***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi, Peter Boyle, Ed O'Ross
screenplay by Harry Kleiner & Walter Hill and Troy Kennedy Martin
directed by Walter Hill
by Bryant Frazer The first, pre-credits scene of Red Heat takes place in a Russian banya, a steam bath where hulking, Vulcanian workers in grimy T-shirts labour to shovel wood and coal into massive stoves that keep the water hot and the room steamy. The camera follows a blue-eyed man as he steps into the room, assuming his POV as he surveys the tableau. A whole section of the space is dedicated to barely-clad muscled men pumping iron, and the camera lingers on them. It pans slowly across the room before finding a group of nymphs bathing au naturel, zooming in and reframing, finally deciding it's not interested in them. The blue-eyed man turns his head, catching sight of a figure across the room. It's Schwarzenegger, about one square foot of fabric shy of nudity, striding confidently past the bathing beauties before stepping up into a side chamber and disappearing again into the haze. The next shot catches Arnold in medium close-up, tilting lazily from his calves all the way up his chiselled torso, until it frames him in flattering low-angle portraiture. He is squinting, and he is scowling, and he has an Ivan Drago flat-top. This is peak Arnold. The reverse shot lands, almost hilariously, on a group of a half-dozen nude and nearly-nude bathers, all pink and vulnerable in their skin, gazing back at him, excited or terrified or maybe both. It's as if a god stands before them.
The scene is worth describing in detail not just because it's a surprisingly on-target opening shot for a film that's always been considered a bit of a wet squib in the Walter Hill filmography, but also because it's intelligent, but not pretentious, action filmmaking. Would it be less sexist if the men depicted wore as little as the women? Sure, but what's bracing about it is the way it cuts so easily between cheesecake and Arnold's even more lovingly displayed beefcake. When Hill moves the camera in close, it's like he's daring you not to admire Schwarzenegger's physique. The ensuing slugfest is a quick, fleshy riot; it took David Cronenberg some 20 years to top it with the even more nude and rude bathhouse fight scene in Eastern Promises. Then Schwarzenegger takes the fight outside as the action transitions instantly from the smouldering humidity of the sauna to the brisk frostiness of the wintry landscape outside. (I laughed out loud at the juxtaposition.) It's a playful sequence, though the joy it delivers is mitigated somewhat if you know that stunt coordinator and second-unit director Bennie Dobbins dropped dead of a heart attack during the exterior shoot in Austria. Doubtless that helps explain why the brawl in the snow--the last part of the film to be shot--feels a bit truncated after the extended build-up. And it suggests the scene could have been more impressive still had tragedy not visited the shoot.
Improbably, the next scene in the movie is another near-classic. An expository segment reveals that Schwarzenegger's character is Ivan Danko, an officer on some kind of Russian anti-drug task force. His partner, Yuri (our man Blue Eyes from the preceding sauna scene), waits outside as Ivan raids a bar--it's a hang-out for Georgians, several of whom rise indignantly against Ivan and accuse the police of harassing their people. The face-off turns violent, culminating in a visual joke involving a cleverly hidden stash of cocaine, the excellence of which is only increased by Schwarzenegger's wide-eyed, show-stopping line reading: "Cocainum!" (This moment has been meme-ified and will live forever on the Internet.) It's an inherently funny scene played straight; the audience is allowed to decide how hard to laugh. Years later, Hill told FILMMAKER magazine that he cherry-picked that scene from a script that Bullitt co-scripter Harry Kleiner had sent to him. ("I think it's the best scene in the movie," he said, and he's not wrong.) The sequence culminates in a foot chase that ends with Yuri being shot dead on the street by Georgian heavy Viktor Rosta (Ed O'Ross). Now, as they say in this kind of movie, it's personal.
Unfortunately, Red Heat doesn't live up to the wild promise of its opening reel. (I might argue that it couldn't possibly.) Once Danko pursues Rosta to America, where he's partnered in his manhunt with Chicago PD cut-up Art Ridzik (Jim Belushi), the film settles into a familiar cop-movie groove where the most relevant template is Hill's own 48Hrs.. It's been reconfigured so that Schwarzenegger's earnest anti-drug enforcer is the buttoned-up straight man and Belushi's more slovenly and freewheeling street cop is the jokester, but the inventiveness of the prologue gives way to an overly familiar cops-on-the-street procedural. (Reporting for the LOS ANGELES TIMES in 1987, Leonard Klady claimed that, even after it wrapped in Chicago and moved production to L.A., the film was being rewritten by a host of uncredited scripters, including Steven Meerson, Peter Krikes, John Mankiewicz, and Daniel Pyne.) Though the script endorses a dismaying amount of War on Drugs rhetoric and other macho cop bullshit that prevailed in U.S. political discourse of the era, it's nonetheless intelligent and character-driven, which goes a long way. Like Jack and Reggie in 48Hrs., Ivan and Art underestimate each other, and Hill has them argue out their differences, testing the breadth of the gap between them to locate the reaches of their shared humanity.
