RECAP: Red Heat

Red Heat (1988): Walter Hill

Buddy cops were all the rage in the 1980s. Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs., and Lethal Weapon are three examples of genre-defining hits that resonate today.

Red Heat is decidedly in a second tier. It grossed $35 million, less than half of cop parody movie The Naked Gun.

The film has one iconic moment, a shot in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body is loving filmed from the ground up. Only the great statues receive better filming.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A Soviet cop tracks a Soviet drug dealer through Chicago while a local cop attempts to ruin the investigation. 

Hero (7/10)

Moscow police captain Ivan Danko (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is perhaps the largest police officer in the Soviet Union. In the opening sequence, detailed later, Danko learns the location of man named Viktor Rosta (Ed O’Ross). What’s Rosta done? We don’t know, only that Danko was willing to hold a stone heated beside a fire to learn his location.

The movie offers more context. Drugs are creeping into Moscow. Ten years ago there was nothing, and in ten years, says Danko’s partner, Moscow will be “like Miami.” Danko considers himself not only a Soviet patriot, but a man on the front lines of the newest Soviet invasion: cocaine.

Danko shows off his police skill while arresting Rosta. He walks into a huge tavern, himself dressed in police uniform, and approaches a table surrounded by Georgians. There’s Rosta, as promised. Rosta stands and speaks. He says his people are being persecuted, still, by the Russian elite.

One guy rushes at Danko, who easily floors him. To prove his commitment, Danko breaks his leg, off, to reveal that it was fake. (We should have been ready for this. It was foreshadowed during the interminable credits when a one-legged man crutched through Red Square.) Danko tips over the fake leg, and a whole heap of white powder pours out. “Cocainum,” Danko says, which is how you say “cocaine” in Russian?

There’s a shootout and Rosta escapes, to America, after killing Danko’s partner. Oh, and Danko killed Rosta’s brother. So there’s a lot of bad blood between them now.

Danko reaches America and immediately makes his mark. Working alongside his nation’s enemies phases Danko not at all. After landing in Chicago, he demands to stay at the roach motel where Rosta stayed, rather than the executive suite Chicago PD booked him.

Danko proves himself an excellent cop. First, he dislikes his assigned American partner, Art Ridzik (Jim Belushi), exactly the person to dislike. Second, he does actual police work. Danko obtains a locker key precious to Rosta during an escape attempt, and Danko later learns about the key’s lock pairing. Danko extracts information from a suspect in a holding cell. Danko learns about Rosta’s drug running scheme from a prisoner in an Illinois penitentiary.

When not policing, Danko spreads political propaganda. Iron Jaw, as he’s called in Moscow, quickly corrects the hotel clerk when he calls him Russian. Danko is a Soviet. Get it right or pay the price, Yank. Upstairs, Danko pays the price of watching TV. It flicks on to a porno. “Capitalism,” sneers Danko. He believes the Chinese method of executing drug dealers and addicts to be more effective than the American way, and he finds the Soviet method of suspect interrogation by brute force “more economical.”

Danko is also a chess wizard, pointing out “obvious” moves in Ridzik’s computer game. He drinks vodka to deal with stress. That part was, perhaps, a joke, though Danko only smiles once in Red Heat.

Arnold acts as flexibly as a Lenin statue. Likely that was the point–Americans might have more fun, but Soviets stoically do the job. Danko shows fear and confusion only once, when he faces down Rosta’s hired American wife Manzetti (Gina Gershon) in the hospital. He can’t understand why she would try to prevent Rosta’s arrest and nearly get shot. It’s as if Danko understand everything about police except women.

Danko serves as a perfect foil to Ridzik’s unchecked comedic stylings. They work as well together as a bucket of paint splashed onto a wall–you can’t predict how it will turn out, and it might end in disaster, but you’ll remember it.

Villain (4/10)

Ed O’Ross plays Viktor Rosta, Moscow drug kingpin. Rosta hails from the troubled Soviet republic of Georgia, which will gain independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His hatred of Russians likely fuels his eagerness to import Western drugs into Moscow. When first we see him, his crony is carrying cocaine inside his fake leg.

Rosta escapes arrest, kills a Moscow policeman, and flees to America. He’s a bad dude, but in America he’s slightly out of his element. Rosta is arrested after running a red light, a violation probably unthinkable in the Soviet Union. He also had an illegal gun, and that lands him in jail. Not since Capone was a higher kingpin felled for lesser misdeeds.

Danko arrives in Chicago to extradite Rosta to the USSR. Outside the jail, Rosta’s cronies initiate a violent and effective escape plan, involving an armored car, four disguised men, and a getaway car. The plan succeeds in that Rosta escapes, but a cop and a bad guy die during the shootout.

Rosta loses an important key in the escape, one he needs back from Danko. It’s the only reason he keeps Danko alive. He is far less kind to his cronies. One of the Georgians aiding Rosta in America lies in a coma in the hospital, after the jail escape, and when he awakens Rosta has him killed rather than give up information.

That’s how Rosta treats his friends. His wife he paid $10,000 to marry him, then had her strangled and thrown in a river.

O’Ross does his best Don Corleone impression as Rosta. He meets Danko in a Chicago parking deck and lays out his ethos. He believes they are not dissimilar, both men of codes. “Yours one of the state, mine one of thieves,” he says. That rings thin to me, and to Danko, who calls him a criminal.

Rosta answers by saying that any country that can survive Stalin can survive dope. That’s probably true, but did the USSR “survive” Stalin? It did, technically, but not for long.

Rosta shows his street smarts when invading the hotel to kill Danko. He uses the log book to learn Danko’s room, 303. He thinks Danko is in the neighboring room, 302, but Danko outthought his adversary. Or so we thought. Rosta uses the Clean Head hired guns he brought with him to invade 302, where they find a hooker and her trick. They kill an unknown man in the shower while Rosta finds his key hidden in Danko’s room.

There’s a shootout, and Rosta has to escape. He leaps through a window, on the third floor, and falls into a river. Did he know it was there? That’s never mentioned.

Action/Effects (3/10)

Several action scenes populate Red Heat, but too many are shootouts. A shootout in Moscow, a shootout during a drug bust in Chicago, a shootout in a dingy hotel, and a shootout in a jail. Bang bang bang bang.

In all these shootouts, the good guys are outmanned and outgunned. The cops hide around corners and turn to shoot. Belushi is comically bad at his gun-pointing technique. At the jail he turns and wags his revolver like its a live fish.

A cop is shot in the jail escape scene, and to retaliate Chicago keeps its most annoying police officer on the case. No other cops are assigned to chase a gang of cop killers. They’re too busy chasing hookers.

Considering all the violence Rosta enables, he should be one of America’s most wanted criminals, and certainly Chicago’s public enemy number one. That’s not the case.

Unvaried shootouts dull Red Heat‘s impact. Some moments stand out. Danko ducks when Rosta shoots out the door separating the two. At least three people sustain multiple gunshots to their torsos.

Hill’s camera is more interested in Arnold’s body. In the Moscow sauna we see Arnold’s ass and abs before we see his face. Later Arnold showers in his hotel, rubbing the water on his body in the most sexualized manner you’ll see him.

Sidekicks (0/8)

Aiding and abetting Danko was Jim Belushi as Chicago beat cop Art Ridzik. When dealing with lesser Belushis, expect lesser skills.

Ridzik, I’m sure, was imagined as a wisecracker first, pudgy American jingoist second, and after several other character traits that didn’t make the final cut, cop last. A worse cop has not appeared in a film I’ve seen.

Danko investigates and acts to catch Rosta. Ridzik undermines him at every turn. Example: Ridzik takes Danko to visit his ex-brother-in-law to learn about Rosta’s key. While Danko scans the key books and learns where the key belongs, Ridzik argues with the owner and then saunters back to find out what Danko’s learned.

In the hospital, after the death of Rosta’s associate, they spot the nurse walking away. He (dressed as a she) calmly walks through the hall. Ridzik shouts, “Hey,” and he sprints away. Ridzik and Danko could have coolly walked behind him and taken him down. Ridzik wants attention, so he shouts and nearly dies in an ensuing shootout.

At the jail, Rosta tells Ridzik to kiss his mother’s ass, more or less, and the latter flies into a rage. He’s never met the guy! At headquarters, when interrogating a suspect, Ridzik plants heroin in his coat pocket, which never backfires, right?

After Danko and Ridzik talk to Rosta’s American wife Manzetti, Danko demands the car keys, so he can follow her if she leaves. Ridzik goes for food and coffee. Manzetti does leave, of course, and Danko drives away. Ridzik’s coffee, resting on the dash, spills on the American and burns his dick off.

Ridzik spends a lot of time spouting out American folk sayings. “We’re batting zero.” “As in Chicken Kiev.” “What is this, 60 Minutes?” These phrases seem meant to confound Danko. Speaking to him is like speaking to a cement wall, so it’s hard to discern his level of understanding.

And he sure ain’t a nice fella. He calls a waitress “Sweet Cheeks” because he’s annoyed her by trying to be nice and do her job.

Belushi appears in Red Heat for one reason, to be funny. Is he? Eh. I’m not into Lesser Belushi. His wisecracks were funny in The Second City, I guess, but his Everyman schtick loses that capital “E” with me. When a nurse jabs a tetanus shot into Ridzik’s ass, she’s acting as the audience wishes.

Henchmen (6/8)

Rosta employs several goons to aid his $5,000,000 drug shipment. The best character was the man selling the drugs, the imprisoned “political” criminal Abdul Elijah (Brent Jennings).

Elijah appears in only one scene, but his impact is palpable. He believes the government has imprisoned him for his political outlook. Danko asks what his political crime was. “I robbed a bank,” Elijah says, with a grin.

Elijah further explains his politics. He calls himself “the only Marxist around here.” “This is politics, baby. This is economics, this is spiritual,” he says. “I plan to sell drugs to every white man in the world,” as payback for exploiting black Americans. Thus the Rosta deal.

Elijah was a breath of fresh air in this staid film. I wanted more of him, and less of his violent underlings who spoke more often with gun barrels than mouths. That Red Heat ignores him after his scene is testament to its lack of insight.

Stunts (2/6)

Driving two buses across Chicago was an astounding feat. A bus chase is a first for me, and the driving was skilled, though mostly the stunt drivers drove the buses in straight lines. Few maneuvers can be made with 35-foot vehicles.

The finest stunt came with Danko sitting on his ass. A Chicago street tough approaches Danko’s car and orders him to move it or he’ll smash it with the baseball bat he holds in his hands. Danko reaches across the passenger seat and punches out the thug. That move alone is worth a point.

Climax (2/6)

Danko, Ridzik, and Rosta converge at Chicago’s Greyhound bus terminal. Rosta arrives first. He’s packing his wrist gun that he showed off first in Moscow, and he uses that to murder the drug money bag man.

Rosta awaits the loading of his drugs and money onto a bus. Danko finds him outside and attempts, again, to arrest him. Then Ridzik fouls up, again, by arriving to arrest Rosta when he was supposed to cover the rear. Danko, enraged, turns his gun on Ridzik.

Rosta uses this moment to run away and steal a bus. Danko takes one, too, with Ridzik aboard, and the two careen through Chicago. Danko begins driving on the wrong side of the road. Ridzik implores him to switch sides, which Danko does, right through a statue that’s a “fucking Chicago landmark.” Ask and you shall receive, Ridzik.

The two buses smash through streets and under the L. Rosta breaks a dozen cars and parking meters: the Cool Hand Luke maneuver. Ridzik, standing beside Danko in the trailing bus, laments the absence of cops. “Make a U-turn and they’re all over your ass,” he says, “they’re never around when you need one.” Hey, Ridzik, YOU are a goddamned cop. What good will a squad car do against a bus?

Rosta drives toward a train track but is blocked by a train. He turns around and finds Danko staring him down. They rev engines and floor it toward each other. A game of Chicken. Danko screams. Ridzik wants Danko to swerve, and when it’s clear he won’t, Ridzik commits his final act of professional incompetence by yanking the wheel and toppling the bus.

Rosta escapes just long enough to get smashed by another train. With his bus on its side, Rosta stumbles out, face bloodied, but with enough wherewithal to shoot the angered train conductor.

Ridzik gives up the chase for being too Russian. That leaves Danko to finish the job, which is fine with him, because Ridzik has added nothing to the case.

Danko walks through the train engine’s steam. It’s an Old West showdown at night in Chicago. Rosta shoots first. Danko doesn’t blink. The bullets miss. Danko triggers his borrowed Magnum and kills Rosta. That’s it. Ridzik credits Danko on his shot bunching and they leave.

Before flying home to Moscow, Danko exchanges watches with Ridzik. The Soviet’s is sentimental, a $20 East German make. Ridzik offers his $1,000 watch he purchased on “deep discount from my cousin.” Danko has fleeced Ridzik, but his iron jaw does not betray if he meant too or not.

Jokes (2/4)

Belushi tries his best. He opens his role by observing the cans on some street walkers. “I’m a man,” he says. “I got needs.” The other two men in the car tell to stop wondering about the reality of a woman’s breasts and focus on the upcoming drug bust.

Ridzik’s a horny guy. He sweet talks a flight attendant at O’Hare, who tells him “blow yourself.” Each woman’s a “honey” or “sweet cheeks” to him.

He dubs Danko “Gumby,” presumably for his green suit (although it showed up as blue on my Blu Ray).

As usual, it’s Arnold getting the upper hand. Red Heat can be considered a practice run for the funnier Twins with Danny DeVito. When Danko first dons that green (blue) suit, he says, straight-faced, “I now work undercover.”

Early in the movie, when Danko attempts to arrest Rosta’s entire gang, one of the gangsters asks for evidence. Danko punches the guy and breaks his leg off. There’s your stinking evidence.

I don’t know if the Moscow sauna/gym, a room full of people who looked like they were waiting to hear “cut” before starting an orgy, was meant to be funny, but it was.

I find Belushi a tiresome hack, so his comedic efforts ring hollow where a straight performance might succeed. That Ridzik was an awful cop and didn’t know it was a joke as sad as funny.

Setting (2/4)

Chicago and Moscow, two dens of ill repute, especially in the ’80s. I’ll get to them in a moment, but we can’t go farther without discussing the opening scene. We really can’t.

The film opens in Moscow, and the first guy we see is a dirty Russian shoveling coal into a furnace. The second guy we see glares at the first, a blond man without a single blemish to him. This man will later be murdered, proving that the Soviet Union crushes the beautiful.

The blond guy scans the room that opens before him. A cement room houses dozens of muscle-bound men lifting weights in loincloths. In a pool cavort nymphs under a stream of water. They are naked. Skin glistens under sweat and water.

But this is Russia, where no one can have fun, so they aren’t smiling. They pump iron, rest, pump, move on with their bitter, Soviet lives. The blond guy ignores all this, as he has his eyes on Arnold, hidden in the mists, ass hanging out. There’s a high chance that this was a scene cut from the bodybuilding classic Pumping Iron.

The movie cuts to Arnold as he enters a room. The camera loving shoots his world-class body from the toes up. A cheese cloth is the only piece of clothing on him, and for some reason a key dangles from his waistline. Pan up to his rippled abs and pecs, shining with sweat, and finish on his face fixed with that Terminator scowl. Here is Arnold in all his glory. (Forget about the blond guy, like the movie does.)

Arnold (Capt. Danko, really, though we don’t know that yet) faces a large man of Central Asian provenance. The man takes Arnold’s hand and observes that it is too soft for a foundry worker’s. All foundry workers should be accustomed to heat, and to prove this a steaming rock is dropped into Arnold’s hand. Arnold curls his fingers around the stone, flexing his biceps, and holds a rage face as he holds the rock.

Arnold is unhappy. He punches the villain through the wall and onto the snowy hill. Arnold and another guy fly out. The three hulking men fight, in the snow, in loin cloths, until Arnold delivers six consecutive punches to some thug’s face and learns where his adversary Rosta is hanging out.

This scene offers more than enough. Arnold butt, dozens of strong men lifting weights, topless women, fighting in loin cloths–what more can you ask for?

Red Heat‘s other settings are by the book. Chicago is portrayed as a town full of hookers. Seriously, most of the women in the film are hookers. More about this later. Moscow is cold and has Red Square.

One silly aspect about ’80s cop movies are the enormous heaps of papers scattered everywhere. Computer were just coming into their own, and we are blessed with the sight of one on a secretary’s desk, but paper ruled the roost. Ridzik explains to Danko all the forms he must fill out for their police work up to that point. “You got your psych report, preliminary report, you got your accident report, you got a questionnaire from the coroner to fill out, which has to typed. In triplicate.”

Commentary (0/2)

Red Heat is a crime movie. Moscow and Chicago are dens of thieves, cities awash in criminals. Most of the women are prostitutes, it seems, and the men are either cops or drug dealers.

The movie isn’t smart enough to make wise statements about either society, devolving into senseless violence and sub-jokes.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Four women, by my count, have more than one speaking line in Red Heat. One is a secretary at the police station. Another is a hospital nurse. Those are good. Another is a hired wife for a Georgian drug smuggler. The last is a prostitute who nearly dies in a shootout. Hmm.

More women appear onscreen as hookers than as anything else. That’s a bad sign. Was Chicago awash with prostitutes in the 1980s? I don’t know, but I suspect not. Red Heat makes writer-director Walter Hill into the most confused person in Hollywood. It’s like he’s never met a woman before. “Woman pretty, woman sexy,” he might think in his caveman voice. Every single Russian woman is naked (all in the opening sauna scene).

Such casting choices exemplify the boneheadedness of the Hollywood male and how dumbed down they believe/want the male audience to be. Has Hollywood improved in three decades? Err, let me get back to you…


  • (3) Automatic Arnold bonus.
  • Danko’s watch beeped several times in Red Heat while he was in America. The alarm indicated a time to feed his parakeet. But who fed the bird? That was never addressed.
  • The music sounded like it was lifted straight from Commando. James Horner scored both, so that’s little surprise.
  • (-1) My subtitles said that Rosta “escaped the county,” and that he would “pay far his crimes.”

Summary (29/68): 43%

Red Heat is a forgettable cop movie. Not buddy cop, because the pair of Arnold and Belushi only warm to each other post-climax.

Belushi brings his terrible near-mullet to screen and lands maybe one joke. Arnold, on the other hand, was great. He should have played Russians more often! His body resembles what the American conscience believes to be the Russian psyche.