Tango & Cash (1989) (part 1 of 3)
Note from the author: This is the fourth in my series of tributes to cheesy action movies of the ’80s and early ’90s, the first being Action Jackson, the second Stone Cold, and most recently, Invasion U.S.A. Rather than in-depth recaps or straightforward reviews, these will contain a brief synopsis followed by a longer list of highlights, notes, and observations.
One of the best buddy films of all time, 48 Hrs. spawned many, many buddy cop imitators, including the equally good Lethal Weapon films. We’ll get there at some point, but today we’re aiming for something a bit lower on the radar: A sadly underrated film that, for my money, is the Road House of buddy cop films, Tango & Cash.
Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell are Tango and Cash, respectively. They’re basically Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, if they were younger, muscular and issued badges and guns. They’re brought together by a sinister mastermind played by Jack Palance, who frames them for a murder they didn’t commit, and the two cops must work together to clear their names.
Palance is assisted by Brion James, who’s armed with a straight razor and the worst cockney accent since Dick van Dyke. There are also supporting villain turns by James Hong and Mark Alaimo, as well as a small role for Robert Z’Dar.
So essentially, we have Rambo and Jack Burton going up against the bad guy from Shane, a replicant, Lo Pan and Gul Dukat with an assist from a maniac cop. Now there’s a main event! Throw in a souped-up truck that would make James Bond envious, Teri Hatcher, and brazen machismo the likes of which we’ll never see again, and you have a true undiscovered gem of modern action cinema.
I give it 10 out of 10 RVs from Hell. Let’s breathe it in deeply, and enjoy.
1. As the Warner Brothers logo appears, Stallone croaks out, “Okay, let’s do it.” Cue synthesized music from Harold Faltermeyer. The Tango & Cash score is not at all iconic like his work for Beverly Hills Cop or Fletch, but it’s perfectly serviceable action film music.
2. The movie quickly throws us into the thick of things by introducing us to Ray Tango (Stallone) in pursuit of a tanker truck driven by Robert Z’Dar. Z’Dar is mostly known for the Maniac Cop films, as well as having a jaw roughly the size of the truck he’s currently driving.
3. Tango brings the pursuit to an end by taking a page out of Jackie Chan’s playbook: Blasting ahead of the truck, he stops in the middle of the road and fires his weapon into the windshield, causing Maniac Cop to slam on the brakes. I guess Stallone saw Police Story and figured no one would notice if he reused the bit here. It works just as well here, too, which is not something you can often say about a scene copied from another film.
4. In the aftermath of the pursuit, Sly gets a chance to take a dig at himself. Having gone out his jurisdiction to stop the truck, he’s accosted by sheriff’s deputies. After a check of the truck reveals nothing, one of the deputies remarks that Tango “thinks he’s Rambo.” Tango replies, “Rambo is a pussy.” And then he fires his weapon into the tanker. Naturally, this doesn’t kill the entire cast in a huge fireball, seeing as how the film is barely five minutes old. Instead, a stream of cocaine pours out, and Sly gets the requisite one-liner.
5. While we’re on the subject of Sly, I really should mention his look in this film, as well as where his career was at this point. Unlike the usual macho ’80s action look he usually went for, Stallone starts out dressed like a banker, complete with a set of wire rim glasses. He’s the Felix Unger in this particular odd couple, I guess.
By 1989, Stallone’s career had fallen into a rut. If he played either Rocky (part 5 excluded) or Rambo (part 3 excluded), the box office tended to be good. Anything else, and it was hit (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man) or miss (pretty much everything else). Actually, that pattern still holds true today.
Also around this time, he was trying to lighten up his image. The Governator had just had a smash hit by teaming up with Danny DeVito, and one assumes Sly thought he could do the same. And he does pull off a laid back, amusing performance well enough in this movie, but given that he followed this up with Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, I think we can safely call this phase of his career a bust.
6. Observing the aftermath of the tanker scene from a passing limo is our main villain, Yves Perret, played by Jack Palance. Perret laments the damage Tango and (the yet to be shown) Cash have wreaked upon his business. Palance does his usual hissing baddie here, and manages to prove that it’s entirely possible to be both relatively quiet and completely over the top at the same time.
With him are Quan and Lopez, played by the aforementioned James Hong and Mark Alaimo. Both men vie for the chance to take out Tango and Cash, but Perret has something else in mind. That something else will turn out to be so amazingly dumb, that even his henchmen will remark on the plan’s stupidity. And this is in no way a self-referential Scream-type movie, so that’s really saying something.