Some of that character-based humour is genuinely witty, like the scene where Danko lets slip that he keeps a parakeet at home, then starts to worry, absurdly, that Ridzik is judging him. ("You think that parakeet is feminine?" Danko asks, in a low-key panic that compromises his heretofore impeccable impassivity.) Eventually, some of their repartee takes on a melancholy tone. After a conversation where the two men ascertain that neither has any family to speak of, the sad-eyed Belushi turns to Schwarzenegger and jokes, "You and I won't spend a lot of time Christmas shopping this year, huh?" Schwarzenegger doesn't respond; he doesn't do much in this scene at all, beyond nibbling at his french fries. But there's something in his eyes and the way he holds his head that suggests he's considering whether it will ever be possible to admit, even to himself, that he's just a lonely soldier trying to figure out his moral trajectory in a cruel world. This could be Schwarzenegger's best work anywhere that doesn't involve an impending or just-executed act of violence. Beyond that, the supporting cast is uniformly fine. Pittsburgh native O'Ross makes a credible Russian thug, Peter Boyle, Laurence Fishburne, and a delightfully shouty Brion James are excellent in small parts, and Gina Gershon does good work in a dead-end role.
Outside of any grace notes, there's a pretty strong sense of a movie on autopilot. The back half of Red Heat has two big action set-pieces. The one involving a shoot-out in a seedy Chicago hotel (complete with a naked hooker) may remind you of the similar shoot-out in a seedy San Francisco hotel in 48Hrs., while the other, featuring a bus chase through Chicago streets, may remind you of the similar bus chase through San Francisco streets in 48Hrs.. The bus chase, at least, ups the ante by involving two buses instead of one, and it is great fun to watch the heavy coaches plow down city sidewalks, snapping off parking meters like so many toothpicks. And the whole film culminates in a gunslinging climax that self-consciously references the western genre that Hill has visited and revisited throughout his career. Even so, the most memorable face-off in the film occurs at roughly its halfway point, when Ridzik and Danko go to Joliet State Penitentiary to visit Abdul Elijah (Brent Jennings), a drug dealer with connections to Rostov. Straight-arrow Danko tries to intimidate him, but Elijah delivers a blistering monologue elucidating America's dark heart--the racial divide that keeps men like him behind bars--to the foreigner. "You want to know what my crime is?" Elijah asks him. "My crime was being born." Danko can only swallow, hard, in response.
In the spirit of glasnost, Red Heat was the first Hollywood production allowed to shoot in Red Square itself. All these years later, it's still startling to see the unique shapes of St. Basil's Cathedral looming behind the opening titles of a Hollywood film. Nevertheless, if Red Heat has a thesis about the relationship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., it's not presented coherently beyond a trite conviction that deep down, both sides just want a better world. Meanwhile, there's a causticity to the film's politics that has intensified with time. The screenplay is peppered with indications of Danko's disapproving takes on American culture--he refers to cocaine as "western poison," yet advocates vodka as a stress reliever and glowers at a hotel TV set showing pornography before muttering, "Capitalism." What Danko and the Chicago PD really share is a disdain for drugs and their users. After watching Ridzik try to gain leverage by planting a packet of powder on an informant (James) who promises "the lawyer I got makes the ACLU look like Nazis," Danko simply slams the guy against a wall and starts breaking his fingers until he sings, then declares, "Soviet method is more economical." Called on his hypocrisy, Danko seems to rue this state of affairs: "We both go too far," he tells Ridzik. Still, both parties agree that breaking fingers delivered the desired results.
Later, Danko floats the idea of following the Chinese practice of executing drug traffickers as a model. Ridzik demurs: "Fucking politicians wouldn't go for it." Danko responds, "Shoot them first." The exchange is deadpan; neither man cracks a smile. We understand it not as a serious proposal but as a joke, of course--one born from a deeply rooted cynicism about human behaviour. But the punchline feels especially grim these days. Though the U.S.S.R., the Berlin Wall and the Cold War all crumbled a generation ago, the Chinese anti-drug policy retains currency in the White House, where the U.S. president speaks of it admiringly and without irony. Who knew Red Heat's politics would still resonate in a post-Soviet context? As Ridzik puts it near the film's climax, "This whole thing's very Russia." Indeed.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Hands up everyone who expected Red Heat, of all the titles in the Walter Hill oeuvre, to be the first one to arrive in the pixelicious UHD BD format? Anyone? Props to Lionsgate for erring on the side of "yes" when it comes to considering remastered titles for U.S. release under their stateside licensing deal with StudioCanal. If Red Heat is ever going to be rediscovered, this release ought to do the trick. The Dolby Vision transfer is plenty contrasty, presenting bright highlights, especially in nighttime exteriors, rendering splashes of saturated colour with subtle gradation in the hues, and delivering inky but uncrushed blacks with detail visible into the shadows. Skin texture and tone are pleasing, albeit perhaps exhibiting a bias towards the warm end of the spectrum.
