Kevin: It’s been more than two weeks since Steven Seagal was designated by Vladimir Putin as a “special representative” to improve humanitarian ties with the United States, yet somehow distrust over the efforts by Moscow to influence the last presidential election still remains. While Seagal’s affinity for Mother Russia continues to perplex, we had noted at the time that his paranoia about America’s deep state was clearly evident in his debut feature “Above the Law” 30 years ago. Well it just so happens that that same year, another action icon – Arnold Schwarzenegger – gave us a roadmap for both bridging the U.S.-Russia divide and being around Jim Belushi for an extended period of time without punching him, in 1988’s “Red Heat”:
By the time “Red Heat” was released that summer, the Cold War had thawed considerably from the period four or five years earlier when TV shows like “The Day After” were predicting mutual nuclear annihilation, and movies like “Red Dawn” were warning about the possibility the commies could drop from the skies at any moment. At that time, if a patriotic American superstar like Arnold had dared to play a sympathetic Russian it would have been considered treasonous, but the declining threat from Moscow and the hilarious insights by Yakov Smirnoff about how things in America are different from things in Russia showed that not all Russians were to be feared.
In fact, relations between the two countries had improved to the point that “Red Heat” became the first American production allowed to film scenes in Red Square, which is where we begin the film as we are introduced to Arnold’s character, police captain Ivan Danko (don’t worry, a “Danko/”you’re welcome” joke does come up). Actually technically the movie doesn’t actually start in Moscow, since the first thing we see in the film is either a Russian bathhouse or Arnold’s home gym in Malibu, since it is filled exclusively with bodybuilders working out and topless women cavorting in the pool, before Arnold engages in one of the most homoerotic fights of all time:
It should be noted that director Walter Hill asked Arnold to lose 10 pounds for the role so he wouldn’t look as muscular as usual. Yeah obviously it worked, Arnold totally looks like a regular Joe Six-Pack here:
Either way, this Viktor Rosta that Danko is after is considered so dangerous that the authorities in Moscow send their top cop to Chicago to bring him back after he flees the country. Now if they were worried that Danko would consider defecting after being seduced by American decadence, their fears would soon be put to rest by the fact that upon first being exposed to hotel room porn, Danko mutters a disgusted “capitalism” before turning it off. Of course once they found out he was also partnered with Jim Belushi, they probably knew he’d want to get the fuck back to Moscow as soon as possible.
First though, while they obviously come from vastly different cultures and political ideologies, we should note that the partnership between Danko and Belushi’s Sgt. Ridzik demonstrates in several ways that Russia and the United States are not that different after all. For one thing, despite the fact that cocaine fueled some of the greatest artistic output of the 1980s, it was also often public enemy number one in action films back then. In the spirit of movies like “Bad Boys II,” we learn in “Red Heat” that cops in Russia are similarly nonchalant about getting countless innocent civilians killed if it means keeping people from escaping their dreary lives for a little while through recreational drugs.
Apparently police chiefs in Russia are also just as unappreciative of awesome, ruling-breaking hero cops as they are in America, with Danko finding some common ground with his American counterpart when he says, “We have many men like your Commander Donnelly in Soviet Union. I understand him. He’s like KGB.”
The two also bond over their shared desire that an all-powerful state have unlimited authority to jail people as they see fit, when Ridzik explains to a confused Danko before an interrogation that because of the Miranda law, he can’t even touch a suspect’s ass (leading Danko to angrily respond “I do not want to touch his ass!”). Later when Danko explains that in the Soviet Union a suspect can’t talk to a lawyer until after two days, it’s the only aspect of Russian society Ridzik can get behind.
But probably the biggest universal truth imparted by “Red Heat” is this: no matter if you are a cop or a civilian, a communist or a capitalist, a Russian or an American, everyone hates Jim Belushi.
Seriously, no one can stand him in this movie, from witnesses like Gina Gershon, to fellow cops like Laurence Fishburne, to the woman who, after he asks, “How ya’ doin’ honey?” as she passes by in the airport, responds by telling him to blow himself. That may seem a little harsh were it not for the fact that his first line in the movie is “Funbag patrol, double bogies, 11:00!”
Just to illustrate how off-putting he is, at one point he and Danko are in a diner, and when the waitress attempts to top off his coffee he says, in the most condescending and put-upon way possible, “Look lady, I just got my coffee the perfect color, it’s the only thing I got going for me tonight.” Yet less than a minute later he is shaking his empty cup and yelling, “Yo sweet cheeks, while we’re young, huh!” The fact that the waitress is played by an actress who soon married Belushi in real life and then divorced him less than two years later is a little telling in retrospect.
Maybe Belushi’s general obnoxiousness explains the fact that, while a typical buddy cop movie from that era would end with the two reluctant partners eventually developing a common respect and friendship, at best Danko grows to barely tolerate Ridzik by the end of “Red Heat.” In fact when Danko isn’t trying to ditch his annoying American partner, he’s intentionally putting him in danger, and even at one point pulls a gun on him (when Ridzik asks if he was really going to shoot him, Danko doesn’t exactly deny it).
Honestly Ridzik mainly just stands around while Danko figures out everything himself, and if his character didn’t exist the movie still would proceed exactly as it does. By the time the two say goodbye at the airport, you certainly don’t get the feeling that we will be seeing a “Red Heat 2” where Ridzik visits his new buddy in Moscow, and action and hilarity ensue! Hell, even though it was sold as a buddy cop movie along the lines of Hill’s earlier “48 Hours,” the poster makes no bones about what the star pecking order is here:
Either way, it’s easy to see why “Red Heat” did not become the smash hit they were hoping for, even though Arnold is actually pretty great in it and gets the movie’s only laughs by underplaying as the straight man. But 30 years later, the film serves not only as a time capsule of East-West relations right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but as a blueprint for how we can perhaps find once again areas of common ground between America and Russia. I think we can all agree on the first place to start: extraditing Jim Belushi and imprisoning him in Siberia for the greater good of the world!
Post Script: While it may not be a habit shared by most people, if there is one thing we can say about Arnold from the behind-the-scenes photos of “Red Heat,” he REALLY loves his goddamn cigars: