It took a long time for Kurt Russell to truly become a “Kurt Russell.” Russell is a true Hollywood lifer, beginning his career as a child actor in the early 1960s and signing a ten-year contract with Disney while still in his teens. For most of his early career, he was thought of as a goofy, amiable lightweight, suitable for movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Strongest Man in the World. It took starring in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York in 1981 as the iconic Snake Plissken for Hollywood to start to realize there might be an action star under the aw-shucks good looks, but it took several false starts over the 1980s for that to really take root. While we think of Russell movies like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China as modern classics now (and rightly so), they were both critical and commercial flops that failed to develop him as a tough guy star. Fortunately, at the very tail end of the decade, a buddy cop movie even better than Lethal Weapon came out and showed Hollywood what Kurt Russell could do. That movie is called Tango & Cash, and it is streaming on Pluto TV right now.
Tango & Cash was released in 1989, right at the end of the boom of high-octane, ultraviolet action movies popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. As the decade turned into the 1990s, both of those titans of human growth hormones moved into comedies, and the genre began to grow increasingly low-rent. Kurt Russell teamed up with Stallone in a last-minute bid for the action-star A-list, and despite a famously troubled production, they managed to pull out a hit. In many ways, Tango & Cash is the last of the 1980s buddy cop movies. That genre arguably began with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours (and yes, we know Murphy was not technically a cop in that), was perfected in Danny Glover and Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon and reached an apex with Tango & Cash. And why? For one thing, Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone turned it up to 11 and it’s pretty hard to follow up that act.
In the film, Kurt Russell plays Lieutenant Gabriel “Gabe” Cash, the number one cop of Los Angeles’ Eastside. He’s scruffy, lives in a squalid bachelor apartment, wears grubby clothing, and is just kind of gross. In contrast, Sylvester Stallone plays Lieutenant Raymond “Ray” Tango, the corresponding best cop in the Westside; he wears Armani suits, does stock-trading in his spare time, and has a pair of wire-framed glasses that all but scream “this guy is smart!” The two share a rivalry that involves massive competing drug busts that bring them to the attention of Yves Perret (Jack Palance, in an enjoyable scene-chewing bad guy mode) and his chief henchman Requin (classic villainous 1980s character actor Brion James). Tango and Cash are framed for murder, get sent to prison, break out, hook up with Stallone’s sister Teri Hatcher (who naturally becomes Kurt Russell’s love interest), and end up murdering enough bad guys to prove they did not kill the original person they were framed for. It’s a classic action story.
Now that Kurt Russell has been “Kurt Russell,” ie, the mischievous, scruffy antihero who sometimes has a heart of gold for a few decades, it is easy to forget that in 1989, he was still trying to shake off the Disney star reputation. Cash is clearly an attempt to take his successful turn as Snake Plissken and turn it into a lovable, contemporary character. On the other hand, Stallone was in the midst of a hugely successful run of Rockys, Rambos, and the occasional Cobra and was looking to stretch his range. While he would not get into Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot for a few years yet, it is equally clear that Tango is Stallone trying to make a case for himself as an urbane, slick action hero rather than a monosyllabic grunter. In one memorable exchange, another police officer even claims Tango “thinks he’s Rambo!” To which Stallone responds “Rambo…is a p***y” before shooting a hole in a tanker, which starts leaking cocaine.
Tango & Cash was produced by the incredibly successful, incredibly notorious team of Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Reportedly, the set was in constant chaos, with director Andrei Konchalovsky being fired and replaced after months of shooting, cinematographer/future director Barry Sonnenfeld being fired by Stallone, weeks of reshoots, and a one-minute-to-midnight editing process that barely got the film to theaters. Nevertheless, it was a huge box office success, grossing over $120 million. Since then, it has basically disappeared from conscious memory, the title being more of a punchline than anything. But Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone made a classic with this one. It is so close to being over the top without ever becoming truly a cartoon, and it is so close to being self-aware without ever winking at the camera. While Lethal Weapon might have truly established what a buddy-cop movie is, Tango & Cash perfected how fun they can be.