A bathhouse in Moscow, and cop Ivan Danko (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is hunting down his man, but he has been suspected by the gangsters there as not being one of them. So when a tough guy places a hot stone in Danko's hand, telling him a working man would not bat an eyelid at the pain, he ends up with a fist in the face as a reward. Then he is knocked through a window out into the snow where a punch-up ensues, with Danko the winner: "Where is Viktor Rostavili (Ed O'Ross)?" he demands, for the Soviet authorities are on the trail of this big time drug dealer who plans to flood the East with heroin. Can Danko bring him down?
After the huge success of 48 Hrs, writer and director Walter Hill did his best to replicate the buddy movie formula with this item, a comedy action movie about mismatched cops that sums up one of the most popular Hollywood genres of the eighties. Working on the script with Harry Kleiner (an actual Russian with his last credit) and Troy Kennedy-Martin, Hill left the originality to the nationalities of the star duo, so when Danko comes to America to track Rostavili he is teamed with what is supposed to be his polar opposite: Detective Sergeant Art Ridzik (James Belushi).
As expected (and this material must have written itself) the Soviet and the American fail to see eye to eye, with Schwarzenegger playing Danko as only slightly more cuddly than the Terminator (original version), a man of few words and most of them terse, while Belushi is a coffee and doughnuts, foul-mouthed patriot. In other hands, this could have been a premise for a long-running sitcom, sort of a variation on Perfect Strangers if Larry and Balki had been packing heat. Here, however, it's run-of-the-mill chase the baddie shootiebangs garnished with humorous cross-cultural asides that is the order of the day.
I doubt that there could have been a better cast lead in Hollywood during 1988 for Red Heat, even if Schwarzenegger's accent is more Austrian than Russian, though all credit to him for giving it a go. The film has a curious attitude towards the monolithic Danko, at once sending him up and his impassive by the book character and on the other hand grudgingly admiring him. That does not mean Ridzik doesn't have an array of jokes at the Soviet's expense, but what do you know, he gets to like the big guy after a while spent in his company. Still, the fact that Danko is quite comfortable with using violence to get his way sits just fine with this effort in a "hey, maybe we do have common ground!" manner.
O'Ross comes up with a more convincing East European accent than than the star, but as the villain that's about all that defines him. The most interesting character is the blind American crime lord whose mission it is to orchestrate drug running from his prison cell; he plans to have every white man - and his sister - hooked on heroin so he, as a black man, can take over. But largely social politics are left to one side, either that or fodder for the jokes as Danko and Ridzik try to stop the bad guys getting their hands on the MacGuffin, which is a key to a locker. After all those shoot outs you might have expected a finale more novel than a simple bus chase through Chicago: it's destructive, but lacks that spark to be really over the top memorable. Mainly you're watching to see how ruthless the Soviet can be without losing audience sympathy and as far as that goes Schwarzenegger manages it. Music by James Horner.