There’s a moment in Raw Deal where the screenwriters flirt with any real thematic ideas. The FBI chief (Darren McGavin) asks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character–a sheriff playing a mole inside the Chicago mob–if he’s “Gonna stick?” to which Arnold replies that he likes the lifestyle and all the luxuries it provides him. It’s a cliche, but it’s a strong cliche that would have certainly added life to this stillborn film. The way Arnold delivers the line cues us in to how absurd and and nonsensical the whole thing is. He says the dialogue with a sly smile and this issue is never revisited. The whole film feels like an extension of this moment. There’s lip service paid to real ideas, only for them to dissipate like like a cloud of smoke.
Maybe I’m asking too much out of a vintage Schwarzenegger action flick at the height of his powers. This is the same era for which the equally silly Commando came out. That film fortunately acted like it gave a shit about the stakes that its characters faced.
This film, on the other hand, just hurls plot contrivance after plot contrivance, to the point where it felt like a skeleton for a better film. The story certainly lends itself to a better film. For the first three-fourths it’s a generic gangster flick with one of the most played out stories. Schwarzenegger plays Mark Kaminsky, a former FBI agent now turned sheriff. He was kicked out of the agency for brutally beating up a man who–and I’m quoting verbatim–”molested, murdered, and mutilated” an innocent victim. Hearing Schwarzenegger stumble around the line is just one of many unintentionally hilarious moments.
The aforementioned FBI chief’s son was murdered by the mob at the beginning of the film. The chief calls in Schwarzenegger (there’s no point bother calling him by his character’s name–he’s the real character) with a lucrative offer: infiltrate the mob and break it up and he’ll be reinstated to the FBI. Classic setup. Schwarzenegger happily agrees and fakes his own death in order to disappear.
Now here’s how stupid the film is. In order to fake his death, Schwarzenegger parks his car next to an oil refinery and sets it on fire, blowing the whole place up. As he drives off on a motorcycle, I kept wondering if he realized that the authorities will be looking for any remains, like bones or teeth. Doesn’t matter. Nor is it any real concern that he most likely cause thousands in damage to blowing up private property.
I normally don’t get too hung up on logic or moralizing, but it’s just a small glimpse of this film’s problems. It wants to feel gritty and street tough but comes off as silly. It wants to come off as smart, but instead turns into a confusing mess.
Now here’s where the plot gets convoluted. In order for Schwarzenegger to infiltrate the mob, he has to prove his loyalty by threatening a rival mob boss. It sounds simple on paper but in reality is hard to keep track of. Who was the mob boss and why was there a rival? More convolution follows. The mob that Schwarzenegger has infiltrated is trying to steal back a mountain of cash and cocaine. Schwarzenegger has to help them because for some reason he needs to keep undercover. Again, sounds simple on paper. But it’s played with no motivation or reason. I wrote in my notes “What does this have to do with the plot?”
To be truthful, most audiences will forgive a film for being stupid or unbelievable as long as the film is visceral or emotionally engaging. This film is neither, at least not until the last ten minutes where it becomes an all out action pic. But before this the filmmakers can’t decide if it’s a gritty gangster flick or a nonsensical shoot-em-up. I wonder how much of the action elements were in the original script or whether the elements added were to accommodate Schwarzenegger. He no doubt influenced the campy ending where he motivates the FBI captain who’s been paralyzed to get up and walk. Or the unintentional hilarious scene where Schwarzenegger’s wife is baking a chocolate cake. Arnold looks at the cake and remarks that it will make them fat. Perhaps he was making a case for his for his future position as chairman for the President’s Council on Fitness during the George H. W. Bush administration
This film would make for an interesting double billing with Inherent Vice. Both require turning off your brain to some extent in order to enjoy the confusion. However, where Paul Thomas Anderson used confusion to create atmosphere, this film comes off as bad screenwriting. Again, I wonder how much if this was the result of forced screenwriters. Whatever the case, Raymond Carver this is not.
As great as that double feature would be, the more conventional approach is pairing it with Commando. Both are corny and terrible, and yet deliver everything fans expect from the genre. It’s a shame they expect so little out of these films. It’s the same reason I marvel at fans of superhero films and how much they’re willing go along with absolute bottom of the barrel film making.
With all this said, as much of a terrible film that Raw Deal is, it’s definitely entertaining in a way only 80s action films can be. It falls into the sweet spot area of being bad enough that it’s funny. That’s something both to praise and lament.