What the hell are film critics actually talking about when they speak of “craftsmanship”? Walter Hill’s relatively recent status as an auteur may have been stymied by his unwillingness to take on sprawling, pretentious, or overstuffed shots or edits; for him, the somewhat anonymous vocabulary of the studio picture was one well enough worth perfecting. The gains of 48 Hrs., Hill’s biggest hit by a substantial margin, were lost almost immediately on his follow-up, the post-apocalyptic doo-wop musical tent-pole Streets of Fire. The film’s financial loss was profound; in career terms it scaled the writer-director right back down to where he was before, directing lower-budget studio actioners and comedies for the rest of the ’80s.
Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Hill was tasked with writing and directing Red Heat on the basis of his legendary pairing of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, it’s not hard to imagine the limitless possibilities that the bigwigs at Carolco—Schwarzenegger’s financiers of choice—saw for the superstar’s first-ever comedy. In both form and content, the film is lopsidedly, irrevocably dictated by his participation; the opening 15 minutes are exclusively in Russian, introducing Schwarzenegger’s Captain Ivan Danko as an impenetrably stiff juggernaut, nakedly infiltrating a sleazy cocaine ring encamped in a traditional Russian bathhouse. The scene’s dominant textures—buttressed by composer James Horner’s radiant, ominous synthesizer keys—are stone, flesh, smoke, steam, and ultimately snow, as the inevitable brawl between Danko and the Georgian mobsters explodes through a window out into the frozen hillside. Hill’s Moscow is nothing if not tough.
Enter Detective Sgt. Art Ridzik (James Belushi). After Danko’s partner is killed by druglord Viktor Rostavili (Ed O’Ross), he’s ludicrously paired up with the Chicago police department to track Viktor down in his new Windy City hideout. At perpetual risk of being kiboshed by his commander (Peter Boyle), Ridzik is paired with Danko on a sorta-babysitting job whereby the two men will, inevitably, teach one another a very valuable glasnost lesson. And therein lies the seeds for Red Heat’s downfall. Danko more than warrants the audience’s attention (especially unmoored from the standard Ah-nuld role of a supposedly average-American guy) and Schwarzenegger takes his dramatic arcs seriously. Belushi, on the other hand, is in every possible dimension his inferior; every wisecrack he throws out lands dead on arrival, even if witty on paper.
It’s hard to avoid feeling that the film would have worked better with Danko flying solo. Belushi’s investment into Ridzik isn’t particularly deep; the rubber-cheeked wiseguy drew me further out of Red Heat as a story, and closer to Red Heat as an archetypal ’80s buddy comedy. That said, the hints of racism and danger that charged Murphy and Nolte’s frenemies in 48 Hrs. finds no analogue in the matchup of Belushi’s schlub and Schwarzenegger’s ramrod straightman. That doesn’t make the film an entirely blown opportunity, because much of the writing is rich in its aim, its implications. Hill scores more than a few points in juxtaposing America’s consumerist underbelly against Danko’s stolid background of military training, dead family members, war, and crime; the final shootout takes place in a cheap motel, with Danko perplexed at the porn on the TV. (In another gesture of the script’s often desperate sense of comedy, the scene is capped by Schwarzenegger yelling “capitalism!”)
The action scenes are exemplary for their time and place: swift, brutal, and unerringly physical, harkening back to an era of filmmaking where sweat was expended less on green screen than on carefully rigged shots. But given the market demands of a violent summer potboiler, it’s curious that Schwarzenegger fares better than Belushi. Schwarzenegger will never be remembered as a great dramatic actor, or as a performer of any versatility whatsoever—so why does his Danko rank up there with his performances in Terminator 2, True Lies, and Commando? The answer has to be conviction, specifically to his character—whereas Belushi’s conviction seems to begin and end with being Belushi. Ridzik’s final friendly overtures to Danko fall curiously flat, which is a bittersweet coda perhaps more in line with what Hill could’ve done with a legit leading man as his token American: The guys make a “poignant” exchange of wristwatches at the end, wherein Ridzik is disappointed, callously, to realize that his new friend has given him a Soviet-made piece of crap. Danko marches off; Ridzik stares.