' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Heat (1988)

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. 

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