Thursday, August 19, 2010

'Red Heat' is a blast from the past

Red Heat (1988)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Belushi, Ed O'Ross, and Larry Fishburne
Director: Walter Hill
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When Rosta (O'Ross), a psychopathic, drug-dealing gangster, flees the Soviet Union for the United States, a Russian police captain, Danko (Schwarzenegger), is dispatched to bring him back, dead or alive. He teams up with Chicago's most unruly police detective, Ridzik (Belushi), and they eventually end up waging a two-man war on one of Chicago's deadliest drug gangs.

"Red Heat" is a movie that couldn't be made today. Although I can easily think of a combination of actors who could stand in for Schwarzenegger and Belushi--perhaps even doing a better job with the parts than they did--much of what makes this movie what it is simply cannot be done in this, the second decade of the 21st century.

First, there's the fact that it uses as its jumping off point the crumbling Soviet Union of the 1980s. While I suppose a similar backdrop could be found in a place like Iraq, it wouldn't be the same, because the police force there was already corrupt to the core before Saddam Hussein's government was destroyed.

Second, this is a film that relies on stunt-work, not computer graphics. The stunt driving is real, the fight scenes are real, and the bullet impacts on targets both hard and soft are created with squibs rather than post-production pixels. It gives the film a hard-bitten, gritty air that simply isn't present in the modern action film. And it's a fresh air, returning to it after all these years.

It's also great to see Arnold Schwarzenegger as the funniest straight man ever. Throughout the movie, he is constantly setting up Jim Belushi's one-liners and off-color jokes, but Schwarzenegger invariably ends up providing more hilarity with a look or a simple monosyllabic response. Throughout this film, Schwarzenegger does more with a glare or a single word than Denis Leary conveys in five rants. (This might also be a something that couldn't be done today. I'm finding it hard to think of an actor of Schwarzenegger's stature--even at the point of his career when this movie was made, immediately before he shot to super-stardom with "Terminator"--who would be willing to take a part with so few lines and little performing save for cold stares and the action scenes. Even Statham's tight-lipped Frank Martin from "The Transporter" series gets to show more emotional range and gets to speak more than Schwarzenegger does as Danko.)

Third, and perhaps most biggest reason, it has among its main villains, the Clean Heads, an African-American drug gang that is every bit as racist at its core as White Supremecist gangs or any other group that is built around hatred for people just because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity. No one would dare make a movie these days with a black villain who is a sociopathic racist who is motivated by a desire to murder as many white people as possible, and who has figured out that the best way to do it is to make them do it themselves with cocaine and other illicit drugs. Today, no filmmaker would dare portray the simple truth that black can can be evil racists just as well as white people.

"Red Heat" is a movie that shows the 1980s-style action genre at its best. It's got heroes we can root for and who feel real and human, despite the fact that very little is done to actually develop their characters... but what is done is just the right amount and just the right touches: Danko's parakeet and Ridzik's relationship with his sister and her ex-husband. It's got villains we can absolutely hate, and they're made even more dispicable with deft touches like the ones applied to the heroes, such as Rosta's many casual murders, and the twisted justifications for his actions by Clean Heads' evil leader. It's got a straight-forward, good versus evil narrative that both manages to be all-encompassing global (cops are cops, no matter what side of the Iron Curtain they're from... and the same is true of the madmen they protect innocent people from) and yet somewhat intimate (Danko and Rosta both want to extract revenge on the other for killing someone dear to them).

Writer/director Walter Hill not only got all of the characters exactly right, but he also created a film that is perfectly paced and full of great action sequences. It may not have been his biggest financial success, but it definately is counted among his most accomplished films.

If you only have time to check out one of the classic action movies that "The Expendables" is a homage to, you won't go wrong with "Red Heat". (You'll also have an opportunity to see Laurence "Larry" Fishburne of the television series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" at the very beginning of his career. Before this film, his largest role had been as Cowboy Curtis on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse".


  1. Larry fishburne actually made a big hit before in 1979, in Coppolla's Apocalypse Now. He was only 14 but told he was 18 to enter the cast, and he's good as hell as the young idealistic soldier... Nice article though, made me badly want to see Red Heat!

  2. I did not know this. Thanks for stopping by, for reading, and for posting!