Among Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pantheon of 1980s action characters, Russian police detective Ivan Danko is undoubtedly one of the more obscure. Paired up with James Belushi’s jaded American cop Art Ridzik in Walter Hill’s Red Heat (1988), he did not resonate with audiences beyond the borders of his one film – and the film itself is hardly remembered in the same league as Predator, The Terminator, or even the famously terrible Commando.
That is Red Heat‘s main problem in a nutshell. It is actually quite well performed on Schwarzenegger’s part, and slickly directed by the always-effective Walter Hill. It leans heavily on police drama tropes and stereotypes, but Hill manages to keep it all broadly watchable and entertaining. Despite all of this work, and the best of intentions, Red Heat simply failed to last the distance with viewers.
Danko is a narcotics officer working in Moscow whose partner gets murdered by an escaping drug kingpin (Ed O’Ross). Pursuing his enemy to Chicago, Danko is assigned to shadow local detective Ridzik. Together they work to track down the murderous dealer and prevent him from expanding his criminal network to the USA.
It is remarkable how appealing a character Red Heat makes out of Danko. Despite being a proud Soviet in a late 1980s American film, he is represented as honourable, honest, and loyal. The role lacks Schwarzenegger’s usual one-liners and puns. In the well-established buddy cop tradition, he is the straight-laced by-the-book contrast for Belushi’s corner-cutting, disreputable slob. Schwarzenegger as always dominates the film with his strong presence, and ultimately emerges too likeable a hero for the back-and-forth with Belushi’s character to work. There is no even balance here; the entire movie pitches in Schwarzenegger’s direction. The comedic balance between the two was almost never going to result in something original, but Hill’s direction and screenplay (with Harry Kleiner and Troy Kennedy Martin) ensure it does not work at all. So deeply cynical is the film’s presentation of Chicago and its police that Danko feels like the central hero, while Ridzik feels both moderately incompetent and deeply corrupt. It is an interesting result, and an unlikely one, but it doesn’t jibe with audience expectations for this sort of mainstream action film and almost certainly is what robbed it of any iconic status.
So the film itself is competent, oddly serious, and perhaps a little dull, but it really is worth dwelling on Schwarzenegger’s performance. He plays his role straight, and it results in what is arguably the best work of his career to that point. He brings a watchable quality to an otherwise underwhelming film, and creates a distinctive and original hero at the centre of a generic work of action. It is not enough to make Red Heat worth digging out and re-evaluating, but it is a solid highlight for an otherwise ordinary film.