What Would Kurt Russell Do? Making the Case for Tango & Cash (1989)

Tango & Cash (1989) starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt RussellWhere 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.

This Sweepstakes Has Ended.

No Hero by Jonathan WoodTo enter for a chance to win a copy of No Hero by Jonathan Wood, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In!

No Hero Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2014/03/what-would-kurt-russell-do-ruminations-on-tango-and-cash-jonathan-wood beginning at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) March 19, 2013. Sweepstakes ends 9:59 p.m. ET March 26, 2013. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Jonathan Wood is the author of No Hero (Titan Books), out March 11th.


  1. Jody Darden

    I, too, love the absurdity of ‘Tango & Cash’. And always looking for a good new mystery!

  2. Lon Bailey

    Yes indeed, great fun, but Russell’s Big trouble in little Chinatown is probably even more absurd- it has Chinese kung fu/ magic as well as the mullet as the everymen hero.

  3. Sally Schmidt

    I have always loved ‘Tango & Cash.” Now I know why! What a great review. Makes me want to go watch it again. And winning the book wouldn’t be too bad, either.

  4. Albert Tucher

    My eyes have been opened. I always avoided this movie, because I thought it was just run-of-the-mill bad.

  5. David Rickard

    I’ll try for the book, even though you really needed a stronger warning about Windowlicker

  6. Gef Fox

    My god, I don’t think I’ve seen this movie since it was first released. For some reason I had myself believing is was Patrick Swayze in this one instead of Sly. I wonder how that would have gone over if that was the case.

    You have convinced me that I need to go in search of it to relive the insanity.

    (Already got my copy of ‘No Hero’ too, so I’m good on that front.)

    Cheers, Jonathan.

  7. L L

    Haven’t seen that movie

  8. Shannon Baas

    I would love this.

  9. Clare 2e

    I, too, feel the need to rewatch T & C now! But thank you, lgwbailey, for also calling out Big Trouble in Little China–that is a hot mess I adore.

  10. Mihaela Day

    I would love this.

  11. Anastasia

    Nice! I’d love to check this out 🙂

  12. Vicky Boackle

    looks great.

  13. Dawn K


  14. g. penrod

    it looks fantastic!

  15. smitten

    Anything with Kurt Russell, I am more than in!!


    “TANGO & CASH” was great fun.
    I watched it so many times.
    Would like to win.


    “TANGO & CASH” was great fun.
    I watched it so many times.
    Would love to win.

  18. Andra Dalton

    I was barely a teenager when I first watched Tango & Cash with my family. My parents both being fans of Kurt Russell & Sylvester Stallone made it an easy selection. I only have great memories of watching this along with Big Trouble In Little China & wouldn’t trade them for the world. Would love chance to read No Hero by Jonathon Wood thanks for sweepstakes & good luck to all!!!?

  19. Kim Akers

    And, if I remember correctly, you get to see their bare bottoms in the requisite prison shower scene with the appropriate “dropping the soap” comments. If I am not remembering correctly, perhaps it was just wishful thinking on my part! 🙂

  20. Karl Stenger

    I would love to read the book.

  21. Charles Fraker

    That’s a crazy movie–I hope the book is just as eff’ed up. Thanks for the giveaway!

  22. Jo Ann Hakola

    I have a copy of Tango and Cash that I still watch every now again. It’s one of my favorite movies. This story sounds like it could be a fun read. I’d love to win.

  23. Heather Martin

    A great buddy film-cop film, not so much. But, i would love to read anyone with this great sense of humor.

  24. Erin Hartshorn

    How is it that I have not added armor to my minivan yet?

    “What would Kurt Russell do?” is a great question.

  25. Michelle Brown

    Can’t wait to read! [b][u][color=#ee82ee]woo![/color][/u][/b]

  26. Janet Martin

    I did love the movie and this book sounds like a fun read!

  27. lekeisha thomas

    My Dad loved Tango and Cash! I’ve only watched it a few timesthough.

  28. Susan Meek

    What’s not to love about this movie! A Saturday afternoon kinda movie, one where you don’t (or shouldn’t) think too much about what is happening on screen. Just dissengage brain and enjoy!

  29. Linda Kish

    It’s been years since I’ve seen Tango and Cash. I love that movie. I’d love to win this book.

  30. Tracy Lech

    Very funny! We should all ask ourselves what would Kurt Russell do in situations, maybe we would think outside the box.

