We’re still three years away from the end of the Cold War and feeling a little jittery about the unsettled future of western civilisation, so naturally, turn to the cinema for a spot of light relief. Who’s up for an Arnie movie? One in which a quarter of its dialogue is spoken in pidgin Russian – leading to some awkward subtitle translations involving circumcision – and the hero is a monosyllabic Soviet who may as well have had a lobotomy to remove all trace of a personality?
Reel off a list of your favourite Arnie Schwarzenegger movies and I’d hazard a guess that Red Heat wouldn’t be amongst the first titles to spring to mind. Even swathes of Arnie fans swerve it today, while nonplussed moviegoers have never even heard of it.
It’s one of those trope-laden, chalk and cheese anti-buddy cop movies that over the course of 103 seemingly elongated, tortuous minutes morphs into a buddy cop movie by way of a series of implausible action set-piece escapades. More often than not book-ended with explosions, gunfire and unintentionally awkward one-liners.
As a genre in their own right, buddy cop movies were all the rage back in the ’80s. Red Heat, hitting the theatres in 1988, was far from the first to fan the flames, to stoke the fire, to fuel… you get the gist I’m sure. It opened at the height of the craze, the reception not what you might describe as euphoric.
Arnie plays stoic Moscow narcotics officer, Ivan Danko. A taciturn lone wolf who is unexpectedly and ill-advisedly paired with unorthodox Chicago detective wiseguy, Art Ridzik, portrayed by James Belushi. Georgian drug kingpin, Viktor Rostavili, is just the perpetrator to unite them through the joint mission of apprehending and extraditing him back to Russia to answer for his crimes.
Back home Ivan and Viktor have history. Viktor’s brother – also deeply entrenched in the drug-dealing business – is gunned down by Ivan in a shootout sparked by their attempts to evade arrest. His death inevitably incites a vendetta that fails to be sated by the quid pro quo murder of Ivan’s partner, Yuri, only minutes later. Duty and movie cliche motivations aside, each party would be jolly chuffed if the other died a horribly slow, agonising death. For Art it’s no less personal; the ‘Cleanheads’, a criminal gang bankrolled by Viktor, are behind the murder of his partner, Gallagher.
With two Conan movies, Predator, The Running Man, Terminator, Commando and Raw Deal under his (Mr Universe) belt, Arnie was already a major Hollywood star. His name alone was expected to ensure Red Heat would be a scorching summer blockbuster at the box office, easily recouping Arnie’s $8m fee.
From a stake of $29m, the return was just shy of $35m… chicken feed in the movie biz, even back then. In stark contrast, Arnie’s other comedy released in the same year, Twins, basked in the lucrative glow of $216.6m worth of ticket sales, accrued from a more frugal $18m budget. It wasn’t even as if they were in competition; very sensibly Twins was unveiled in time for the season of goodwill.
Arnie himself, of course, has been asked what he thinks went wrong. In his autobiography, ‘Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story’ published in 2012, he writes that Red Heat “wasn’t the smash I’d expected. Why is hard to guess. It could be that audiences were not ready for Russia, or that my and Jim Belushi’s performances were not funny enough, or that the director didn’t do a good enough job. For whatever reason, it just didn’t quite close the deal.”
He’s on the right track I think. Plus we don’t have to dig too deeply to unearth a number of other equally feasible explanations. Shooting began with the bare bones of a script in place, director Walter Hill – amongst other writers – padding out the blank pages as they went along. Consequently, the characterisation and dialogue is bungling, wafer-thin and in places, even bizarre.
For a buddy cop movie to succeed, as a bare minimum, the audience needs to believe that the stars have built up a rapport through mutual endurance and emotional empathy. On-screen chemistry should flow from these foundations… except all that flows in Red Heat is the drool from the corner of your mouth as you doze off trying to forge a connection with these vapid cardboard cutouts.
Arnie’s dialogue was kept deliberately minimal as Walter Hill felt the public would find it easier to engage with him if his limited theatrical range wasn’t taxed too heavily. Basic English spoken with a Russian accent sounds no more jarring than stiff, laboured English spoken with an Austrian accent, so when it’s the Terminator playing the lead, no-one bats an eyelid.
Instead, Arnie plays to his natural strengths… flexing his muscles, dissembling as the dumb foreigner caught in a culture clash scenario, and exercising his tremendously charismatic screen presence. Arnie looks as impossibly buff as he ever has, and all that training wasn’t going to be wasted by not stripping him to the waist to brawl with other semi-naked pro bodybuilders.
