Times change. When I was a teenager, there was some obscene graffitti viewed daily on my university desk about Arnold Schwarzenegger, suggesting that the bodybuilder-turned-actor was ‘the awakening dream of the Nazis’.That’s proved to be somewhat wide of the mark; whatever you think of his politics, Schwarzenegger has proved himself to be something of a voice of reason when it comes to communicating with non-political masses. His video comments on January 6th were remarkably personal and yet carefully measured, and his latest speech directly to the Russian people on the war in the Ukraine shows he hasn’t lost the common touch.
Arnie may not regard Red Heat as one of his smash successes; there’s no sequels or lasting impact on popular culture. But Walter Hill’s film was substantially ahead of the curve when it comes to portrayal of the Soviet Union on-screen, arriving during the Glasnost period and just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. With half a dozen writers toiling on the script, it’s clear that Red Heat wasn’t the easiest of productions, but seen from 2022, it’s a pretty slick retread of Hill’s 48 Hours with a few prescient political allusions.
Moscow cop Ivan Danko (Schwarzenegger) is on the tail of the Georgian drug-dealer who killed his partner; the trail takes him to Chicago where he teams up with lovable misogynist slob/cop Art Ridzik (James Belushi). The duo have cops at their heels in the form of Peter Boyle and Laurence Fishburne, while Gina Gershon makes an early impression as the dealer’s moll. Any cultural complications are swiftly ironed out in a climactic bus chase that seems to demolish half of Chicago, but eventually sends Danko back to Moscow with all scores settled.
Red Heat was made before Schwarzenegger truly discovered his surprising gift for comedy, but he’s pretty good here as a straight-man with real gravity, never deviating from his quest and with no time for distractions; ‘Capitalism’ is his one word response when disdainfully viewing a tv set blaring pornography. There are shards of political commentary in the way that Danko is seduced by elements of American culture, despite his partner being such a poor advert for them. Remaking 48 Hours along political and cultural divides isn’t a bad idea at all, and there’s some vestiges of the laconic humour of Troy Kennedy Martin (Edge of Darkness) in the dialogue.
The salty badinage between the cops makes this something of a guilty pleasure for men; the unreconstructed sexism seems late in the day even for 1988. But the action is shot with Hill’s customary drive and impact, from the nude bath-house brawl to the final night-time city chase, complete with the chicken-game punch-line. Red Heat is a slick, effective cop movie, revealing that Schwarzenegger could dominate the screen given a role tailored to his unique style.
This latest Blu-Ray, DVD and 4KUHD release features a slew of extras, with docs on the star, the political context, production arm Carolco and stuntman Benny Deakins, who died during the production and who the film is dedicated to. It’s a shame they couldn’t have found more enthusiastic contributors to discuss the film, because Red Heat is a smarter movie than it gets credit for here. As it turns out, Arnie wasn’t the manipulable straw-man in the US media that the Kremlin needed to bring America to the brink; that came in a different guise. Written off by many in the 80’s as a bubble-brained strongman, Arnie’s providing exactly the kind of straight-talking, no-nonsense leadership the world needs right now.