  31. le0pard13

    Nailed it! Can’t put it any other way for this absurdly wonderful cop flick.

  32. Andrew Kuligowski

    Kurt Russell?? Heck, I have always stopped to think “What Would WilliamWallace Do??”

  33. vicki wurgler

    I have not seen this movie-have to check it out

  34. susan beamon

    I liked Tango & Cash just because I like Kurt Russell. I don’t ask my movies to make lots of sense, because then I would be really disappointed and couldn’t watch more than two a year.

  35. Rosemary Krejsa

    So much time has gone by that I will need to watch the movie again. I just have very vague recollections. I really don’t remember much.

  36. Paulette Feeney

    I love Kurt Russell in anything!

  37. Crystal Blackburn

    I remember watching Tango & Cash when it first came out. It was fun.

  38. Tammy Stephens

    I love both the movie and the actors. I guess it’s time to pull it out and watch again…

  39. Lori P

    I was busy with other things when this movie came out and although I’d heard of the title, I’ve never actually seen it. Thanks for letting me know what I was missing! Plan to track it down and watch it sooner rather than later.

  40. Joyce Mitchell

    I love absurd – thanks for the chance to win.

  41. Sally

    After reading this, I must rewatch this movie. I remembered I loved Kurt Russell in it. And I look forward to reading No Hero, hope I win a copy.

  42. Chrystina Williams

    Haven’t watched it in years, guess I’ll have to rewatch! Thanks for the giveaway!

  43. kathy pease

    Great Giveaway! Thanks so much for the chance 🙂

  44. Daniel Vice

    This would be fun

  45. Randy Franco

    The prison escape by itself is a cinematic masterpiece.

  46. Lisa Pecora

    This sounds like a great read!

  47. Marie-Louise Molloy

    Oldie but goodie! Would love to add to my library!

  48. Cairine Stade

    I can remember seeing the movie but don’t remember what it was all about. Don’t those 2 guys look young!

  49. Susan Smoaks

    i love your giveaways, thanks for the chance to win!

  50. Carl White

    [b]LOL, I was thinking, poor Jonathan Wood, his book is being given away in a sweeps and this douche writer is using the space to make some inane case for a bad cop movie from 25 years ago.[/b]

    [b]I then scrolled back up to get the name of the douche and, oh, I guess Jonathan can use the space to write about whatever he likes, he is giving away his own book.[/b]

    [b]With that said, I can not say I remember anything about the movie, I did see it in the theatre, but I do remember being entertained. Its a silly cop movie, who cares one way or the other.[/b]

  51. Tim H. Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  52. Andrew Beck

    This film was a guilty pleasure that I would find myself re-watching every few years. I remember the over-the-top electric torture scene fairly early in the movie and how it redefined banter between two-wise crackin’ bromantic cops, especially in the face of “certain” death. Between the mutual insults, some indication of mutual affection. The first genuine on=screen bromance!

  53. Mallory Bailey

    I have always loved Tango and Cash and would love to win this book 🙂

  54. Wayne Lecoy

    I am entering your [url=http://www.criminalelement.com/features/series/crimes-against-film-worst-movies-lousy-terrible-films-awful-cinematic-disaster]Crimes Against Film[/url] | [url=http://www.criminalelement.com/features/series/sweepstakes]Sweepstakes![/url]
    It would be great to win a copy of
    [b]No Hero by Jonathan Wood.[/b]
    [b]This looks like an interesting book.[/b]
    [b]Thank you for having this giveaway!!!!!!!!!!!![/b]

  55. TMH

    Wow, this is bringing back great memories. Thanks so much for the chance to win it.

  56. Betty Curran

    What a great review. Now I have to watch it again.

  57. Justin Eger

    There’s something to be said for just about everything Kurt Russell did after changing his image with “Escape from New York” and going bad@$$ action hero. He’s a pro.

    I remember loving “Tango & Cash,” warts and all, because of how awesome Russell was, but also because Stallone really kind of went in the opposite direction from what he’d been doing in those years (compare Ray Tango to Marion Cobretti from “Cobra” if you need a refresher).

    Despite being a cliche-ridden action movie, it did enough unique things that it remains just an enjoyable romp.

  58. Daniel Morrell

    really liked that movie

  59. Jeffrey Raiffe

    I remember laughing when I watched “Tango and Cash” so I would certainly wanted to read this novel.

  60. Betsy Whitmarsh

    I don’t remember ever seeing this movie. Looking forward to it!

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