Updated: Dec 15, 2020
After many years, George McGhee delves into the cult action comedy Tango & Cash and uncovers a somewhat chaotic production.
In a nutshell: Rival top LA cops Ray Tango (Sylvester Stallone) and Gabe Cash (Kurt Russell) are set up by drug baron Yves Perret (Jack Palance) for a crime they didn’t commit. They are forced to team up to escape prison, prove their innocence and take down Perret.
In 1989, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber had a box office hit featuring Jack Palance as a villain and pop soundtrack. But enough about Batman, let’s talk about their other film released that year, Tango and Cash! All the key ingredients were there, A-List stars with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, an acclaimed director (Andrei Konchalovsky) and a Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun) So how could the resulting film end up as such a mess?
These days, the lovely internet continually feeds us news of another troubled Hollywood blockbuster. In the past few years, we’ve had Suicide Squad (2015), Fantastic Four (2015), Rogue One (2016), and Justice League (2017) have all suffered the dreaded term “ extended reshoots”. "Reshoots" or "Additional photography" are a standard process for most films, allowing some minor tweaks that weren’t captured during “Principal Photography”.
In the above cases, the reshoots were more drastic, going on for several weeks, with new directors or editors drafted in to dramatically change the plot or tone. Tango and Cash is also a victim of such a situation. Apparently, an ego-driven star (Stallone) and an erratic producer (Jon Peters) decided more than halfway through filming that the film (then called The Set Up) should be less gritty cop thriller and more comic book camp.
Original Director of Photography, Barry Sonnenfeld (director of The Addams Family and Men in Black films) was fired after just one week. Director Konchalovsky was slightly more successful, getting fired after three months of shooting. Original screenwriter Randy Feldman, would constantly find his words rewritten by Stallone and eventually found himself on "an extended vacation" after pushing back on Jon Peter's increasingly absurd ideas (Kurt Russell in drag was the final straw, apparently). So a new ending was hastily cobbled together with a new director (Albert Magnoli - Purple Rain) and new writer (Jeffrey Boam) working overnight between filming. Legendary editor Stuart Baird (Superman, Lethal Weapon) was also brought in to whip it the rest of the film into some sense.
Despite the changes, the seams are fairly evident. Nothing as obvious as changing facial hair (Henry Cavill’s CGI mouth in Justice League), but scenes are haphazardly mashed together without much thought. A lot of dialogue appears to have been re-recorded (known as ADR – additional dialogue replacement) making some scenes feel rushed as characters try to fill in the plot.
At first glance, it appears Stallone is playing against type, in a three-piece suit and glasses. Ray Tango is sophisticated, a stock market whizz and miles away from the shabby, slurred style of Rocky and Rambo. However, that’s just the first act. As soon as he’s wrongfully imprisoned, Stallone back in a vest, muscles bulging, diving from explosions.
Despite the costumes, he and Gabriel Cash are cut from the same cloth. They’re both arrogant and stubborn. They both work alone. As Cash states; “Bad cop, worse cop” As a rule 80’s buddy movies, usually have the characters at odds. 48 Hours (1982) teamed up a grumpy maverick cop with a smooth-talking criminal. Lethal Weapon (1987) paired a by-the-book family man with a suicidal loner. Tango and Cash just dress differently and one wants to sleep with the other's sister. The film would have been far more interesting (not to mention funnier) to have Stallone as a reluctant hero, pushed out his depth – something that was done effectively in the Will Ferrell comedy in The Other Guys (2015).
For the villains, Jack Palance turns in a reliably over the top performance as a drug baron who maps out his evil plans using mice. Bond villains have detailed 3D plans, Yves Perret has an elaborate mouse maze, whilst his minions look on baffled. At least Jack Nicholson’s Joker was on hand to take the piss out of Palance’s ramblings in Batman. On henchman duties is the usually reliable Brion James (Blade Runner, The Fifth Element). James decides the only way to stand out is to have a cockney accent that veers into Dick Van Dyke levels of accuracy.
Despite the film being messier than a plate of two-day-old spaghetti (to paraphrase a Tango one-liner) the film does succeed on its main aim – it is A LOT of fun. Russell brings the usual roguish charm that comes effortlessly to him. Even the reworked third act with its futuristic mini-van, mini-guns, monster trucks and a self destruct sequence offers some large scale thrills.
The 1980s was a great decade for action blockbusters, yet Tango and Cash feels like a missed opportunity. For an action-comedy, it delivers on the action but a lot of the intended laughs fall flat. This film has many fans and my inner 12-year self had a lot of fun rewatching it. I doubt many would argue it’s up there with the best of Stallone’s or Russell’s output. My advice, you’re better off watching Demolition Man (1993) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986) instead.
Alternative Title: Troubled and Confused
Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Patrick Swayze was set to play Gabriel Cash but eventually went and did Roadhouse (1989) instead - good move, Swayze!
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