Having binged on action movies in the last couple of days, it seemed like a good time to devote a column to one of my favorite and least reputable genres. Without further ado...HEAVY ACTION!
Let's start with one of the least-known films in Arnold Schwarzenegger's action movie catalog, sandwiched between the two movies that best defined the man at his peak: Commando in 1985 and Predator in 1987. Sure, Conan the Barbarian made him a movie star and Terminator remains his most iconic role, but the former was a fantasy movie and in the latter he played a villain. Commando is the movie that created the Schwarzenegger persona: the one man army, the killing machine with an endless arsenal of wisecracks. Predator confirmed that he was a genuine box office draw, and from that point on, he had hit after hit after hit. And then there's Raw Deal.
If Schwarzenegger is often defined by his sense of "otherness" (his films often compensate by his thick accent and overall "foreignness" by accentuating his superhuman physique and casting him as a robot from the future, or a movie character pulled off the movie screen and into reality, or a tough cop forced to pose as a kindergarten teacher -- you get the idea), Raw Deal buries him in otherness several layers deep. He's a former FBI agent acting as a small town sheriff who infiltrates the Chicago mob by posing as a gangster. So many of Schwarzenegger's movies are about his attempts to fit in to an established society (both textually and subtextually), and Raw Deal lays that on extra thick.
The main problem with Raw Deal is that it withholds the goods until pretty much the climax, when Arnold is finally allowed to unleash the fury and lay waste to a shitload of goons. He's not really even met with any resistance; unlike some of his other movies, no one -- even the main bad guy -- puts up any kind of fight. He just rolls through a construction site, executing motherfuckers while the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" blasts on the soundtrack (marking perhaps the only time that one of Schwarzenegger's action set pieces is set to a pop song). But at least the movie has the same sense of humor that Arnold's movies usually have; unlike Stallone, Schwarzenegger's movies always have a lightness to them, and Arnold is in on the joke. He's a funny guy, with good comic timing and a tendency towards self-deprecation. When Arnold lampoons his image, we get Kindergarten Cop; when Stallone does it, we get Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
There are two great moments in Raw Deal, and they're also the two funniest. The first is when Schwarzenegger comes home to his wife in the first couple of minutes. She's drunk and angry at him and the scene ends with her hurling a cake at him, which hits the wall and splatters it with frosting. Arnold responds with the classic line "You should never drink and bake." It's funnier with the accent.
The second moment comes at the very end, and it's completely fucking crazy. He steamrolls through dozens of mob goons, finally arriving at the big boss (Sam Wanamaker), who he SPOILERS blows away a whole bunch. Then he picks up a big bowl of candy and pours it all over the guy's bloody, bullet-riddled corpse. What? Is that just some weird sort of final "fuck you" to the guy? Or did I miss some weird reference to candy earlier in the movie and this was the big callback? Like, maybe a scene where Wanamaker is eating Good 'n' Plenty and Schwarzenegger says something like "Dat candy is going to be da death of you." THEN IT WOULD MAKE SENSE. But I don't think I missed that moment. I think he just killed the guy and saw a bowl of candy and decided it would be funny. And guess what? HE WAS RIGHT. It's hilarious.
Tango & Cash (1989)
Tango & Cash is pretty terrible. Also, I love it.
Ray Tango (Sylvester Stallone) and Gabriel Cash (Kurt Russell) are superstar L.A. cops (we know because every newspaper headline tells us so, because newspapers are constantly doing front page stories on specific police officers) who are really fucking up the drugs-and-guns business of big bad guy Yves Perret (Jack Palance). So he has them framed for murder and sent to jail, where they have to break out and take him down. Also, they have to learn to put aside their differences and work together, because of course they do.
