Some movies are so bad, they’re good. Some are so bad they transcend quality ratings and become a cinematic fever dream. And then there is Tango and Cash, the sort of movie that sort of explains masochism—you enjoy the pain it delivers, you enjoy it even more when it stops, but then you kind of miss it, so you do it again.
The story involves two of Los Angeles’ best narcotics cops—Ray Tango and Gabriel Cash. Tango is a slick investment banker type who fights crime because he enjoys the action. Cash is a rowdy, screw-the-rules sort of maverick who isn’t afraid of busting the right heads to get the job done. Each can’t stand the other because they’re both rivals for the title of LA’s top cop, but collectively, they have wrought immense damage on the criminal empire of local kingpin Yves Perret. Perret decides to frame the two of them for murder to get them out of his hair for good. But what he doesn’t anticipate is that by forcing these guys to work together, he’s creating a crime-fighting juggernaut that cannot be held in prison, cannot written off, and cannot be stopped, no matter how big your army of goons might be. Tango and Cash aren’t just supercops, they’re 1980s supercops who are acting like they’re already in their own sequel, dammit! There ain’t no stopping that.
Released on December 22, 1989, Tango and Cash is officially the last movie to come out in the 1980s, which is just perfect, because this thing is the ultimate distillation of everything that 80s action cinema came to represent. Cool guns, drenched in testosterone, villainous foreigners, cheesy one-liners, a scene in a strip club, exotic guns, a prison break, a courtroom scene where the good guys say the court is out of order, weird gadgets, iconic guns, ear-shredding synthopop soundtrack, a bad guy base rigged to self-destruct, a final act complete with escalating mini-bosses, buddy cops, martial arts, guns that didn’t even exist yet, and a massive high-five as the final shot of the movie. Originally Tango and Cash was called The Set Up, but it seems unlikely that at some point it wasn’t also called Awesome Magnum Revenge: Attack of the Superdudes.
What really makes this one stand out is the pairing of two of the era’s biggest action stars of the time—Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. Back then, gathering this kind of box office firepower was unheard of, especially in the realm of 80s action movies, which were always meant to showcase a single star. Hell, it even brings in James Hong, Brion James and Jack Palance all as bad guys, which for the time was kind of like assembling the League of Golan-Globus Supervillains for a single movie. It’s overkill, but if Tango and Cash is about just one thing, it is overkill. From start to finish, there is not a single subtle moment, for how could there possibly be one? Just by being made, the movie creates an insane level of expectations based on what audiences have already come to anticipate from movies like this and stars like these. On a certain level, the movie knows it and aim to satisfy exactly that. It’s like it decided to make a cake covered icing flowers the size of your fist because that’s the part everybody fights over, even though it kills you. Restraint is for suckers from another decade.
As Tango and Cash manages to incorporate every single 80s action trope into a meta-pastiche that seriously has never been equaled and probably never will be, there arises a kind of zen quality to the whole thing. Somewhere between Tango questioning Rambo’s manliness, Cash shooting a gun out of the bottom of his cowboy boot, and our villain Perret actually watching two mice run around in a maze as he plots against our heroes, we realize this movie isn’t a ripoff so much as it is a send-up. It’s a send-up with love and very much knowing that it’s part of what it’s lampooning, but it’s a send-up all the same. Somebody, somewhere decided they were going to sign off from the Greatest Decade Ever with a movie that places a bow on top of 10 years of cocaine-fueled cinematic insanity, but couldn’t resist getting in on the fun, either. You finish watching Tango and Cash and as the ending soundtrack performs one more round of body shots on your sense of dignity, you think, was this whole thing a big joke played on me or played on Hollywood itself? The answer is yes.
Finding a moment of truth in something like this is akin to plowing through a party-sized bag of Doritos in search of finding the best one only to realize that a) they’re all the same and b) you just ate a pound and a half of Doritos, and you’re not even a little bit sorry. But if there must be a single moment that distills a movie that itself distills so many other movies, is it the naked shower scene that Sly and Russell play so straight it’s the gayest moment of the decade? Is it watching Teri Hatcher perform the goofiest strip club in the history of Los Angeles? Is it watching Jack Palance chew his lines so much he should wipe his mouth every time he finishes speaking? No, it’s when Tango and Cash storm Perret’s compound in an armored minivan complete with miniguns because they know that Perret’s got pickup trucks in there with M60s on the hood, and monster trucks mounted with racks of rocket launchers. By that point, you think, well, why wouldn’t there be monster trucks with rocket launchers? This is Tango and Cash, right? Before the movie even ends, it becomes its own genre and its own cliché at the same time. That sort of real-time recursion should be impossible. Just…not for Tango and Cash. They don’t know the meaning of the word.