Hugs and well-wishes. Boxed chocolates and one coma-inducing meal after another. Yes, it’s Christmas once again so gather all ye ‘round that hallowed centerpiece of yuletide zeal – the television – and partake in what no one is calling the most endearing holiday entertainment since “Cobra.” Naturally, I’m talking about the 1989 Sylvester Stallone/Kurt Russell action/comedy “Tango and Cash.” It’s a fun dud as I like to call them, but how dud is this dud, and what would Santa say if he spent invaluable minutes of his day pushing popcorn through his beard while watching it? Tough one. “Tango and Cash” is a buddy flic with the body of a “Lethal Weapon” and the soul of a bad stand-up comedian. Ol’ Claus might frown on specific cases of frat-boy humor (the shower scene and Cash’s “erotic” couch massage) but drop a ho-ho or two at the overall chemistry between its leads, 80s action regulars Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. It’s not a horrible movie but certainly not worth a glowing 25-year anniversary review. Meh…it’s Christmas, the season of compromise.
The set-up: they’re set up. Top cops Ray Tango (Stallone) and Gabriel Cash (Russell) are framed for killing an FBI agent and have 24 hours to clear their names. Once again Stallone plays an exemplary something-or-other, here a Beverly Hills cop with impeccable wardrobe and stock portfolio. He’s a legend in his precinct, a fan of “good old fashioned American action” whose drug and weapons busts routinely make the afternoon papers. Cash provides a similar kick-ass service in L.A., minus the 3-piece suit and grammatical correctness. He’s strictly jeans and Snake Plissken hair. The movie blands out once the villians are introduced, three men in charge of all the illicit activity our heroes are cutting into. Two of the actors, Jack Palance (“Shane,” “City Slickers”) and James Hong (“Blade Runner,” “Big Trouble in Little China”), fairly knavish on screen when they’re given something to do, are reduced to Dr. Evil-like palm-rubbing, especially Palance who plays the crime boss Perret. “Rats in a maze. Men in a cage.” He likes to rhyme for reverse dramatic effect and explains his plan for taking Tango and Cash off the streets by shutting two mice in a tabletop labyrinth. All very Inspector Gadget.
After a plea bargain and sentencing, Tango and Cash are shuffled to a maximum security prison to face half the thugs they’ve ever put away, all musclebound, all wanting to punch their tickets. There’s a ridiculous but exciting scene where the two are snatched from their cells and tossed down laundry chutes to a basement where the entire prison population is waiting for them. Tango tries to keep his cool but Cash loses it, with expletive color. It’s one of the film’s funnier moments and helps distinguish the two characters, Tango as the diplomat, Cash as the hothead. But I wish they’d used this more instead of going for the cheap laugh. The problem is the script and writer Randy Feldman’s (or someone’s; the movie swapped directors, cinematographers and editors so it’s anyone’s guess) love of the limp one-liner. Here’s a taste:
Thug: F*** you.
Tango: I prefer blondes.
Cash: When this is over, remind me to rip Jumbo there’s tongue out.
Tango: With a tow-truck.
Tango: When this is over, we have to pay Jabba the Hutt here a visit.
Cash: I’ll bring the chainsaw.
Tango: I’ll bring the beer.
Cash: This has gotta be a mistake. What do you think?
Tango: I think my underwear is riding into my throat.
Tango: You’re going to make a very ugly bride someday.
Cash: Is that a proposal?
Katherine: Ray, you’re my brother. Where else are you supposed to go?
Tango: The North Pole would be nice.
Captain: You really want to stare death in the eye, you should’ve gotten married.
Tango: Is that a proposal?
If the movie is anything though, it’s consistent, maintaining an even split of jokes and heroics between studs and foregoing that basic edict of buddy comedydom, that the buddies hold more distinction than a haircut. It’s not a hard and fast rule of course, but precedent loves a contrast: “48 Hrs.,” “Rush Hour,” “Midnight Run” and perhaps the modern Hollywood gold standard still, “Lethal Weapon.” It’s a Christmas movie too but don’t be fooled. Its body count is quite high for the fat-man-down-the-chimney-believing crowd and like “Tango and Cash,” exclamations of “son-of-a” this and “mother” that have little to do with family. “Weapon”’s family however, the Murtaughs, is an important part of that movie’s appeal. There’s some good situational humor that comes out of Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) struggle to balance homelife and a job he’s fed up with. The action is more or less all cop but the comedy is rooted in differences of character, things like Roger’s age and Riggs’ dance with his inner cuckoo bird. You might know the screenwriter, Shane Black. Through the late 80s he was a rising star of the genre with films such as “Lethal Weapon” and its sequel and later “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” “Tango and Cash” scribe Feldman might’ve been influenced by Black but the gap is rather large. Tango and Cash seem to quip simply because they can. Not good enough.
But not all bad. As an action movie, it lacks inventiveness but passes the test. The sequences are tight, polished and comprehensive under the direction of Andrei Konchalovsky (“Runaway Train”) and Albert Magnoli (“Purple Rain”), who shot the final attack on Perret at his quarry compound/den of iniquity. Directorial duties were passed to Magnoli late in the production, supposedly because Konchalovsky “wanted to give the film a more serious tone” and other parties disagreed (says Wikipedia). I wish he had. But even when the script stutters, Stallone and Russell manage to buoy it with charisma alone, particulary Russell who seems as at home with comedy as he is swinging a fist. The actor sharpened his skills long before his relationship with John Carpenter (“The Thing,” “Escape From New York”) on television westerns and as the star of several memorable Disney comedies. As a performer able to cross multiple genres (action/drama/comedy), I’d rank Russell with a Mel Gibson. But enough talk! My own skills are clearly winding down. In the spirit of the times then, let us embrace said fun dud for its gifts inherent, those nanoscopic endowments that have enhanced our lives for a full quarter century. To the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” if you will:
On the ______ day of Christmas, Warner Bros. gave to me…
Suspension of disbelief.
A bad guy kissin’ mice.
Brion James in ponytail.
Kurt as a woman.
A budget inflated by millions.
Sly dissin’ Rambo.
That dude and his Slinky.
“This ****ing sucks!!”
4 naked butt cheeks.
3 times better than “The Expendables.”
2 hours to pause my brain.
And Teri Hatcher’s screen breakthrough.