Rostavili (Ed O’Ross). It’s a nifty setpiece, not least because I can’t think of another way to have a character played by a former Mr. Universe convincingly go undercover than in a foundry sauna. Schwarzenegger’s barely clad rear end hardly looks out of place amid all the impressively chiseled physiques – at least, until one of the characters notices his hands don’t quite befit a foundry worker’s, exposing his ruse and leading to a scrap that crashes through a window and continues outside. I’m not sure the hand-to-hand combat supersedes the memorable bathhouse brawl in “A History of Violence,” but the bathhouse brawl in “A History of Violence” didn’t spill out into the snow, an evocation translation of the sauna’s cool-down phase.

Alas, Rostavili still gets away, fleeing to America, only to be brought up on some minor violation in Chicago. Danko is dispatched to retrieve him. The drug kingpin escapes the CPD’s clutches too, of course, meaning Danko must stay in America to get his man with Windy City Sgt. Art Ridzik (James Belushi) as his minder. Ridzik is both combative and indolent, an archetypal American, refusing to obey his boss’s orders and put out with his Danko babysitting gig if only because it means more work. He seems to take the mantra of the poster on the wall at the flophouse where Danko stays – Killing Time is Not Murder – to heart. When they are forced into an all-night stakeout, Ridzik seems genuinely happy, as Belushi has his character recite the four food groups of “hamburgers, French fries, coffee and doughnuts” with an eager gleam in his eye.

The flophouse is not just a humorous place to stay but a key to cracking “Red Heat’s” code. This was but two years after “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a Chicago travelogue demonstrating the gleaming utopia of the go-go Reagan capitalist era. Ridzik’s Chicago, on the other hand, is the seedy underbelly of that dream, comically if blatantly brought home in Danko’s realization that the TV in his room is coin-operated. “Capitalism,” Schwarzenegger demurs. Hill is inviting us to laugh with Danko much more than at him, a key delineation, just as he is summoning us to cheer when Danko tramples all over America’s Miranda Rights after Ridzik makes a half-hearted case for them, blurring the lines between ostensibly black and white American and Soviet values in a commercial movie released at a time when those lines were theoretically drawn rigidly in the sand. Not that “Red Heat” muddies U.S.A.! principles entirely. Hill suitably amplifies the climactic car chase by staging it with buses instead. Any return to 1980s values understandably spooks many of my fellow Americans, but this sort of bigger is better action movie spirit is the one value I would like to see us reembrace.