In this occasional series of ‘remarkable things’ articles, we’ve mostly focused exclusively on movies that were critical or financial flops. Previous entries have included Jaws: The Revenge, Battlefield Earth and RoboCop 3, which all suffered in both critics’ reviews and at the box office.
This time, our choice isn’t a notorious flop at all – it’s Tango & Cash, a film which actually made a few million dollars more than it cost to make. At this stage in Sylvester Stallone’s career, which featured the critical and financial nightmares Rocky V, Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Tango & Cash was a comparative blockbuster.
In terms of critical reception, though, Tango & Cash fared less well. It was nominated for three Razzies (though won precisely none) and reviews moaned about its badly-written script and generic violence. The oft-reported problems during production had clearly made some sort of impact on the finished film; stories had circulated before release of last-minute script rewrites, and that its initial director – Russia’s Andrei Konchalovsky – had been replaced by Albert Magnoli.
The result is one of the most bizarrely entertaining, eccentric action movies of the late-80s, which is why we’ve included it in this series. Of all its contemporary reviews, the Chicago Tribune’s summed the film up most eloquently. Beneath a headline that read, “Delirious Tango & Cash proves to be really weird,” movie critic Dave Kehr wrote, “Let’s take the charitable view and assume Tango & Cash is meant to be strange. It is, in fact, really weird.”
Dave’s right, too. Tango & Cash is really, really weird. Remarkably so, in fact…
10. Stallone gradually talks faster in stressful situations
Tango & Cash‘s premise is torn straight from the big book of 80s action plots: odd-couple policemen fight vicious drug overlord. Lieutenant Ray Tango (Sylvester Stallone) is a hotshot cop whose hard-hitting way of catching bad guys often gets him onto the cover of LA newspapers. He also happens to be some sort of millionaire stock broker, who despite his undisclosed fortune, spends all his time capturing drug dealers. When asked why he runs around pretending to be a tough police officer when he could be sitting in a jacuzzi with a tin of Stella, Tango replies that it’s because of the “Action. Good old American action.”
And when said action occurs, Stallone gives his character an unexpected tic: he starts talking really quickly. This is demonstrated in an opening sequence in which he’s heroically chasing after a truck full of drugs. “Icanhandlethismyself,” Tango blurts out over the police radio. When a voice advises him to wait for back-up, he replies, “DropdeadI’vebeenonthiscaseforthreemonths.”
It’s a bit like that part in Anchorman where Ron Burgundy says to Veronica Corningstone, in a fit of randy excitement, “Youcanusemydeskandmaybeafterwecangoforlunch.” Except in Tango & Cash, the scene doesn’t appear to be played for laughs.
9. Every major plot point is related via newspaper clipping
After we’ve met Tango, we’re introduced to Lieutenant Gabriel Cash. Like Tango, Cash is a hotshot cop whose hard-hitting way of catching bad guys often gets him onto the cover of LA newspapers. The difference, though, is that Cash is played by Kurt Russell, who doesn’t wear glasses, dresses scruffily, and is followed everywhere by groups of children who call out his name. Our theory is that he’s recently seen The Temple Of Doom, and has paid a load of screaming kids to hang around outside his flat to make him feel more like Indiana Jones.
Anyway, back to the point of this section: every major plot point is related via newspaper clipping. Although they’re complete strangers at the start of the film (they work on different sides of Los Angeles, you see) , Tango and Cash’s heroics have annoyed a local drug dealer, who has the pair framed for murder and sent to prison. This entire section of the film is punctuated by repeated shots of newspapers, which carry pertinent headlines to help audiences keep up with what’s going on.
There are actually five newspaper clippings within the first half an hour alone. Below, we’ve posted one of our favourites for your perusal.
Oddly, the body copy in these stories doesn’t match the headlines, which might prove how rushed things were behind the scenes of the movie. Either that, or it’s some sort of test to see whether the audience is really paying attention.
8. Jack Palance’s villain is really creepy – sniffs mice
The main villain of the piece is evil drug lord Yves Perret, played by Jack Palance as a mumbling rich uncle who’s forgotten where he’s put his car keys.
“Tango. He’s done it to us again. If it isn’t Tango, it’s Cash. Tango and Cash,” Perret mutters absent-mindedly to his henchmen as yet another drug supply is impounded. “Cash and Tango. Cash and Tango…”
About 15 minutes in (well, 14 minutes and 30 seconds, if you’d all like to fast-forward your DVDs now), we see Perret lurking in his villain’s lair. Like any great 80s villain, he has a private office with a bank of television screens and a leather chair in front of it. Before long, he’s off on one of his rambles again. “Oh Tango, how he loves to dance,” Perret says, as his henchmen look at one another with concern in their eyes. “He tangos in, takes all my drugs, then tangos back out again.”
It’s at this point that Palance (sorry, Perret) reveals his habit of turning metaphorical statements into literal dioramas. For most evil villains, simply explaining a plan to their henchmen and concluding with, “They’ll be trapped – like rats in a maze!” – perhaps followed by a cackle – would be more than enough to get their point across.
Not for Perret, though. Instead, he pulls out a pair of rodents from a box nearby, and places them into a purpose-built maze he’s built out of balsa wood and perspex. It’s sitting on his desk, ready for his demonstration. “Oh God, Uncle Perret’s made another one of his dioramas,” a henchman probably says to himself.
Elsewhere in the office, Perret probably has some fish swimming around in a barrel, a lamb tethered up waiting to be slaughtered, and a baby loosely holding a stick of candy.
7. Brion James plays the least convincing British villain in film history
The late, great Brion James was one of LA’s ultimate character actors, with his distinctive visage appearing in everything from Blade Runner (“Wake up! Time to die…!”) to,erm, Walker, Texas Ranger. For some reason, James was also saddled with the task of playing a British villain named Requin in Tango & Cash – and to be fair, he attacks the task with all the energy he can muster. Unfortunately, the accent ends up more like Patsy Kensit’s iffy Afrikaans mithering from Lethal Weapon 2 than what we’re presuming is meant to be broad cockney.
The script attempts to cover up for this by having James speak entirely in very British expletives – tosser, plonker, wanker and so forth – while Sylvester Stallone takes every opportunity to shove a hand grenade in James’ mouth, presumably to stem the flow of mangled sentences.
Fortunately, Jack Palance is on hand to provide a more eloquent villain as a counterpoint. “Who the hell are you?” Cash asks when Palance’s evil Perret is seen lurking in the shadows at the film’s mid-point.
“Just think of me as someone who… doesn’t like you very much,” Perret says. Sigh.
6. A prisoner ends up with one of those slinky stair-walking things wrapped around his head
Well, we thought it was remarkable.
5. Teri Hatcher plays drums
After a brief brush with death, Tango and Cash soon escape from the maximum security prison, and go their separate ways to find out who framed them. While Tango goes off to menace a man who’s about to take a bowl of spaghetti from his fridge, Cash heads to a strip club – fulfilling the unwritten rule that all 80s action movies should always contain at least one scene in an exotic dancing establishment.
Here, we’re treated to the unexpected sight of Teri Hatcher (that’s Lois of Lois & Clark fame) prancing around on a neon-lit stage to the melody of Yazoo’s Don’t Go. Cash looks on at this quintessentially 80s tableau, all wind machines, glitter, big hair and silver hot pants. And after a few minutes of hip-wiggling and smouldering looks, Hatcher unexpectedly grabs a pair of sticks and does an impromptu solo on an electric drumkit.
Dancing, cool music, retro eroticism and, erm, Donkey Konga collide in a classic action movie moment.
4. It features the worst pun in Hollywood history
For reasons we’ve already forgotten, Cash has gone to the nightclub to find Katherine (Hatcher), who happens to be Tango’s sister. This eventually leads to an incredibly awkward moment at Tango’s house, where Katherine massages Cash’s sore and naked back. Tango wanders in, and on hearing various moans and gasps of satisfaction, assumes Cash and his sister are “Bumping uglies” (the film’s term, not ours) on his leather couch.
Before Tango can pull the pair apart in a shriek of brotherly rage, he spots an intruder at the back door, and reaching for an ornamental duck (yes, really), he smashes the door down, pinning the visitor underneath it.
Now, without over-explaining the scene too much, the door’s one of those insect-proof type things with thin mesh stapled to the front. As the intruder squirms beneath it, we see it’s actually Tango’s boss (played by Geoffrey Lewis), who’s come around for a cup of tea or something. What he says next is truly toe-curling:
“Is this the way you screen all your guests?”
He’s pinned under a screen, so he’s being screened. Do you see? Remarkably, the gag isn’t accompanied by the parp of a trombone – merely Kurt Russell, swooping into frame to snarl at Tango, “Drop the duck…”
3. The script’s one liners are generally quite strange
Although the pun above is a definite standout, the script in general is surprisingly awkward. The gags and one-liners are all there, but they seldom come off in the zinging way writer Randy Feldman presumably intended – perhaps because of those last-minute rewrites mentioned earlier, or maybe because the screenplay was transcribed directly from someone’s brain via a Babel fish.
When Tango apprehends a bent cop (the one getting his bowl of spaghetti out of the fridge mentioned earlier), Tango looks at the cop’s dinner and says (really fast, since he’s under pressure), “From the look of your diet, you’re not too interested in counting calories. Could it be that you were toobusycountingthemoneyyou receivedforsettingusup?”
At other times, the one-liners don’t sound so much like off-the-cuff jokes as slightly seedy pick-up lines. “Glad you could drop in,” Tango says when two villains fall to the pavement from their speeding truck, Police Story-style. “Do you like jewellery?”
Later, Tango says to Cash, “If you don’t want to get sticky, get back.” Taken out of context, this sounds quite disgusting.
Tango doesn’t have the monopoly on suggestive dialogue, either. When the film takes a last-act detour into light sci-fi territory, Cash visits an experimental lab run by his chum Owen (Michael J Pollard). “Hey, Gabe,” Owen asks with a twinkle in his eye, “do you need a special weapon?”
Cash gleefully snatches up a firearm from what looks like an umbrella stand, and approvingly says, “I always knew we shared the same taste in heavy weaponry”. Hmm.
2. A warehouse is rigged with a high-tech self-destruct system
After almost 90 minutes of prison breaks, bickering, double-entendres and assorted mayhem, Tango and Cash locate Perret at his secret lair – cunningly disguised as a quarry with a barb-wire fence around it. As the pair lay waste to sheds and assorted bad guys by driving around in a massive armoured vehicle, Perret watches the violence unfold on his bank of televisions – unaccountably giggling as he does so. He probably thinks he’s watching a rerun of Maximum Overdrive.
Then Tango and Cash smash into his fortified warehouse, and Perret stops giggling. Realising that he’s cornered, the old villain sets off the building’s self-destruct system, which counts down with a voice very like the ship computer in Alien.
While Tango & Cash‘s last-act confrontations are fun and everything, with all the villains getting their comeuppance, we have to wonder what sort of person would have a self-destruct system installed in their warehouse. Is this something all entrepreneurs do when they start a new business? Can you buy self-destruct systems from Staples, along with office chairs and filing cabinets?
At least Tango’s on hand to provide a witty one-liner. “It looks like there’s a lot of new pollution in the sky tonight,” Tango reflects as he looks up at the debris raining around him, “and they call it Perret.”
Remarkably, Cash doesn’t then ask Tango what in God’s name he’s talking about.
1. Simmering erotic subtext
Tango & Cash is so abundantly stuffed full of remarkable things, we wish we didn’t have to choose just ten. There’s its strange insistence on borrowing ideas from Hong Kong movies (the Police Story ‘homage’ mentioned earlier, plus a late-hour hall of mirrors scene straight out of Enter The Dragon). The wealth of great Hollywood character actors – Brion James, Geoffrey lewis, Eddie Bunker, James Hong and Clint Howard, to name a few. The terrible 80s music – some of which sounds like children’s TV show, Art Attack. Oh, and the sight of Kurt Russell in a dress:
Instead, what we’d prefer to focus on is Tango & Cash‘s ever-present sexual subtext. First, there’s the relationship between Tango and his younger sister. Her oddly childlike demeanour, and his furious over protectiveness, reminds us of Tony Montana’s creepy, incestuous infatuation with his sister Gina in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Notice how, when Tango thinks he’s walked in on Katherine and Cash having sex on his sofa, he doesn’t embarrassedly rush out again. Instead, he sort of hangs around, murmuring and rubbing his eyes. The more we think about it, the more unsettling we find this.
Anyway, the film’s more obvious (and far more sweet) erotic subtext comes from Tango and Cash themselves. In a replay of numerous other 80s buddy-cop action movies, there’s a definite bromance brewing between them, from their initial, love-at-first-sight meeting in a warehouse to the bit in prison where they share a shower and trade insults: Cash makes a joke about the size of Tango’s penis (“Pee-wee”) while Tango fires back a snipe about Cash’s testicles. “Don’t worry, Cash. Someday the other one’ll drop,” Tango says. Touche.
When Tango later harasses his sister over what he thought happened on his living room furniture (“What were you doing on the couch with the elephant man?”), it’s tantamount to an admission of jealousy.
Cash also appears to harbour a secret affection for Tango, as seen in the bit where he excitedly shows off his shiny sci-fi attack vehicle (complete with a gun mounted on the side). “It’s an RV from hell!” he enthuses like a randy teenager. “Care to join me?”
The pair clearly love each other, yet it takes Katherine to get them together. “Why don’t you guys just admit that you work well together?” she asks as the pair bicker again in the final scene. This, inarguably, is Hollywood code for, “For God’s sake, get a room.”
With her permission granted, Tango and Cash do a high-five over Katherine’s head – their clasped hands a final symbol of their new-found love.
Andrei Konchalovsky was and remains an exceptionally smart director, and it’s likely that, even though he didn’t get to finish his one experiment in American action moviemaking, he nevertheless intended it as a Paul Verhoeven-style parody of the violent 80s blockbuster.
Tango & Cash sees two American archetypes – the old rough-and-ready cowboy, the relatively new suited-and-booted, Wall Street city guy – team up to defend their turf from a drug-peddling bad guy. Although the protagonists look different, Konchalovsky seems to say, they’re still essentially the same wild, irresponsible personas hidden behind different masks – “Bad cop, worse cop” is how it’s put in one scene. Viewed like this, Tango & Cash is possibly the most wryly funny movie Sylvester Stallone ever made.
And as if to pre-empt the critical drubbing the movie would receive, Tango & Cash ends with one final newspaper clipping, which you’ll find above: “Ask not what the critics say,” it reads.
More code, perhaps, for “Yes, humble film critic, it was meant to be ridiculous.”
Unlike Siberiade, Maria’s Lovers or Runaway Train, Tango & Cash probably won’t be remembered as one of Konchalovsky’s finer works, but it is his most fun, and in a warped sort of way, among his most fascinating.
As Dave from the Chicago Tribune noted back in 1989, “In Konchalovsky’s hands, Tango & Cash is more than interesting. It is, in fact, really weird.”
Other entries in the ’10 remarkable things’ series: