There is a certain element of nostalgia in movies depicting the Cold War made during the the era. While some of them depict a realistic view of the then current events most of them had a more biased point of view in which the Soviet Union and its inhabitants were portrayed as stereotypical evil, humorless and cold communists. Rocky IV, Rambo II and III, Red Dawn all had cartoonish plots in which the American protagist saves the day from the evil commies. Most of these movies were made during the Reagan administration and now serve as guilty pleasures with a political message that feels strange and dated considering the peaceful outcome of the war that never actually was a real war. Red Heat is fine example of such a movie.
Red Heat stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Captain Ivan Danko, one of Moscow’s toughest detectives. In order to stop a large amount of drugs coming to his country and to apprehend a ruthless Russian criminal, Danko is forced to leave Mother Russia and go of to the United States where he is paired with James Belushi’s wise-ass Chicago cop Art Ridzik. They form the center of a buddy-cop action comedy, though they’re not really buddies the majority of the time. They both hold their prejudice against the other. Danko despises Capitalism while his strict formal Soviet appearance, manners and communist background are ridiculed by Art constantly. Of course at the end of the movie they’ve grown accustomed to one another and part as friends, even though Danko pulled a gun on Art 15 minutes earlier.
The buddy cop set-up is a tried formula which works to a certain degree here, but the communist/capitalist element feels awkward now. Danko is as straight as an arrow, even though he uses excessive violence constantly. The Miranda rights and the way he deals with those are one of the more entertaining aspects of the movie, but the core function of his character is to serve as the straight guy to James Belushi’s wise cracking cop. Belushi’s character seems a bit lost here, since he probably originated as the humor element but in the final product he’s just a looser version of Danko. This is probably because the straight guy gets top billing and is the star of the show and it’s Danko’s quest we’re following. It isn’t until 15 minutes into the movie Belushi’s character is introduced. Think about it as Beverly Hills Cop but with Eddie Murphy/Judge Reinhold roles reversed; it doesn’t quite work.
Playing a Russian Arnold somewhat returns to the character that made him famous: The Terminator. His Danko is portrayed in a similar fashion: a man of few words and the words he utters with his thick accent make sense. Despite all of his charisma and screen presence, it always bothers me a little bit when they present him as an American with names like Ben Richards, Douglas Quaid, Jack Slater or John Kimble. This is one of the few times they actually acknowledge he’s a foreigner. His performance as a Russian is much more convincing than his regular American ones.
Not straying far away from his usual schtick is Belushi. I never was a big Belushi fan, but I never disliked him as well. It’s just not the kind of actor I would watch a movie for just because he’s in it. The supporting cast holds quite a few familiar faces: Peter Boyle, Laurence Fishburne and the ever titillating Gina Gershon as the gangster’s wife.
In terms of plot Red Heat doesn’t make much sense. Considering the relation between the U.S. and The U.S.S.R. at the time it’s questionable at least that there is some extradition treaty between these two countries. I’m also not quite convinced the U.S. would let a Russian police captain run around through Chicago setting himself above the law whenever he feels necessary. They only seem to be concerned about him carrying a gun. Then there’s the Russian gangster Rosta, who apparently has been to the U.S. before as he has an American wife, a green card and an operation going over there. In the time frame of the movie it just didn’t add up as it felt it took place over a couple of days. But who knows, maybe it has been months or even years between Rosta’s departure from the U.S.S.R. and Danko’s arrival in the U.S. The movie just never informs us.
As with most 80’s action movies Red Heat has a homoerotic subtext. The first 10 minutes are a prime not-so-subtle example as it’s set in a Russian bath house full of sweaty naked muscular men (and only a handful of women), has Arnold walking around in nothing but a loin cloth with the camera focusing multiple times on his buttocks and ending with him and a similarly dressed guy fighting in the snow. A scene later there is a comment about Danko being circumcised. The rest of the movie is less blunt, but there are plenty of elements to be found for the attention paying viewer.
In terms of action Red Heat delivers a lot more than in the humor department. While it’s not wall-to-wall filled with it, the action on display is fairly realistic and consists mostly of gun fights and Arnold beating the crap out of people. The finale consists of a bus chase through Chicago between Danko and Rosta generating enormous property damage and resulting in a game of chicken.
Red Heat is a fun movie with a more serious role for Arnold this time. It should come as no surprise that he’s more convincing as a Russian than as an American. Like Dolph Lundgren these guys can hardly hide their European roots with their thick accents and looks that could best be described as “Hitler’s wet dream”. As far as Cold War movies go, Red Heat isn’t the best of the bunch, but an entertaining one.