A high-strung cop who lives by the book partners with a brash and undisciplined cop to take down an international drug smuggler who also happened to murder their former partners. Misunderstandings, cheesy bravado, and bloody action scenes commence. No, this is not a review for 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, or Beverly Hills Cop. I’m referring to Walter Hill’s 1988 take on the buddy cop genre, Red Heat.
When approaching Carolco Pictures with a pitch for the film, Hill simply sold the idea to producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna as a film in which a Russian cop and an American cop team up to take down a drug smuggler. It’s an admittedly simple pitch, and it’s exactly what you get with Red Heat.
But who to cast as the fierce and stoic Russian Captain? Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course. Having come off an impressive 1987 in which he starred in the widely successful Predator and the moderately successful The Running Man, he was the perfect action star at the moment to cast. With Red Heat and Twins, 1988 would become another step on his way to A-list status.
You’ve probably already come to the conclusion that this plot was already formulaic at the point at which Hill pitched the idea. Tack on James Belushi as your streetwise maverick, include simplified international politics, toss in some boobs and guns, and you’ve started working on your buddy cop ad-libs. Where Red Heat tries to stand apart from the rest of its ilk is by having the film reflect tensions between the former Soviet Union and the United States.
Soviet Police Captain Ivan Danko (Schwarzenegger) is sent to Chicago to extradite a Georgian drug smuggler named Viktor Rostavili (Ed O’Ross), who killed his brother in duty. Danko is unhappily teamed with Det. Sgt. Art Ridžić (James Belushi), whose partner was also killed by Rostavilli during a shootout. The pair’s loose cannon shenanigans irk their superiors, played by the late Peter Boyle, and a young and disgruntled Laurence Fishburne.
Unfortunately, the chemistry between Schwarzenegger and Belushi only works when the script works, but often Schwarzenegger’s dull coldness and Belushi’s overacting ruin the tempo of the film. Schwarzenegger’s Danko is too reminiscent of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, and one has to only wonder if that was Hill’s inspiration for the film, because he applies some of the exact same imagery.
Danko is portrayed as cold, piercing, lifeless, and brutal, while Belushi is perverted, untamed, and insensitive as only Americans can be. This type of characterization is to be expected, but Red Heat goes full force with its stereotypes of contemporary politics, including a side story involving a bunch of Black Nationalist drug smugglers who speak ill of “the white man”.
What the film definitely gets right is its villain, played expertly by character actor O’Ross. You would have never guessed it, but the gravely-voiced O’Ross is actually an American actor. This is alluded to on one of the bonus features from the disc entitled, “I’m Not a Russian but I Play One on TV”.
He has since gone on to play Russian characters and villains in various other television and film roles. His performance keeps the film from being completely forgettable, because aside from it, the film’s Cold War tension just doesn’t resonate 20 years later when references to Doctor Zhivago and Stalin are campy, at best.
With the Blu-ray release of the film, Lionsgate did its best to get some bonuses to throw on here, and a lot of them are worthy. The “East Meets West” featurette includes a discussion between former Carolco producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. They discuss the production of the film and the workings of Carolco Pictures, which was at its peak in the ‘80s with the Rambo trilogy. They also plug their new film company, C2 Pictures, which produced Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
There’s also a nice short tribute video to the film’s stunt coordinator, Bennie E. Dobbins, who died of a heart attack on the set while staging the snow fight scene in Vienna. As a whole, the disc would have been a lot better if there was involvement with the cast or by director Hill, but considering how it’s held up over time, I’m not surprised they weren’t jumping at the chance to record a commentary.
While Red Heat may not be a terrible film, it’s certainly one of the safest and most cookie cutter buddy cop films produced. The action is simply not up to par with Lethal Weapon, and the humor just doesn’t work as well as Beverly Hills Cop. Hill definitely had it right the first time with 48 Hours, but with Red Heat, the lack of chemistry between the leads and a tactless script leave this one forever relegated to the bargain bin.