Tango & Cash Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie
by Erik Amaya
Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Tango & Cash
As we often note in this column, rip-offs lead to satisfying cheesy movies. And after the wave of Star Wars and Conan knock-offs crested in the mid-1980s, Lethal Weapon refueled the rip-off industry with an new genre: the buddy cop flick. Some live on as notorious no-budget productions like Samurai Cop. Others were big budget productions with full studio backing which nonetheless faded into obscurity, like this weekend’s cheesy movie, Tango & Cash.
That both films feature Robert Z’Dar is the sort of kismet which could make one believe in some sort of divine intelligence.
The plot concerns LAPD detectives Raymond Tango (Sylvester Stallone) and Gabriel Cash (Kurt Russell). Both are very much cowboy cops who do not play by the rules, but get results. Tango works out of the West Side Division, where he wears Armani suits and consults his stock broker. Cash works at Central, where his rough-and-tumble manner earns him plenty of friends on the force and a surprising amount of leeway from his captain. Tango’s captain, Schroeder (an uncredited Geoffrey Lewis), also gives him plenty of rope, as seen in the desert car chase which opens the film. But Tango always uses that rope to save himself. In that chase, for example, he proves a tanker ostensibly filled with gasoline is filled with cocaine. A laughing Tango asks the assembled law enforcement if “anyone want to get high?” as cocaine distributor Yves Perret (Jack Palance) looks on from a nearby limo. As it turns out, both Tango and Cash have made it very difficult for him and his fellow crime bosses to do business in Los Angeles.
Perret devises a plan to discredit the pair as dirty, Vic Mackie types and put them behind bars where they can be killed by one of the many men they put into the slammer. The frame job puts the two together for the first time, where they quickly establish a quippy but adversarial rapport. And when they are arrested for allegedly shooting an undercover FBI agent, they get to know one another really well.
Soon, they find themselves transferred from the minimum security facility guaranteed by the plea agreement to a maximum security prison where Tango runs into Face (Z’Dar), the man driving cocaine truck from earlier in the film. The pair get tooled up by some inmates and Perret finally reveals himself to Tango and Cash. It turns out to be a tactical mistake as the duo never knew Perret even existed. But coming face-to-face with their opponent renews Cash and he devises a prison break. Tango reluctantly joins him. Once they make good on their escape, they plan to investigate the particulars of the frame up and the various people Perret leveraged to make it happen.
And if this sounds like a bog standard buddy cop plot, that’s the skeleton supporting the film’s actual charm: its wildly inconsistent tone.
Producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber (making their Weekend Cheesy Movie debuts) wanted a Lethal Weapon of their own, hiring Stallone and Patrick Swayze to star; who would soon drop out and be replaced with Russell. Director Andrei Konchalovsky was hired on the strength of his previous film, Runaway Train — marking a Cannon connection here as it was produced by our old pals Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. That film was well received, earning Jon Voight and Eric Roberts Academy Award nominations, but Konchalovsky’s more serious style immediately proved a problem for Peters, who wanted Tango & Cash to veer even further into comedy than Lethal Weapon. According to reports from the crew, Peters wanted it to go as far as parody in some scenes, like the hilariously over-the-top final assault on Perret’s compound; which apparently led to Peters firing Konchalovsky.
As a result, the film is constantly at war with itself. The action scenes would be right at home in a Lethal Weapon picture, while big swathes of Tango and Cash’s interactions feel like their trying out for Mystery Science Theater 3000; attempting to out-quip one another as their situation becomes more and more ludicrous. One sequence features the pair listing off a series of unfunny punchlines. But then a magic trick occurs and the whole sequence becomes hysterical from its wild pandering. It’s not the funny Peters actually wanted and it’s definitely nowhere near what Konchalovsky wanted for the film.
For their parts, Stallone and Russell make for a winning double act when left to their own devices. Outside of the quip marathons, the two build up a nice little comedic edge; particularly when Cash finds himself attracted to Tango’s sister Kiki (Teri Hatcher). If the film had built more on their interactions and less on overblown set pieces or quipping, the movie may have found a legit cult status in the last 30 years. Instead, the pair appear on screen together infrequently and many of those scenes feature extra lines recorded in ADR to maximize joke volume or explain a plot point lost in the many, many edits of the film.
Meanwhile, all of the film’s villains know exactly how to pitch their performances. Jack Palance, Brion James, James Hong, and Z’Dar ham it up proper. Palance, in particular, seems to be prepping for Batman in this picture as cackling mob boss Perret. In comparison, Hong is positively subdued, but still offers a reasonable villain in his few scenes. Z’Dar turns in the shoutiest performance we’ve ever seen from him and James turned his two-bit goon into a (terrible) Cockney impression which earned him 14 weeks on the picture and a place in my heart. The performance must have tickled Peters and left Konchalovsky flabbergasted.
In fact, all of the antagonists performances look dreadfully out of place in the more serious film Konchalovsky was trying to create, but it only aids the cheese factor in the finished film. Re-edited by Superman‘s Stuart Baird after a number of versions were rejected by the studio, the film tries its best to maintain the Lethal Weapon vibe. Alas, with outsized performances and a number of silly explosions, the film ends up looking like it understands all the constituent parts of a buddy cop movie, but not how the pieces fit together. The end result is a big budget cheese fest with a rich production history much funnier than the film itself. Nonetheless, its two main leads keep the whole thing enjoyable.
Tango & Cash is available to rent from the usual streaming platforms. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray in a number of four-pack releases with other Stallone films like Cobra and The Specialist.