James Belushi was chosen to serve as the comedy contrast to Arnie’s clueless-to-American-conventions straight man. As far as rapid-fire, wise-cracking cops go he’s certainly no Eddie Murphy. Nevertheless, if injecting a dose of light entertainment was the aim, sardonic Jim wasn’t such a bad choice. It’s what he’s done from day one after all.
In-game James is relegated to a few brief digitised cameos, mostly popping up between levels to provide a rundown of the mission brief. Inexplicably only his mouth is ‘animated’… in the loosest sense of the word. What transpires is an Otto-esque ventriloquist dummy impersonation that’s so ridiculous it’s hilarious. There’s no way the Special FX devs responsible – Frank Robinson and Karen Davies – were taking this seriously. Which would be fine for a free PD game lark-about. Not so much for a premium price retail release.
In the Spectrum version, we instead see Jim – in his entirety – cavorting about giving us the jazz-hands gesticulation, cabaret-style. Which is a whole heap less disturbing than his Amiga persona.
To all five of you who watched the movie, you’ll recognise the plot and settings that constitute the level’s themes. All the key ones are included and in the right chronological order. Even an extreme exaggeration of the cinemascope aspect ratio has been transposed to represent the playfield.
As the world’s longest joke to ever appear in a game, this works perfectly for the first level set in the sauna – filmed in Budapest’s Rudas Thermal Bath – because it allowed artist, Karen, to draw all the naked cast only from the waist upwards.
In fact, it was never intended as a joke, it was a utilitarian design choice originally taken when developing the Spectrum incarnation. As coder, Jim Bagley, explains in a Retro Gamer interview (28th April 2014)…
“We wanted big sprites for that game, and if we had done the legs as well they’d have had to have been thin and obviously the character Arnold Schwarzenegger played was not thin. As usual, we just had the script to go on, but we knew what Arnie looked like!”
Karen Davies (in Retro Gamer 112) was also quizzed on the possibly unique aesthetic. She elucidated further…
“This was a bit of an odd game as none of the characters have legs. Again I think this was a Jof idea to help speed up the processing time while having large characters.”
Framed like that (no pun, blah blah) it does begin to make sense, and the Spectrum game’s sprites really do look impressive thanks to the quirky compromises made from the outset.
It seems then that when the game was ported to the Amiga, the design was translated verbatim without up-scaling it to meet the ceiling of the Amiga’s capabilities. As Joffa Smith – coder of the very similar Atari ST port – puts it, Red Heat “only took a few weeks, and it shows”.
Red hot rock crushing – one of the bonus stages – contrary to popular assumption isn’t just random nonsense either, it actually features in the movie. Ivan is goaded into handling one and must endure the pain to prove he’s a hardened foundry grafter and not an undercover narc sissy. He does, admirably, without flinching. I don’t remember Arnie having to waggle any joysticks on the silver screen to pump up a pressure gauge to breaking point though. Maybe I nodded off at that point.
Prior to this, we must plod from right to left – on a travelator for all I know since we amble onward automatically regardless of our actions – headbutting and punching generic, carbon-copy baddies… plus ones that look suspiciously like Sly Stallone. We don’t find an (ammo-limited) gun until we reach level two, so for the time-being it’s fists versus bullets. I bet you can guess how that’s likely to play out. Luckily, ducking makes us practically untouchable; we actually repel adversaries by remaining still, crouched on the ground, allowing us to choose the precise moment at which to strike back without absorbing any hits.
That’s any horizontal threats neutered. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the falling debris that descends from the ceiling and varies between levels… snow boulders, rocks and rain are all more deadly foes than any of the humans encountered. Smaller rocks even ‘fall’ parallel to the floor, defying the laws of gravity. Try dodging a triple stream of those hurtling across the screen at various heights.
Part two of the sweltering sauna ‘hothouse’ sees us ejected out into the arctic, snowy tundra (of Austria in the celluloid source material). We can expect more of the same. Exactly the same. A never-ending stream of (still semi-naked) goons queue up to beat us to a pulp while snowman-torso-sized snowballs hail from the open heavens.
You’ll notice from watching the movie that homo-eroticism and references to male genitalia are commonplace, hence their inclusion in the game. Well, not the latter to be precise. Ocean had Karen drawing men in loincloths and more distant, completely naked women, yet they stopped short of writing adult jokes to crowbar into the proceedings.
With our extremities miraculously intact we move onto a hotel, hospital and finally a bus depot for the remaining stages. In some levels we actually switch our direction of travel from right to left to left to right. I know, right? Cerrrrr-razy!!!
