Principal Cast : Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathryn Harrold, Darren McGavin, Sam Wanamaker, Paul Shenar, Steven Hill, Joe Regalbuto, Robert Davi, Blanche Baker.
Synopsis: A former FBI agent turned small-town sheriff agrees to help the FBI chief infiltrate the Chicago mafia when the FBI chief’s son is killed by them.
Generic 80’s Arnie action flicks don’t come more brutal, more bloody, and more cliched than 1986’s Raw Deal, an undercover cop thriller directed by John Irvin and personifying the excess of the era in which it was made. As the bodycount mounts – and boy, does it mount – abandoning police procedure for ripe vengeance and annihilation of human rights becomes the order of the day for this frustratingly incompetent thriller.
A young Arnie plays Mark Kaminski, a former FBI agent now out of the force due to a violent transgression some years before. An old associate, Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin) offers him a deal to return to the Agency: infiltrate a powerful criminal drug operation in Chicago to seek revenge on Shannon’s son’s recent murder, totally off the books. In doing so, Kaminski, posing as Joseph Brenner, strikes up an illicit romance with one of the drug kingpin’s female associates (Kathryn Harrold), while slowly undermining the drug operation from within. Only one man believes Kaminski’s cover to be a sham, henchman Max Keller (Robert Davi), and he goes out of his way to prove it.
Raw Deal is a pretty terrible movie. Both in writing – the screenplay is risible – and performance, Raw Deal is muscularly overblown and designed purely as a machismo-driven slaughterfest. I know, these kinds of pulp fiction films work best when bodies start to pile up in an orgy of violence, and both Arnie and contemporary superstar Sylvester Stallone are both on record as suggesting the rise in violence in their films was a direct result of their respective competitive natures, but there’s something truly off about Raw Deal even when you consider the era in which it was made.
Director John Irvin imbues this terrible cliched screenplay (written by Gary DeVore and Norman Wexler) with attempted frisson of crispness, and fails. The action, one of the main points of the film, is largely incoherent, with jumbled editing and messy camerawork for the most frenetic moments, while the quote-unquote dramatic moments are staged and executed (pun intended) with typical Hollywood polish. The production design looks unremarkably cheap throughout, with cardboard sets, overly lit interiors, and protracted exterior chase sequences feeling cartoonish in their tone. The film’s notable climax, in which Arnie shows up at bad guy headquarters and (naturally) obliterates everyone in a tsunami of bullets and blood, and is quite graphic even by 80’s standards for a mainstream Arnie movie. It’s arguably the film’s crowning achievement in sound design, choreography and production value, although when you consider everything else has come before it it’s actually surprising this finale is as effective as it is.
Arnie himself seems to recognise the dullness of the story, from its inane dialogue, poor character development and laughable villains. Sam Wanamaker shines in the almost parody villain role he plays, as the leader of the drug organisation, chewing the scenery and his co-stars ad spitting them out while everyone else flounders. He’s a far better actor than this film deserves, more’s the pity, although watching him eviscerate poor Robert Davi, who is himself no slouch in looking totally menacing, is one of the more enjoyable aspects to the whole thing.
The only female role in the film falls to poor Kathryn Harrold, as Monique, who seems to be either an expensive callgirl, legitimate girlfriend or sexy henchman to the whole enterprise, and her relationship with Arnie’s Kaminski forms perhaps the only emotional hook in the film – it’s certainly not Kaminski’s fractured relationship with his wife (Blanche Baker, in an early scene whereby she’s battling the kitchen bench for being the most wooden thing on screen) – and despite having a few moments of legitimate dramatic contemplation I found her entirely unbelievable, and un-sympathetic. The old trope of the hero turning the femme fatale into somebody to empathise with is deployed with scare competence in Raw Deal.
Raw Deal is problematic in so many ways by today’s standards, but as an example of the excesses of its creation there’s few films as soaked in blood and carnage with such gleeful masculinity as this. Although not particularly clever, nor elevating the genre, it’s engaging in the most puerile way and has a specific 80’s toxicity to it all. Whether that floats your boat is always the big takeaway, but revisiting this “classic” nearly forty years on wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped.