Where exactly does Tango & Cash belong in the pantheon of cop movies? Let's take a moment to review the accolades it received on its release in 1989. A negative review in the New York Times that damned the plot, screenplay, and acting. Three nominations for the Golden Raspberry Awards, including both Worst Actor and Worst Screenplay. And to this day it maintains a 39% rating on rotten tomatoes.
Wait… What the hell are we doing here?
I may be 25 years too late, but I am here to make the case for Tango & Cash being (possibly) the single most entertaining cop movie ever made. Not the “best cop movie,” by the way. I'm not a madman. I wouldn't ever argue that Tango & Cash is actually a good movie. But there's a difference between good and fun.
First, let's take the protagonists. Super-cop Ray Tango is played by Sylvester Stallone with all the nuance you'd expect from a punch to the face. Tango dresses in three-piece suits, takes calls from his stock broker first and shoots second. He is a man who will shoot an oil tanker to prove it's partially loaded with coke. Partially. If you're going to follow around a man that overburdened with confidence and that lacking in intellect, how could the finest quality hijinks not ensue?
Next is Kurt Russell's Gabriel Cash—second in the title, but first in our hearts. While Stallone's Tango is pristine übermensch, Russell's Tango is a rugged everyman. Just an everyman who happens to be able to rock a mullet so hard it could throw a weaker man's hips out of joint. Russell's character is the more accessible of the two policeman. The one who we might actually aspire to be.
Tango is out of reach. His car chases take place in sterile deserts. Cash's take place in the urban tangle of parking lots, punctuated by shots of couples humping in the back seats of cars. Cash's car chases seem a little more fun.
Set against these paragons of policework is Yves Perret (Jack Palance!), one of the most brilliant creations to ever grace the silver screen. Take every James Bond villain ever, throw them all in a sack full of cats, shake for fifteen minutes, and I'm pretty sure Perret would emerge. This is a man so diabolical, so devious, that when he wants to make a protracted metaphor about the need to destroy Tango and Cash, he actually has a lacquered box full of mice, and an enormous maze prepared in order to help him make it.
Part of the subtle genius of Tango & Cash is to take this madhouse of characters and funnel them into a plot that actually holds water. Not much water admittedly, but some. In a nutshell it is this:
Perrett sees Tango and Cash damaging his operations, and rather than make martyrs of them—triggering a police crackdown—he instead frames them for murder. Tango and Cash are subsequently locked away, but escape before Perret can finish them off. The pair then unravel the frame-job, assault Perret's compound, and finish him off as violently as they can.
Not a great plot. But at the macro level, you can kind of imagine it working.
Now, let's proceed to smack it with every stick we can find in the crazy bag. For example, consider Perret's compound at the end of the movie. We know Perret is inventively insane, but nothing can really prepare you for the fact that Perret's has, apparently, recreated the set for Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome at his compound. The movie actually culminates with Tango and Cash driving a heavily armored mini-van (no, really) around while chased by monster trucks, motorcyclists, and giant chunks of excavation machinery. Because explosions, that's why.
But my favorite moment of madness, the reason, why in times of trouble I will ask myself, “What would Kurt Russell do?” is Cash's earlier escape from a strip club. He's met up with Tango's sister, an exotic dancer, but now the police have the place surrounded and are moving in. Cash is in the back room, managing to both freak out and rock his mullet with equal ferocity. What does he do? Does he go out guns blazing? Does he use the ventilation system to sneak away? Does he plunge into the sewers and go under the problem? Maybe drive a motorcycle across the rooftops? No. You are thinking too small. You are thinking like Tango. What does Kurt Russell do? He cross dresses.
Let's go over that one more time.
He cross dresses.
How does this plan play out? Well, Tango's sister goes out, in a manner designed to catch police attention, mounts a motorbike, and does everything she can to set the scene for Cash. That's how confident they are in this disguise. Then, there is a very long shot of Russell's legs. They are entirely free of hair, so either this police net closes slower than molasses on a cold day, or Cash keeps his legs shaved for moments just like this. I don't know why, but I'd like to imagine it's the latter. Slowly we pan up. (If you've never seen the cover for the Aphex Twin album Windowlicker, I suggest Googling it now. Maybe have a sick bag ready. The effect here is similar.) Maybe the plan was simply to offend the cops so greatly that Cash can escape during the ensuing vom-fest.
But no. Instead, one cop is so entranced, and this movie is so classy, that a three-way is proposed. Thankfully, this narrative detour is avoided, and instead Cash simply blows him a kiss. Hijinks and violence ensue.
So why do I love this movie? Why would I pick this cop movie over any other?
If I have failed to convey it so far, let me state it clearly now: this is an absurd movie. No, in fact that's not enough. It is THE absurd movie. It is the movie to which all other absurd movies aspire. It takes ridiculousness to a height that is, quite frankly, ridiculous. And it does it all with such glee, with such blind abandon. It charges towards cliff, not with its head down, but with its head held high, skipping and singing as it goes. It's impossible to not be caught up in the momentum of its flagrant disregard for common sense. How can you not give into a giant parody of machismo that has no clue that it's a parody? Its lack of a clue is so monumental that it seems to force itself on the world, and redefine a clueless world.
I love Tango & Cash because it's hilarious and it genuinely doesn't give a shit whether you're laughing with it or at it. Because it solves more than one problem by shoving a grenade in a man's pants. And, above all, because whenever I subsequently ask myself, “What would Kurt Russell do?” I know it will be absurd and awesome in equal measures.
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Jonathan Wood is the author of No Hero (Titan Books), out March 11th.