An Action Canon is a new series focusing on the action movies that, for me, represent the best and most important entries in the genre. Each entry will look at what makes the film special, and how it fits into the overall history of action movies. Catch up withNo. 1 here, which focuses on RoboCop (1987).
Raw Deal was made at the height of the action movie rivalry between Schwarzenegger and Stallone. In 1986, Stallone had a $160 million smash with Cobra, which has been rewarded with cult status in recent years. Raw Deal was Arnold’s effort released a month later and got, well - a raw deal, barely making any money despite costing only $12 million to make. As a result, this minor classic very capably directed by John Irvin quickly fell into relative obscurity. On April 1, the movie will get another chance to impress, when it will be added to Netflix.
At first glance, Raw Deal looks like a typical ‘80s Schwarzenegger movie. In fact, it was the middle entry out of only three action films he made during the decade which doesn’t have a sci-fi or fantasy element. It also has a story by the writers of Sergio Leone westerns, shares its editor with Lawrence of Arabia, and features the immortal line “you should not drink and bake.” In a small way, its failure even helped its star become a Hollywood power player in the 1990s.
Crucially, Raw Deal is just a fun and very solidly made action film with all the squib-filled shootouts, car chases, explosions, and questionable fashion choices that are in such short supply today. It has no high-minded intentions or a universal message, but it does feature the biggest action star in the world driving a Buick through a quarry, taking out a score of bad guys with a submachine gun, and blasting “Satisfaction” by the Stones - which must count for something.
The movie opens with a very slick sequence of various mob hitmen assembling by train, car and helicopter while the wonderfully dated score by Chris Boardman plays. Together, the gangsters mount a raid on an FBI safehouse, wiping out the agents protecting an informant named Marcellino. “So you want to be a witness?”, the lead hitman asks the informant just before shooting him in the head in front of a mirror, “witness this.”
In a jarring shift in tone, the film then launches directly into a wild, Smokey and the Bandit-esque chase sequence in and around some backwoods country town. Oddly, a cop on a motorcycle is not chasing someone, but being chased - by none other than Schwarzenegger, who has a jeep and a nice lumberjack shirt. When Arnold tires of the game, he casually takes out his prey by getting ahead of him and making a wall of flame using gasoline and a lit stogie. As it turns out, Schwarzenegger is playing Mark Kaminski, a former hotshot FBI agent condemned to being a small-town sheriff, and the “cop” is just an impersonator looking to con local rubes.
While Kaminski is a big fish in the town’s small law enforcement pond, his home life is anything but happy. He comes home to find his wife Amy drunkenly over-decorating a cake, which she throws at him and prompts that immortal line. It becomes clear that Amy misses her life in New York, where Kaminski worked before he was forced out of the Bureau. Clearly, he needs a way back in - and soon receives just such an opportunity.
Kaminski is contacted by his old colleague Harry Shannon, who is played very well by the veteran actor Darren McGavin. Aptly enough given Kaminsky’s home life, they meet in the local marriage counselling office. Shannon explains that his son, Blair, was one of the FBI agents killed during the hit on Marcellino. He enlists Kaminsky into his private vendetta against Luigi Patrovita, the gangster Marcellino was preparing to testify against. Using Shannon’s $45,000 in savings, this small-town sheriff is to infiltrate Patrovita’s organisation in Chicago, and “tear it up from the inside”. Tempted by the promise of possible reinstatement into the FBI, Kaminsky accepts and Raw Deal begins in earnest.
When Kaminsky slicks back his hair, dons a swish ‘80s suit and begins acting suave, viewers may begin to wonder if Raw Deal might have been written with a star other than Schwarzenegger in mind. Clearly, the Styrian Oak is not the most subtle presence and infiltration is not usually his strong suit. This incongruous casting is actually one of the film’s strengths, though, because of how the script and John Irvin’s direction take advantage of it. For example, when Kaminsky needs to fake his death he does it a gloriously excessive way which does suit Arnold’s persona - he blows up an entire petrochemical storage yard.
As Kaminsky burrows his way into Patrovita’s organisation, Raw Deal benefits enormously from the wealth of acting talent in the cast. Sam Wanamaker is clearly enjoying himself as Patrovita, a mobster so stubborn that he schemes to steal a confiscated consignment of smack from the police by staging a bomb scare. Patrovita’s second in command is played by the excellent Paul Shenar, possibly best known for his role as Sosa in Scarface (1983) and his principal enforcer is played by the always watchable Robert Davi. Kathryn Harrold plays Monique, a very unusual female lead in an ‘80s action movie. She finds the mob repellent, but reluctantly works with them as a means of survival. She bonds with Kaminsky - in the guise of felon Joey P. Brenner - but their relationship ultimately becomes platonic. Her comic rapport with Schwarzenegger is one of the film’s secret weapons.
Another of those secret weapons is the surprisingly carefully constructed screenplay by Norman Wexler and Gary DeVore. The film is full of memorable lines, such as when Monique tells Davi’s character Max Keller that “the only way we’ll lie down together is if we’re run down by the same car.” The script also incorporates some subplots, such as the bomb scare heist, which aren’t actually critical to the main story but add welcome texture. In these and other respects, Raw Deal is a film which is oddly better than it should be, and better than it needs to be. The script, cast, and editing - the latter by Anne V. Coates, of Lawrence of Arabia fame - are all excellent and a cut above what would normally be needed in this kind of movie.
Raw Deal isn’t as wildly over the top as, say, Commando but the action is very well choreographed and shot. Schwarzenegger drives a truck through a gambling den, fends off a group of thugs in a women’s clothes store, and chases that cop impersonator through a lumber yard, all before the climax. Following the very entertaining quarry battle - in which Kaminsky narrowly survives an attempt to crush him between two huge excavators - the final climax is a nicely-staged shootout inside Patrovita’s lavish basement casino. Finally, our hero gets his final confrontation not only with the gangsters, but also with the slimy DA who drummed him out of the FBI in the first place. The schmaltzy final scene, which represents another jarring shift in tone, is the icing on the cake.
To be sure, Raw Deal isn’t one of Schwarzenegger’s best-ever movies. He made several better ones in the ‘80s alone - but it is a hugely underrated entry in his career. John Irvin made a film which easily outclasses your average actioner from that decade. The film’s wit, action, top-tier cast and sense of fun make it extremely watchable and it deserves a cult status which has become attached to films like Cobra but which has so far eluded Raw Deal. Hopefully, a wider audience for the film will help justice be done, and elevate Raw Deal to a higher position in the ‘80s action hall of fame.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.