7. Next, we’re introduced to Gabriel Cash (Kurt Russell, with a very big mullet) as he heads into his apartment and reads the newspaper. Evidently, this version of Los Angeles has lots of slow news days, because one of his recent busts, as well as Tango’s tanker truck bust, are both front page news. Granted, the filmmakers throw a bone to reality by making it the Metro section, but still.
8. While admiring himself in the mirror, Cash is attacked by an assassin. A foot pursuit breaks out, which ends up in an underground parking lot. And there’s a bit where Cash reveals that he and James Bond must shop at the same shoe store, because he holds off the assassin with a blast from his bazooka boots. Yes, Kurt Russell has guns built into his footwear in this film. Suck on that, Chuck Norris!
9. And then things turn into an impromptu car chase. Cash commandeers the car of a Russian tourist, while the assassin hijacks a truck. After some gratuitous destruction, as well as a gratuitous breast shot (courtesy of a make-out couple in the back of their car), the chase ends. Cash tells the rather upset Russian tourist, “Welcome to America!”
10. We switch back to Tango as he enters his squad room. And there’s a replay of the newspaper routine, to establish the rivalry between the two cops. Tango is told that a woman named Katherine is here to see him.
11. Katherine is actually Tango’s sister, played by Teri Hatcher. Though, we won’t find out that they’re siblings for a while—not until it serves as the payoff for a later scene. This has the unfortunate effect of making this scene rather creepy in retrospect, because it’s all about her wanting to get away from her job as a “dancer”.
12. Before things can get any stranger, Tango is interrupted by a call from his stock broker. And can I just say once again how much of a bust it was when Stallone attempted to lighten up his image? Arnie was able to pull it off, because he both sounds and looks pretty damned goofy to begin with. Sly is a relatively good looking dude, and apart from his tendency to talk like a stroke victim, there really isn’t much about his outward appearance to take shots at.
Another reason Arnie was able to pull off the self-deprecating humor is that audiences had pretty low expectations of him. When you watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, you know full well that you’re going to see an actor of limited range and questionable skill. If he turns in a good performance, it’s a welcome surprise, if not an outright miracle. If he turns out to be funny too, that’s just another bonus for the audience.
Stallone, on the other hand, has the disadvantage of actually being talented. Sure, he’s not the best actor, writer, or producer, but he does have enough of a pedigree to where audiences expect a lot more from him. Hell, he was nominated for an Oscar, so by all means, he should be held to a higher standard than the Governator.
13. But back to this film, where we go from Tango’s precinct to Cash’s precinct. And whereas Tango’s station house looks like the one from Lethal Weapon, Cash’s looks more like Hill Street Blues, though considerably less noisy, and with a serious lack of Belker.
14. Cash has a quick chat with his captain about the assassin, where he learns the guy doesn’t speak English. Cash is also told to stay away from him. So naturally, we cut to Cash entering the locker room where they’re holding the guy. Why he’s in the locker room is anybody’s guess. Also, the guy is taking a piss in here, but aren’t there bathrooms in a police station? I’m pretty certain of it.
15. Cash gets the guy to talk by putting a chair on his throat and leaning on it. Turns out the guy speaks English pretty well (by which I mean, as well as one can speak any language with a chair across the trachea). Cash learns that a bust will be going down that night. And at the exact same time, Tango gets the exact same information from his captain, and we move right along.
16. We rejoin the villains at Perret’s base, a large building on what looks like an abandoned military airfield in the desert. Quan and Lopez are led through the building by Brion James, in the role of “Requin”, Perret’s main henchman. And if you think the red hair tied into a ponytail is silly, just wait until he starts talking!
17. Perret is watching a huge wall of televisions, all showing footage of Tango and Cash making busts. I’d make a joke about watching that many sets at once being bad for the eyes, but Perret remarks on that himself, saving me the trouble. Perret bemoans how much damage the two cops are doing to his business, and it’s basically the same dialogue we got in the limo scene.
18. Quan and Lopez once again wonder why they can’t just kill the two cops, saying it would be quicker and easier. Perret responds by saying that quick and easy isn’t how you run a huge criminal business. And during this speech, Palance seems hell-bent on moving his upper torso as much as possible. God, he’s hilarious in this film. Seriously, anyone can ham it up, but it takes a real old pro like Jack Palance to make you truly not give a damn how much he’s going overboard.
19. Perret illustrates his plan by using two mice to represent the cops, and a glass enclosed maze to show how he’s going to get them out of the way. No, this isn’t going to turn into an episode of the old Batman series, where Batman and Robin are dropped by the Joker into a maze full of killer robotic mice and cheese boulders. Perret says that killing them would make them martyrs. Instead, he plans on making sure they’re behind bars by the time the next major weapons shipment comes in. Two weeks, to be precise.