Intermediate bonus levels – such as the rebuild a key episode – allow us to top up our stingy ammo supplies while a smorgasbord of food icons deliver a critical shot in the arm in terms of vitality. No effort was made to place these into the landscape’s perspective so they apparently float in mid-air… although, oddly, we still have to duck to collect them.
A visit to the hospital is in order to interrogate Tatomovich – one of Viktor’s (artificially supported) cohorts – and extract information that would allow us to nail the head honcho of the operation. Unbeknownst to Ivan another of Viktor’s lackeys is en route to shoot an air bubble into his vein to ensure he doesn’t squeal. To sneak in surreptitiously he’s dressed as a nurse. It didn’t occur to Viktor to send in a fake male nurse or male doctor, it had to be a man in a dress wearing a wig and makeup. Carry On fans must have laughed their front-opening bras off!
It would be criminal if the cross-dressing nurse didn’t feature in the game… and so he does. Many, many times, making no sense whatsoever. You may as well Xerox Ivan’s ultimate nemesis too, randomly sprinkle him throughout the game, and still insist on the player taking him on at the denouement to finally give Viktor the elbow.
Jim Bagley (in Retro Gamer issue 112) reveals an interesting tidbit of trivia with regards to the Spectrum version of this level…
“Chas did some great graphics, and put caricatures of us all into one of the levels, which was in a hospital, so it needed people on beds. There wasn’t much to the scrolling fighter, so a bunch of mini games were added also.”
Likewise for the Amiga version, it would seem. Gameplay is clearly almost non-existent, yet you have to give credit where it’s due for the graphics and albeit frugal animation. Arnie, in particular, is well-sculpted and marches as you’d expect from an unstoppable human tank.
The hotel level is plucked from the movie scene in which Viktor’s stooges are tasked with recovering the key to their boss’s delivery yard lock-up. Initially confiscated when Viktor was arrested and jailed, he almost manages to seize it back following his break-out. Yet Ivan – assuming it would be critical to Viktor’s nefarious scheme – manages to retain it to hinder Viktor’s progress as he is forced to abandon the key to save himself.
Speaking of which, in the C64 edition, level progress is denoted by colouring in the words ‘Red Heat’, displayed in huge letters in the HUD. An intrusion as glaringly conspicuous as this out of the blue sentence. OK, as we were.
Viktor’s army of hired thugs manage to track down and corner Ivan having established his room number from the guest book, incapacitate the desk clerk in the foyer and storm what they assume to be his temporary residence. As it turns out they’ve been tricked into smashing through the wrong door to kill Mr Collateral Damage in the midst of his visit to a prostitute.
While we’re paying for our hospitality anyway we may as well hang around for a RoboCop style shootout diversion. We must blow away the evil-doers, yet holster our weapon whenever cops, naked women or Mr Belushi appear in a doorway. It’s much like a carnival gun shy. Oh, so Jim is in the Amiga version outside of the interstitial screens.
Another bonus filler stage entails piecing together a one hundred dollar bill. Again a concept adapted from the movie. On the big screen Viktor rips one in two with a view to using the unique denomination to identify the bearer of the other half as a genuine nose-candy pusher. You wouldn’t want to trade with any dodgy cocaine dealers, now would you? Cocainum I mean.
Our final encounter takes place in the bus depot. With the key in his possession, Viktor has access to the secure luggage box that harbours his stash of cocaine. With the ‘merchandise’ in his grubby mitts, the plan is to flee the US back to Russia in order to foist his illicit wares upon the addicted desperadoes he expects will make him rich and powerful.
It’s our duty to apprehend/exterminate Viktor before he can reach the key that will set the despicable wheels in motion. In the movie this demands an explosive bus chase and high-velocity game of chicken, wrapping up with a death-defying train collision. Though as the game budget wouldn’t stretch to animating this, we’ll have to make do with another scrolling beat ’em up level… much like all the others.
A single – admittedly quite catchy – track plays throughout the entire game, gradually driving you into the comforting embrace of an insane asylum. No sound effects whatsoever are in evidence, so every wallop connects with its target emitting a resoundingly silent crunch, as you wrestle with the treacle-treadingly sluggish controls.
Looking on the bright side, the title screen comprises impeccable renditions of Schwarzenegger and Belushi, and in-game Arnie really does look like the genuine article. Which you’ll get to appreciate for the rest of eternity since the game loops upon completion of the final level. Another prime example of a team declaring there was simply no time or money available to take a decent stab at producing a respectable licensed movie tie-in.
As the tagline (sort of) says, Moscow’s toughest Detective. Chicago’s craziest cop. If there’s one thing worse than making them mad, it’s turning them into a computer game.