Film Torments: Tango & Cash (1989)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at a slab of glorious madness.

As evinced by the likes of Cannon Films, the 1980s was a watershed for schlocky nonsense action flicks, the kind that worshipped hyper-macho posturing, large explosions and callous disregard for human life. This was the era of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris and whiskey-soaked growls; of muscles and wisecracks and casual fornication; shoot first, ask questions later, rip a dude’s throat out in between. By the end of the decade, the genre had become so by-the-numbers and absurd that a deconstructive parody seemed imminent.

Tango & Cash is not that parody, but it may as well be. (It’s actually Last Action Hero.) Released alongside Spielberg’s Always as the final (Western) release of 1989, Tango & Cash is the film that definitively killed the 1980s. Buoyed on the box office sway of two bonafide megastars in Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone, it is a film so fundamentally barmy that it makes the Roger Moore Bond movies look like Driving Miss Daisy. Espoused so elegantly by The Flop House podcast as pre-ironic, Tango & Cash is an improbably loud, improbably stupid buddy cop movie with zipline prison breaks, egomaniacal cock-stroking and bazooka-guzzling assault tanks. It is everything the end of the road should look like and more.

The appeal of Tango & Cash lies in its simplicity. Following the standard buddy-cop formula, two ‘opposites’ are thrown together in contrived circumstances to overcome a greater threat; in this case, the yuppie prince Ray Tango (Stallone) pairs with the finely-mulletted greaseball Gabriel Cash (Russell) to bring down a surprisingly hands-on drug kingpin named Perret (played with orgasmic abandon by Jack Palance). That’s as deep as it gets. The film is hopelessly predictable, striding past expected story beats with the grace of Robert Z’Dar crashing through the windscreen of an 18-wheeler – AKA, how Tango & Cash chooses to open.

It rarely lets up from there, taking great pains to establish exactly how masculine and unstoppable our titular heroes are. Cash, the down-and-dirty cowboy with a laser-sighted Magnum, beats the piss out of a suspect while guzzling a hot dog; Tango, the stockbroker moonlighting as a police officer “for the action”, stares down a truck after reprimanding his superiors for muscling in on his jurisdiction. Stallone and Russell’s chemistry is striking in spite of a horrendous script; their ‘witty’ repartee, the highlight of which is a literal dick-measuring contest in a prison shower, is elevated to acceptability by their respective charisma.

But these characters are, despite their surface dissimilarity, ostensibly the same person in different, archetypal shells. Both disdain authority; both get results; both react to absurd situations with straight faces, and neither is willing to concede defeat. A smarter film would have presented this discrepancy as meta-textual commentary on the silliness of the buddy cop formula, but the nuance of Tango & Cash extends to Cash, shortly before showering the road with cocaine, quipping, “Rambo is a pussy.”

It might have retained some intelligence had the original director, Andrei Konchalovsky, not been unceremoniously kicked off the project before production wrapped. Konchalovsky, as co-writer of Andrei Rublev and director of Cannon-funded, Oscar-nominated Runaway Train, was already an odd choice to helm a machismo-laden schlock-fest like this, and it seems his reported intent to turn the film into a serious, cerebral affair didn’t jive with producer Jon Peters’ vision of insanity that eventually crawled to the screen. We are all the better for it – watching the final product, the thought of a po-faced detective drama is impossible to entertain.

What makes Tango & Cash so fascinating is its (apparent) lack of self-awareness. It cultivates and idolises an aura of effortless cool; the same kind of cool that your fifty-something dad tries (and fails) to capture when he waxes lyrical about AC/DC and Harley Davidson, dressed in his leathers with his belly hanging out. Everything, from the synth-noodling soundtrack to the overwrought quips to the endless conveyor belt of explosions is in thrall to this manufactured ‘cool’; that is, at least, until Kurt Russell exits a conspicuously-clothed strip club in immaculate drag. Therein lies the genius of Tango & Cash – it lulls the viewer into a false sense of security, and then it sucker punches them. “I know exactly what I am,” it says, and it is unashamed.

And why shouldn’t it be? Carried by Stallone and Russell’s exceptional charisma and its barmy action scenes, the film is an absolute blast from start to finish. It never lulls but cruises, allowing the viewer to soak in the latest round of absurdity before diving headfirst into the next. No sooner have Tango and Cash been incarcerated than Jack Palance, amiable and suited, fondles some mice and sets them loose in an adorable diorama as goons look on unblinking. This is normal behaviour for a drug emperor, the movie tells us, and we should accept it. An industrial-fan-assisted strip show culminates with an astoundingly bad drum solo; Perret’s cocaine compound is particularly combustible, and Brion James’ Cock-er-knee defies explanation. This movie is fucking nuts, and it loves it.

Despite its litany of production troubles, Tango & Cash eventually released to commercial success and critical dismay. The former proved that action movies (and their stars) still held significant box office sway; the latter, that some things never change. But action films certainly have changed – in the 29 years since the film’s release, blockbuster releases have shifted toward marquee franchises and brand recognition. While the appeal of the quippy action hero has never diminished, their gleefully violent context has softened to benefit their family-friendly target audiences.

Almost three decades later, Tango & Cash represents, in many ways, the last hurrah for its very distinct, very bloody and very, very cheesy kind of action. Though coveted to comedic effect by the likes of Kung Fury! and Turbo Kid, it’s a specific kind of lunacy that simply can’t be replicated with the clean, digital aesthetic of modern cinema. Yes, it’s ludicrous; of course, it’s bad; obviously, it’s outdated – but if you don’t have a chasm-sized grin on your face as Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell high-five each other as a cocaine compound self-destructs, I’m not convinced you know what happiness is.

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