Here's the thing about Tango & Cash: it is a movie in which no one stops making jokes and wisecracks. Like, ever. It doesn't matter that practically none of them are funny. It is relentless and annoying for a long time, but like Sideshow Bob stepping on the rakes, it eventually reaches a point of delirium and becomes hilarious. It is the logical conclusion of both the Schwarzenegger school of tough guy sign-offs ("Stick around!") and Lethal Weapon-style bickering, but lacking in the cleverness and finesse of both. Only The Last Boy Scout comes close to the sheer volume of obnoxious dialogue, but at least those words were written by Shane Black, who does that sort of thing fairly well. Tango & Cash was written by Randy Feldman, whose other big screen credits are the Van Damme movie Nowhere to Run and the Eddie Murphy vehicle Metro. Paddy Chayefsky he is not.
The movie is another one of those in which Sylvester Stallon self-consciously "plays" with his "image," acting against type as the designer suit-wearing, stock-checking pretty boy cop. Unfortunately, it never feels like more than a stunt -- he's distractingly miscast in the part. He lacks Schwarzenegger's gift for comedy. Worse than that, though, is that he lacks Kurt Russell's gift for comedy, which is especially bad because he has to act opposite Russell in nearly every scene, and Russell just blows him off the screen. Like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, his Cash is one of those jeans-and-boots-wearing, beer-for-breakfast, working class slob cop who just happens to spend at least an hour a day styling his hair. But he's charming and he's funny and we like him, which is more than can be said for Tango.
Stallone has one really good scene, though, in which he's pretending to be crazy to intimidate the Australian henchman (we know he's Australian because he's constantly saying things like "bloody" and "He's the govna!" I'M SERIOUS). Stallone does seem legitimately unhinged in the scene, and it's the only point in the movie where it feels like he's having fun instead of having "fun."
The movie exists in a kind of weird limbo, in many ways sounding the death knell of the kind of ridiculous action movies of the '80s and bridging that decade and the next. It's so over the top that it plays almost like a parody of buddy cop movies, but not deliberately so -- yes, it's overtly comedic, but it wants us to be laughing with it, not at it. If Paul Verhoeven had directed the movie, I would read it as post-modern satire. But Tango & Cash is earnest in its ridiculousness, and therefore I am earnest in my affection for it. This is a movie I saw a lot on VHS and cable as a young man, and though it hasn't aged well at all, I can hear just the first few notes of Harold Faltermeyer's excellent synth score and I'm immediately 12 years old again.
Inspired to do a little bit of research on Tango & Cash, I discovered that the movie had an incredibly troubled production. Original director Andrey Konchalovsky either quit or was fired a few months into the shoot (depending on which account you read) and was replaced by Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli. The script was being rewritten all the time. Now, having seen the movie, that makes perfect sense, because the screenplay is a ridiculous mess of contrivances and convenience. Why does Jack Palance's limo just happen to pull up to the bust that opens the movie? You know, the one that takes place on a deserted highway? And why does he just happen to have a giant plastic maze in his office? Is it just so he can do this one example with his pet mice? And what does that prove? That the mice represent Tango and Cash, and that they're going to be in a maze? Because they're not in a maze. They're in a jail. And why is sending them to jail better than just killing them outright? Even Palance's henchmen don't understand that one.
If nothing else, Tango & Cash is entertaining because the cast is populated almost entirely by cool character actors, including Brion James, James Hong, Michael J. Pollard (as the movie's weirdo Q), Lewis Arquette, Eddie Bunker, Geoffrey Lewis, Michael Jeter (Mr. Noodles, RIP), Robert Z'Dar, Clint Howard and Teri Hatcher.
One more fact about Tango & Cash: apparently, Patrick Swayze was originally cast as Cash, but quit the movie to go make Road House. Can anyone imagine Swayze in the part? And would the movie have been at all watchable without Kurt Russell? FUBAR. Big time.
Here's a movie that's kind of depressing for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it isn't very good. Made during during the dead zone between Sylvester Stallone's Rambo: First Blood Part II heyday and his Rambo (2008) comeback, Assassins represents one of his '90s post-action attempts at maturity. The kind of movie that had once made Stallone an action star was out of vogue in the 1990s, meaning that, with the exception of Cliffhanger, the decade was dominated by movies in which he tried to do something different: screwball comedy with Oscar, satiric sci-fi with Demolition Man, straight up drama with Copland. None of them took. His action movies in the decade mostly tried to be more "adult" -- more subdued, less violent. The Specialist and Daylight and Assassins all strive for respectability, but really all they do is lose any sense of fun. They're not terrible movies, necessarily (though The Specialist kind of is); they just don't feel like Stallone movies.
He stars as Robert Rath, stoic contract killer and "the best there is," because very few movies are made about the ninth best hitman. He's hired to do a job, he gets double crossed, the mark is a hacker named Electra (played by a pre-respectability Julianne Moore), an up-and-coming hitman is trying to kill Rath to prove he's the best, there are more double crosses. Such is the life of an ASSASSIN(S). These events do not necessarily happen in that order, but you get the gist.
So let's talk about the Rath character. Another professional hitman who's a stoic loner? And who wants out of the life, but who first has to do ONE LAST JOB? Come on, everyone involved in the making of Assassins. You're literally just making every single movie ever made. It's as though Hollywood screenwriters think audiences won't feel sympathetic towards a character who has devoted his or her life to killing other human beings for money unless he/she has bottomed out and lost his/her taste for it. Sure, Rath has gotten rich off of murdering people, but it's not like he really likes doing it, right? Not anymore, anyway. Between this and one of many ridiculous "twists" at the end, Assassins bends over backwards to let Stallone's character off the hook, morally speaking, as though the audience paying money to go see the guy who played Rambo in a movie CALLED ASSASSINS is going to pass all kinds of judgment on the protagonist.
Speaking of the screenplay, it's credited to a pre-Matrix Andy & Larry (Lana) Wachowski and Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland. The Wachowskis were rewritten until they disliked the finished script so much they tried to have their names removed. And, yes, Helgeland co-wrote L.A. Confidential, but he also alone-wrote The Postman, and it's more the latter guy than the former who did rewrites on Assassins.
Look, the movie's not terrible. It's greatest sin is that it's boring. In trying to be a more adult-oriented action "thriller," it throws out most of what is pure and good in traditional action movies. It saddles Stallone with a dull, mopey character and restricts him from having any fun; miscast as he may be in something like Tango & Cash, at least he was looser and appeared to be enjoying himself. So lifeless is Stallone's character and performance that the filmmakers felt the need to overcompensate by having Antonio Banderas, playing rival assassin Miguel Bain, overact to the point of nearly coughing up a lung. He shouts and sweats and wildly gesticulates, and it's all supposed to work because he's the opposite of the sleepy Bain. It's laughable, though, and the fact that Banderas still became a movie star probably has more to do with his awesomeness in Desperado (released the same year) than his terrible performance here.
The other depressing thing about Assassins is that it was directed by Richard Donner, who once proved he could make a kick ass action movie by making Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2 and then proved that he had lost it by making Lethal Weapon 3 and 4. Again, he does a competent job with Assassins -- most of the issues are with the screenplay, not the direction -- but the movie lack any real energy, suspense or excitement. Those are things you want to have in an action movie. Plus, it runs over two hours, at least 45 minutes of which are spent waiting for Stallone to walk out of a bank.
Too much of Stallone's filmography in the 1990s is made up of movies like Assassins, and that's the reason that by the 2000s his stuff was going direct-to-DVD. It wasn't until he went back to basics and embraced what once made him awesome, first sincerely with Rocky Balboa and Rambo and then cynically with The Expendables, that his career bounced back. While I'm not really a fan of Assassins, I think I'd take it over another irony-enhanced cash-in like The Expendables.
But, of course, Demolition Man whips both their asses.
Excuse me while I enhance my calm.
Got an action movie you'd like to see highlighted in a future Heavy Action? Discuss in the comments below.