So Bad It’s Good: The Proudly Formulaic, Brazenly Homoerotic ‘Tango & Cash’

Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you the latest installment in our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: the greased-up ‘80s buddy cop epic Tango & Cash.

Tango & Cash turns 25 years old next month, which means if it were a person, it’d be right around the right age to start realizing what a stupid movie Tango & Cash is. Your film editor, on the other hand, saw T&C under exactly the right circumstances: I was a 14-year-old boy, and if ever there were a film crafted explicitly for that target audience, this is it. Revisiting the film for this feature, I was instantly transported to that mindset by the very first thing that happens, as the Warner Brothers logo fades: Stallone’s voice intoning, “All right, let’s do it,” followed by a burst of the distinctive synthesizer sounds of Mr. Harold Faltermeyer (composer for the Beverly Hills Cop movies, the Fletch movies, Top Gun, and The Running Man). At 14 years old, I thought this was the coolest fucking way to open your movie. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert was less enthusiastic: “Since Stallone was speaking in his own voice about the movie, the pretitle statement was a clue that the movie was not about the characters, but about itself. About the deal. About Stallone the loner making his first buddy movie.”

From this vantage point, I suspect Ebert’s impression may have been a bit more accurate. On the surface, everything about Tango & Cash feels painstakingly calculated and focus-grouped, crafted for maximum familiarity and impact; it plays like the culmination of the careful cross of familiarity and safe bets that defined that decade (and, by extension, the current one) in moviemaking. In an interview with Ebert a year and a half before its release, Stallone described the forthcoming Tango as “something more like 48 Hours” — an accurate assessment, as that 1982 Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte picture spawned the seemingly endless and inescapable crop of ‘80s buddy-cop action comedies.

Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone in "Tango & Cash"

But Stallone was also attempting to glance further back than Tango’s more obvious inspiration: Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon, which had made a mint back in 1986 and had topped those grosses with its sequel earlier in ’89. As with Weapon, both of the protagonists of Tango are cops; as with seemingly every ‘80s buddy movie, they’re a carefully contrived odd couple. Russell’s Lt. Gabriel (Gabriel?!) Cash is a rough-and-tumble type who sports a feathered mullet and a wardrobe of cowboy boots, jeans, and Flashdance-style ripped sweatshirts; Stallone’s Ray Tango is an independently wealthy investor (he keeps the day job because he likes “the action”) clad in impeccably tailored suits and designer specs.

Yes, Tango & Cash was made in the midst of Sly’s “glasses phase,” when he attempted to rehabilitate his image as (in his words) “a monosyllabic slice of chuck roast” by giving interviews where used words like “monosyllabic” and appeared in public wearing glasses a lot, since that makes you look smart. (I think we all suspected that there may not have been lenses in them.) He also seems to think that inside jokes are the height of wit, so Tango & Cash features him taking jabs at not only himself (when another character notes that Tango “thinks he’s Rambo,” Stallone responds, “Rambo is a pussy”) but also box-office rival Arnold Schwarzenegger (he tells a growling jailhouse pituitary case, “I loved you in Conan the Barbarian”).

There is a plot, I guess, though running it down is a bit of a fool’s errand. Our titular heroes are LA’s two best cops, crosstown rivals perpetually battling for headlines — there are a lot of headlines in this movie — while putting the skids on the dirty drug dealings of super-villain Yves Peret (Jack Palance, who, The Dissolve’s Nathan Rabin notes, “delivers all his lines as if he’s in the midst of a powerful orgasm”). Peret decides the best way to get the pair out of his way is to frame them for a murder and send them to prison, where he’ll presumably have them killed. He illustrates all of this with the help of two mice, each named after our heroes, which he places in a giant, complicated maze after taking long, strange sniffs of each of them. (Presumably, based on both Palance’s behavior and the film itself, they’re each soaked in cocaine.)

The film leans so heavily on the recurring images of newspaper headlines to walk us through their trial that the publication may as well be called The Daily Exposition. At any rate, once the trial is over, they’re sent off to a prison that seems perpetually rioting and ablaze, which is of little consequence to the guards, who have been paid off by Peret to let all of the perps these super-cops put away have a go at Tango and Cash. Oh, and they also let not only the villain come watch, but his main henchman, played by character actor Brion James, who sports the most horrifying Cockney accent you’ve ever heard in a movie. (Russell refers to him as “this limey immigrant,” which is a nicely jingoistic complement to the film’s wacky Soviet Union gags.) Tango and Cash very nearly manage to fight the entire prison of hardened criminals — who, in true ‘80s action form, politely wait their turns — before they’re barely rescued by the assistant warden; he proclaims, “The way I see it, you only got one choice: escape.” Sensible!

Once they escape that prison (complete with slow-motion jumps) they separate, with Tango sending Cash to “Kiki” (Teri Hatcher), whom we’ve met in an earlier scene painstakingly written to make her seem like his disgruntled girlfriend, when she is in fact his disgruntled sister. (Twist!) She is a dancer, working in one of those only-in-the-movies strip clubs where dancers don’t actually take off their clothes, which the assembled bikers and drunks greet with respectful cheers and applause. (See also: Sin City, I Know Who Killed Me.) She also plays drums during her act, like some kind of WASP Sheila E., but this is all on her way to her real function in the film: secondarily a potential love interest for Cash, she’s mostly useful as a hostage during the climax.

This is the function most women perform in ‘80s action movies, which are far more concerned with the dynamics between their male protagonists. What remains striking about these movies, from our two-plus decade vantage point, is the incongruity between the explicit homophobia of the era and its culture, and the implicit homoeroticism of the films themselves.

Still image from "Tango & Cash"

T&C is an even “gayer” movie than our previous champ, Road House; it opens with a scene where a screaming state trooper bellows at Tango, “I WANT YOUR ASS!,” has our two heroes first face off with guns in each other’s crotches (it doesn’t exactly take Freud to connect those dots), includes a scene where Tango tells Cash, “If you don’t wanna get sticky, get back,” and even goes so far as to put Cash in a dress. (Due respect: nice gams on Russell.) But all those little asides pale next to the film’s legendary hubba-hubba shower scene, in which our heroes plot their next move shortly after arriving in prison by taking a steamy shower together, culminating in Tango doing a double-take after Cash lowers himself out of the frame, followed by this exchange:

TANGO: What are you doing?

CASH: (Reappearing, soap in hand) Relax. Soap. Don’t flatter yourself… (looks down) Pee-Wee.

This happened in a major studio action movie in 1989, you guys.

A moment like that, and countless others in T&C, can only been shrugged off with, “Well, it was the ‘80s.” Tango was something of a troubled production, with director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) replaced, for reshoots, by Albert Magnoli (Purple Rain). But such replacements and rewrites probably aren’t to blame for the picture’s general incoherence, which culminates in the era’s required storm-the-compound climax, where everything is on fire and Palance’s warehouse is inexplicably wired with a self-destruct system. Nothing makes a helluva lot of sense in Tango & Cash, but you don’t get much of an impression that anyone was concerned with such matters as logic — when you’ve got Stallone and Russell in a buddy movie, you can probably put in a bunch of oddball touches and gay subtext without anybody paying much mind, so long as they’re surrounded by the requisite number of building explosions and wacky one-liners. It’s a stunningly dumb picture, sure. But you have to give it this: it sure as hell isn’t boring.

Tango & Cash is available for rental or purchase at Amazon. Thanks to fellow bad movie watchers Mac and Brenda Welch, Amber Malott, Meridith Jones, Marni Chan, Tom Wallach, Alyse Shorland, and Kyle Bruno.