I do question the colour-accuracy of Schwarzenegger's suit, which reads as almost turquoise-blue on screen despite earning Danko the nickname "Gumby," referring to the famously green claymation character. (For what it's worth, I pulled a frame grab into Photoshop and found that bumping the colour balance slightly towards the green not only made Danko look significantly more Gumby-esque, but also tuned up the flesh tones a bit by pulling out some magenta.) All that said, there's an overall sharpness limit here owing to DP Matthew F. Leonetti's widespread use of optical diffusion and atmosphere on set that makes 4K less of an improvement than some viewers may expect. Also, the video compression muddles the late-1980s film-grain structure in shots where it struggles to separate grain from background picture detail and foreground elements and introduces digital artifacts as a result. The problem is worse on non-Dolby Vision equipment, where the image sometimes exhibits blocky patches of chroma noise that trail behind moving figures, like Schwarzenegger walking through the sauna at the beginning of the film. The same effect is visible, but somewhat mitigated, in Dolby Vision. This is a minor issue in some ways, but if you have good enough eyes and/or a big enough screen it could be distracting, and it shouldn't be present in a transfer aimed at videophiles.
Adapting a once-state-of-the-art Dolby SR mix, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is solid, adequately replicating the cacophonous frenzy of Frederick J. Brown's sound design. Gunshots rip through the room like cannon fire and punches land on human flesh with a sound like a burlap bag packed with bricks slamming into a bin full of casaba melons. Despite the various high-decibel effects, the soundmix feels remarkably clean and dialogue is quite clear. There are a good number of directional effects, including some dialogue that moves into the front left and right channels, and of course James Horner's clanging, percussive score swirls through the surround speakers throughout.
It's a shame that neither Hill nor Schwarzenegger participated in the extras. Leading the disc's special features, identical between the UHD BD and the bundled BD, is a pair of shorts produced in 2010 by StudioCanal. (They were originally produced in 1080i, but are presented here at 24p, with motion artifacts from the conversion process painfully apparent, especially during movie clips.) The oddly titled "A. Schwarzenegger, The Man Who Raised Hollywood" (16 mins.) assembles directors Arthur Allen Seidelman (Hercules in New York) and Peter Hyams (End of Days), producer Edward Pressman (Conan the Barbarian), and others to reflect on their work with Arnold. Mostly, they compliment his ambition and work ethic. For "The Political Context of Red Heat" (10 mins.), author Dave Saunders (Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Movies) mounts a socio-political critique, arguing that Danko and Ridzik are "totally reductive stereotypes" and describing the ways that Schwarzenegger's approach to politics differed from that of his 1980s action-movie rival, Sylvester Stallone. This kind of legit criticism adds valuable context that's rare on a studio-sponsored special edition, so kudos to Lionsgate for including it.
Three more shorts originally produced by Lionsgate for the film's 2004 DVD release get an encore presentation here. "East Meets West" (10 mins.) puts a spotlight on Carolco founders Mario F. Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna, who recount their history in the movie business before engaging in a fairly superficial discussion of the Red Heat production, including the one-day "hit and run" shoot in the U.S.S.R. "Stuntman for All Seasons: A Tribute to Bennie Dobbins" (12 mins.) offers multiple reminiscences about Dobbins's life and work--his tenure as the president of the Stuntmen's Association, his gruff demeanour on set, and his apparently consummate professionalism. And "I'm Not Russian! (But I Play One on TV)" (5 mins.) is just an interview with actor Ed O'Ross, who claims to have modelled his performance as Victor Rostov partly on real-life Georgian Joseph Stalin. "I have a Russian accent and Arnold has a German accent," he notes. His impersonation of a Russian was apparently so convincing it landed him a later role on "Six Feet Under" as Nikolai; the actor took out for-your-consideration ads in the trades aimed at letting Emmy voters know he wasn't actually Russian.
A series of four EPK-type video shorts date back to Red Heat's original 1988 release, running 19 minutes in total with some material duplicated between segments. These are made up mainly of interview segments with Belushi and an especially charming Schwarzenegger along with film clips and some B-roll. Though inessential, if you like vintage EPKs these will have you covered. Finally, there's a vintage theatrical trailer (2 mins.) in Academy ratio, upscaled from SD. A digital download code is also tucked into the box so you can take Red Heat with you on your next trip to Moscow.
104 minutes; R; UHD: 1.85:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; BD: 2.35:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Latin American Spanish 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Stereo); English, Latin American Spanish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Lionsgate