Sylvester Stallone’s career is a triumph of feverish determination. The tale of how he came to star in Rocky became Hollywood legend precisely because it’s so implausible. According to the story, which has been embellished through the years, Stallone was a struggling actor, a mere sandwich away from starving to death, when studios started salivating over his screenplay for Rocky. The studios promised Stallone untold wealth (and with it, untold sandwiches) if he would give his script over to them as a star vehicle for someone audiences would actually pay money to see, someone like James Caan or Robert Redford, rather than a relative unknown who talked like he had marbles in his mouth and looked like his head was made of rocks covered in skin. This was a great role for a movie star, and everyone but Sylvester Stallone agreed that Sylvester Stallone was no movie star. He seemed like someone with a one-way ticket straight to Palookaville, population: Sylvester Stallone.
But Stallone stuck to his guns. This was a package deal: If the studios wanted his script, he said, they had to agree to an untested leading man. It was a hell of a human-interest story. This lovable small-timer didn’t just create and play Rocky Balboa; he was Rocky, the passed-over underdog no one gave a chance, but who triumphed against impossible odds.
Then, like Kanye West, Stallone left behind his lovable-underdog status and became notorious for his vanity and ego. He became the kind of guy who presided over a men’s magazine named after him (the short-lived Sly), and insisted on re-writing most of his films to better highlight his unique skill set. Stallone had so many ideas for how to subtract comedy from the screenplay for what eventually became Beverly Hills Cop that he turned those ideas into a separate movie called Cobra. (Just to add confusion: Cobra was also partially an adaptation of the novel Fair Game, which was also adapted for the Cindy Crawford vehicle and future One And Done entry Fair Game.)
So when a newspaper headline in 1989’s gloriously excessive Tango & Cash refers to Stallone’s flashy cop Ray Tango as “Beverly Hills Wop” (as opposed to his partner, Gabriel Cash, described as “Down Town Clown”) the gag has a meta-textual element, though not one nearly as pronounced as when Ray says, “Rambo is a pussy.” That’s the arc Stallone travelled in the 13 years between Rocky and Tango & Cash, from playing an underdog the unwashed masses could root for, identify with, and claim as their own, to playing an Armani-suited, bespectacled super-cop who calls Rambo a pussy and backs up his macho bragging with action. Manly, manly action.
Stallone became a star as a result of furious exertion. Kurt Russell, meanwhile, was seemingly born a star: His father Bing was a famous television actor on Bonanza; Russell was a child star on television and in films, and a teen star in Disney movies. At age 10, he acted opposite Elvis Presley in It Happened At The World’s Fair; then he went on to play Presley in the Elvis TV miniseries directed by Russell’s frequent collaborator John Carpenter.
Russell makes acting seem effortless, as natural as breathing, whereas Stallone isn’t even convincing as a plausible human being, let alone whatever character he’s supposed to play. They’re natural opposites, as actors and as human beings, so it makes sense to cast them as mismatched buddies in the ultimate 1980s mismatched-buddy comedy.
In Tango & Cash, Stallone seemingly atones for trying to turn the script for Beverly Hills Cop into a dour, humorless bloodbath by making the smirkiest possible camp-fest, in which no situation is too dire for a dryly delivered wisecrack. Tango & Cash even has a score by Beverly Hills Cop’s Harold Faltermeyer, the man behind the hit “Axel F,” whose work invariably sounds like a drum machine and a synthesizer fucking on a tanning bed in a mall in front of a giant Nagel print. Tango & Cash goes to ridiculous extremes with the comic trope of heroes responding to insanity with deadpan under-reactions—but then, everything in Tango & Cash goes to ridiculous extremes.
The film opens with Stallone’s bespectacled, suit-clad über-yuppie cop Ray Tango facing down a gas truck carrying a load of pure cocaine. Ray has nothing in hand except a modest handgun, but he stands in the road and shoots the truck’s windshield out, horrifying a wild-eyed bad guy, who says, “This guy’s crazy!” Even sweaty, bandanna-sporting meth-heads recognize Ray as a bad motherfucker.
With perfect timing, the gas truck halts directly in front of Ray, and the bad guys tumble through the windshield and onto the ground. Ray quips, “Glad you could drop in,” then dangles handcuffs in front of them and asks, “Do you like jewelry?” When a minor henchmen answers, “Fuck you!” Ray responds, “I prefer blondes.”
At this point, I started imagining that Ray Tango had Bruce Vilanch lying in the backseat of his car, feeding him wisecracks and punching up his lines on the fly. It’s established that Ray Tango is independently wealthy, thanks to his wise investments, and is involved in law enforcement solely for the action. That’s communicated when Tango’s superior (played by Geoffrey Lewis, one of a handful of great, eccentric character actors in the cast, in addition to Michael J. Pollard, Michael Jeter, Brion James, and Jack Palance) asks Ray—whom he’s apparently known well for years—“I don’t understand you! You make a shit-ton of money. You dress like a banker. What are you doing this for?”
Making perfectly timed jokes that literally add insult to injury (in the sense that he’s insulting people he’s also physically injuring) seems to be as important to Ray as fighting crime. So why not have his own personal gag-man helping him be the sassiest cop he can possibly be? I like to think of Ray asking Vilanch for some good gags for the arrest he’s about to make, and the tiny jokesmith spitballing, “How about, ‘Metal is in this season!’ No, how about, ‘I ain’t Carmen, but these are your Miranda rights!’ No, how about, ‘Do you like jewelry?’”
Ray’s bust enrages a local cop, who’s never seen him before, but still demands his badge, his weapon, his ass, and information regarding who the fuck Ray thinks he is. (We aren’t even five minutes in, and already someone is angrily expectorating.) “He thinks he’s Rambo,” another hick cop says in response to the presumably rhetorical identity question. So Ray shoots the truck’s gas tank, delivering his “Rambo is a pussy” quip. When cocaine pours out of the tank, he jokes “What do you know, it’s snowing!” Then he tastes some and asks, “Anybody wanna get high?” It should be noted that this one is more an invitation than a joke.
Tango & Cash is credited to Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian filmmaker who co-scripted Andrei Rublev with Andrei Tarkovsky, filmed an adaptation of Uncle Vanya in his native land, and directed Eric Roberts to the first of no doubt many Academy Award nominations. The nomination was for Konchalovsky’s 1985 film Runaway Train, which was based on an Akira Kurosawa screenplay. In other words, Konchalovsky was an unlikely choice to direct a macho, testosterone-poisoned buddy comedy produced by the team of Peter Guber and Jon Peters, and starring Sylvester Stallone, who has a history of taking control of projects regardless of whether he’s a credited screenwriter, producer, or director. Sure enough, Tango & Cash was a famously troubled production.
Original cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld lost his job, reportedly for not lighting Stallone to the latter’s satisfaction. Producer Peters kept pushing for the film to be goofier and campier, whereas Konchalovsky and Stallone reportedly wanted to make it more realistic. Watching Tango & Cash, it’s mind-boggling to imagine that it could ever have been a serious film. If there’s a gritty, realistic action thriller hiding inside it somewhere, it’s really well-hidden.
Konchalovsky ended up getting replaced toward the end of the shoot by Albert Magnoli, who elevated Prince to stardom in Purple Rain and Mitch Gaylord to super-duper-mega-stardom in American Anthem. Then, the film was heavily reshaped by editor Stuart Baird. So essentially, it had three directors—or four, counting Stallone. So there were a lot of different voices competing to be heard in the film’s making. But the ones that won out were obviously the ones screaming, “Louder! More! Sillier! Campier! Explodier!” I am glad for that. I cannot imagine a stone-faced Tango & Cash working. This is the rare instance when the philistines were right. The title alone gives the game away, as does making the cop with the last name of Cash the scraggly broke one, and putting Sylvester Stallone in a fancy suit as a cop by day, financial wizard also by day.
The giddy excess extends to the wonderfully ridiculous conception of its villain: rat-fondler, voyeur, drug kingpin, and micro-manager Yves Perret, played by Jack Palance at his most joyously deranged. Palance delivers all his lines as if he’s in the midst of a powerful orgasm. He shows a willful, fascinating disregard for punctuation, speaking in a halting, stutter-stop rhythm that’s eerily hypnotic.
Perret spends part of the film parked in front of a bank of television monitors, where he sees footage of Tango and Cash busting his men, and monologues: “Gabriel Cash. Ohhhhhh God! How many millions, how many? How many this time? Ohhhhhh God! Ray Tango! How he loves to dance! He waltzes in and takes all my drugs, and then tangoes back out again.” The whole point of such a setup, ostensibly, is to let Perret look like a shadowy puppetmaster working furtively behind the scenes, but Perret is actually the most hands-on drug kingpin in existence. There are meth-addled smash-and-grab specialists who are less hands-on than this geriatric multimillionaire. Perret is an extremely visual man, in the sense that he apparently does not believe anything unless he witnesses it with his own eyes, and, preferably, caresses it with his own hands. So while Tango calls Rambo a pussy and asks if anyone wants to get high, Perret circles the scene in a limousine with fellow glowering heavies, fretting, “Ray. Tango. He’s done it to us again. And if it isn’t Tango, it’s Cash. Tango and Cash. Cash and Tango. These two cops are driving me crazy. We. Have. To do something about this.”
When Perret’s flunkies propose murdering Tango and Cash as the quick and easy way of handling the situation, Perret scoffs, “Quick and easy is how you make a cake or clean a toilet bowl, or shop by mail. But quick and easy is not how you run a multi-million-dollar business such as ours.” Perret talks about how Cash has cost them more than $60 million in lost earnings from drugs, guns, and “various other enterprises.” (Math tutoring? Haberdasheries? Jell-O shots at Grateful Dead shows?) Perret makes an extravagant show of bringing two small rats out of an expensive wooden box, calling them mice for some reason, sniffing them inexplicably but deeply, and placing them back into that box, just so he can climactically place them in a maze to symbolize how lost Tango and Cash (the hero cops, not the rat-mice representing them) will be once they’re safely tucked away in prison.
Once Tango and Cash are railroaded using doctored audio footage, they’re sent to prison, where they strip naked. At this point, the film becomes intensely homoerotic. In fact, the filmmakers seem to have deliberately set out to make the world’s most homoerotic action movie. I imagine screenwriter Randy Feldman running his ideas by a pal:
“Of course, as quickly as possible, we’ll want to get these macho cops, Stallone and Russell, into a place where there are no women, only sweaty, musclebound men half-mad with sexual frustration. They can greet our heroes with a profane chorus of sexual threats. I know! A prison! They’ll both be in prison within the first 20 minutes. It’ll be like a women’s-prison movie, only with dudes, and a cop movie.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“And of course the heroes will have to strip for a shower scene, and we’ll have to get a good, long look at their bare asses in the process.”
“I’m not really sure that’s necessary.”
“And then they’ll escape in the pounding rain, and they’ll be all stripped-down and soaking wet and desperate. I get chills just thinking how sexy it’s going to look.”
“And then when they get out, Russell will have to dress up in women’s clothing to elude the cops. Yeah, that’ll be great. Russell is going to look so sexy, almost like Jessica Rabbit. You’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about how Kurt Russell would look in a skirt, and I can assure you: hot.”
“I think we’re kind of losing focus of what’s important in an action-movie script here.”
“And, I don’t know, there’s a girl, I guess, that one of them wants to go on a date with or something.”
“Good! Because for a second there, the film was sounding kind of homoerotic.”
All this, plus… before the eponymous gentlemen escape the prison in the pounding rain, there’s even more intense homoeroticism, as Perret, once again proving he’s the most hands-on elderly kingpin in cinema history, sneaks into prison specifically to oversee the torture of Tango and Cash, Cash and Tango. Why even have henchmen when you don’t trust them to do anything right?
Even while marching through a prison inexplicably filled with bonfires, while criminals they put away threaten them, the fellows never stop quipping, which leads me to believe that Tango managed somehow to smuggle Bruce Vilanch into prison with him. Vilanch’s snark-scripting duties clearly extended to Tango and Cash’s release from prison, because after busting out, Tango confronts a greasy meal and a traitor by saying, “From the look of your diet, it’s obvious you’re not too interested in counting calories. Could it be that you’re too busy counting the money they paid you to set us up?” (That actually sounds like the kind of thing Vin Diesel would say in XXX.)
Tango & Cash finds an absurd pretext to put Russell in drag, but it also gives him a love interest in Tango’s sister Katherine (Teri Hatcher), one of those strippers, ubiquitous in studio movies and nonexistent in real life, who make a fortune playing to men’s depraved desire to see a woman strip down to leggings and a modest bra. Katherine also throws comically inept drumming into her act as a special attraction.
The film ends with the predictable orgy of pyrotechnics and male bonding as the titular duo takes on Perret and his henchmen. Tango & Cash should be tonally incoherent, given its troubled production history, multiple directors, and violently competing visions about its tone. But the film is gloriously preposterous from start to finish, the kind of movie that throws a naked couple fucking and a comical Russian blathering about perestroika into an already-overloaded car chase, just for kicks.
Since announcing Tango & Cash in the last column, I have discovered that the film isn’t anywhere near as forgotten as I had imagined, though it still has a reputation for being a commercial failure, and a failure in general, even though it was the 20th top-grossing film of 1989, just behind Field Of Dreams. That might be attributable to its troubled production history, or its huge budget, or the fact that Stallone and Russell each have a canon of movies that are considered classics. Before watching it, I didn’t think Tango & Cash belonged in either man’s canon. Now I feel differently.
Incidentally, Patrick Swayze was originally supposed to play Cash, but pulled out to star in Road House. Would Tango & Cash had been as good with Swayze in the role? Russell seems perfectly cast, but Swayze also would have been ideal. Tango & Cash isn’t as good as Road House. (What is?) But it’s grade-A 1980s cheese that somehow manages to simultaneously feel like a flop, a hit, a half-forgotten trifle, and a cult oddity. To borrow the rating system of the wonderful bad-movie podcast The Flop House, which covered Tango & Cash for its 100th episode, it ranks somewhere between a good-bad movie, and a movie I actually really, really like. It feels like a bit of a cheat writing about cult movies like Congo, Space Jam, and now Tango & Cash for a column ostensibly about the unloved and forgotten, but I don’t want this column to be a mere matter of schadenfreude and negativity, and there is something to be said for being introduced to a transcendently silly B-movie. The name of the column aside, Tango & Cash’s gleeful ridiculousness remains memorable.
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