Principal Cast : Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Belushi, Peter Boyle, Ed O’Ross, Larry Fishburne, Gina Gershon, Richard Bright, JW Smith, Gretchen Palmer, Pruitt taylor Vince, Michael Hagerty, Brion James, Kurt Fuller, Peter Jason, Oleg Vidov, Savely Kramarov.
Synopsis: A tough Russian policeman is forced to partner up with a cocky Chicago police detective when he is sent to Chicago to apprehend a Georgian drug lord who killed his partner and fled the country.
Billed as a “buddy-cop action comedy” and yet lacking entirely for chuckles, this Walter Hill crime thriller is gritty, violent and paced like a freight train – a little like the freight train that makes an appearance during Red Heat’s climactic chase sequence, funnily enough – with elements of noir and 70’s no-fucks-given attitudes to solving crimes and stopping the bad guys. Arnie makes a formidable Russian agent sent to America, Belushi provides a punishing watch as his cocky Chicago sidekick, and the streets of the Windy City have never looks as gleamingly bright and sullen as they do here. Hill knows how to stage action, understands secondary and tertiary subplots, and is a maestro of taking cliched, hokey scripts and turning them into crowd-pleasing movies with ace Hollywood talent. I won’t ever claim that Red Heat is a great movie, because it sure as hell is problematic in so many ways, but as an 80’s staple of bloody action it’s got a heck of a lot going for it.
Arnie plays Russian police Captain Ivan Danko, who is sent by his superiors to America to track down drug kingpin Viktor Rostavili (Ed O’Ross), and crack the case of a massive heroin shipment due to arrive in Soviet territory soon. Danko is paired up with cocky Chicago detective Art Ridzik (Belushi), and before long the unlikely pairing is causing mayhem on the streets of the city, as they shake down both local hoods, Russian gangsters and even the local hookers for information that will lead them to capture – or kill – the slippery Viktor.
Crisply shot and acted with po-faced sincerity, Red Heat skirts comedic value with the addition of a your-mileage-may-vary star casting in Jim Belushi several years before his major mainstream hit Curly Sue; the former SNL alum has that assured smarmy delivery and screen presence but the writing on Red Heat doesn’t afford him many jokes or decent laughs. In fact, I found Belushi’s performance here decidedly un-funny, lacking the twinkle in the eye to stand toe-to-toe with Schwarzenegger’s rigid delivery as the straight man. It may have worked in the 1980’s, and Red Heat is definitely a product of its time, but I really struggled to enjoy the lighter side of Red Heat as it was presented. That said, Walter Hill’s sizzling direction of a hitherto low-fi noir thriller is on point, and the crackling plot (as cliched as it is) and violent, menacing tones throughout make for compelling, even enthralling viewing.
Red Heat seems like an obvious lower-budget Lethal Weapon clone, and to many degrees it is. Arnie and Belushi make for uncomfortable partners as they track down the dastardly Viktor, with Belushi obviously angling for the Mel Gibson character role, while the Austrian Oak woodenly personifies a Russian-flavoured (and white) straight man take – Hill and his co-screenwriters Harry Kleiner and Troy Martin give the frisson between Danko and Ridzik a real undercurrent of dislike; neither really respect the other, and to some degrees there’s a general distaste for each other’s cultures and backgrounds that elicits awkward glances through the film, but both lead actors generally give the material their best.
It’s not a film where the “good guys” necessarily win, either, and the collateral damage inflicted upon Chicago and its residents as the pair work to capture Viktor borders on masochistic from time to time. Ed O’Ross plays up the slimy nastiness of his part as the film’s Bad Guy, and seems to be having a great time playing cat and mouse with the pair. The supporting cast is peppered with notable before-the-were-famous talent like Gina Gershon (Bound, Showgirls), Pruitt Taylor Vince (The Legend of 1900), Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne, a holdover from his early Apocalypse Now-era career) and Richard Bright (The Godfather) and Hill makes the most of the sweaty, grimy underbelly of Chicago itself the city’s almost a character in and of itself. Hell, even Brion James (Blade Runner) pops in for a brief but memorable scene.
The grim tone and overall unlikeable nature of the characters and premise might seem off-putting to casual viewers but Hill and his editing team make the most of their hard-bitten style to give the movie a real sense of dare. Arnie playing the duplicitous anti-hero against Belushi’s far more morally American cop is a wrangle in itself, throwing in double-crosses and possible subterfuge through all of it keeping the audience guessing. There’s gratuitous nudity, violence and adult themes, something both Belushi and Arnie had thrown in as choice of projects in the early stages of their film careers, and Red Heat’s Cold War-era politik themes remain markedly prescient given where the former Soviet Union sits in a modern 2023 context; Walter Hill hides classic Bogartian-edge beneath a slick veneer of Hollywood production value and marketability to deliver a hell of a great thriller, and a masterful modern noir. Okay, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a hell of an effective movie.