Home > Reviews > RED HEAT – James Horner

RED HEAT – James Horner

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The action comedy buddy-cop movie reached new heights in the summer of 1988 with the release of Red Heat, which was a vehicle for the increasing box office power of action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this film directed by Walter Hill, Schwarzenegger plays Ivan Danko, a captain in the Moscow police, whose partner is killed by drug dealer and crime boss Rostavili (Ed O’Ross). Rostavili flees to the United States and disappears into the Chicago underworld; he is arrested by local cop Art Ridzik (Jim Belushi) in connection with several murders, and Danko arrives from Moscow to oversee his extradition back to the Soviet Union. However, when Rostavili escapes again, Danko and Ridzik are paired with each other as partners and tasked with catching him again and bringing him to justice. In addition to the usual fight scenes where Schwarzenegger was able to show off his impressive physique, Red Heat was interesting because of its Cold War overtones. In 1988 the Berlin Wall was still up, the Soviet Union was still a world superpower, and the idea of pairing a traditional wise-cracking donut-munching beat cop with a stoic, by-the-book Soviet detective allowed the filmmakers to use them as a microcosm to explore the political tensions of the era, as well as to inject some fish-out-of-water social commentary as Danko observes and criticizes American consumerism and decadence from a communist point of view.

The score for Red Heat was by the great James Horner, and was written towards the tail end of what many call his ‘experimental electronic’ period. Red Heat belongs to the group of scores which polarizes his fans the most, and includes titles such as 48 HRS, The Name of the Rose, Another 48 HRS., Commando, and Thunderheart. These scores blended aggressive, sometimes quite harsh electronic sounds and action rhythms with unusual combinations of acoustic instruments, including saxophones, guitars, steel drums, and other metallic percussion, in a style which Horner himself called ‘fusion jazz’. It’s an acquired taste and, for many years, I did not acquire it. The peculiar collisions of sounds, the relentlessly belligerent style, and the general lack of traditional orchestral emotional content made the music a tough pill to swallow, but over the years I have warmed up to the sound, and these days I consider it to be an interesting sub-genre within Horner’s filmography that is worthy of exploration.

Interestingly, the score for Red Heat is bookended by two clear-as-day interpolations of a classical piece, Sergei Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, specifically its second movement, ‘Philosophers’. Although it was written in 1936 it was intensely disliked by the Soviet leadership of the time, and did not receive its world performance premiere until 1966, thirteen years after Prokofiev’s death. Although the music is un-credited in the film it is clearly this piece – how many classical cantatas feature a choir chanting the word ‘philosophy’ over and over? – and I wonder whether Horner’s decision to use of this piece was an intentional commentary on the film and its themes, considering that Prokofiev was accused of desecrating old Russian folk tunes and poetic texts by setting them against and incorporating them within modernistic 20th century music. Either way, the inclusion of the cantata in the “Main Title” and the “End Credits” gives the score a unique flavor.

Beyond these two explosions of orchestral and choral grandeur, the rest of the music in Red Heat is much more challenging, combining modern synthesizer textures with a small orchestra that focuses mostly on strings and brass, live percussion that ranges from snares and lightly tapped cymbals to tolling bells, and a small number of ethnic instruments including balalaika, cimbalom, accordion, and even pan pipes. “Russian Streets” is a great example of Horner’s unique approach to the score, as it blends all these disparate elements together underneath some thrilling rhythmic pulses, adding energy and tension to Danko’s relentless pursuit of Rostavili through the Soviet capital.

This contrasts greatly with the psychotic jazz of the “Cleanhead Bust,” a wild combination of screaming saxophones, funk guitars, keyboards, and electronic synthesizer tones that couldn’t be more 1980s if they were wearing shoulder pads and leg warmers. This anarchic music represents Ridzik and the Chicago PD, and is clearly intended to stand in counterpoint to the more ordered and slightly militaristic sounds that accompany Danko in Russia; it’s a free-wheeling, free-association jam session that is at times wildly entertaining, although it does tend to lose me when the rhythmic core melts away and all we are left with is a honking sax that sounds like the death throes of an injured goose. Having said that, even here in these desperately weird moments you can clearly hear Horner’s influence and voice: the crashing pianos that come in at the 3:12 mark were something he used frequently throughout his career.

“Victor Escapes” is dark and dangerous, but at times deeply unpleasant, and sees Horner using brutal synth chords, clattering percussion, the Russian ethnic instruments, and the breathy pan pipes to add a level of menace to Rostavili’s persona; the rhythmic constructions in the second half of the cue are very reminiscent of the music Horner wrote for Commando in 1985. The first few moments of “Tailing Kat/The Set-Up” are just peculiar, as they see Horner taking the jazz-funk saxophones and guitars, and the 1980s percussion, and blending them with the drawl of a slide guitar, which gives the music an unexpected western vibe. As the cue develops it again picks up the Commando-esque percussion rhythms, and at one point features an especially notable duet for cimbalom and saxophone – Danko and Ridzik working together – before the eerie Rostavili synth motif takes over and makes things ominous again.

Both “Hospital Chase” and “The Hotel” are action set pieces, albeit somewhat messy ones, which are built mostly around variations on the growling Rostavili synth motif accompanied by pan pipes, chaotic metallic and wooden percussion, and Horner’s wonderfully unique, instantly recognizable crashing pianos. The sampled vocal textures towards the end of the first cue are a clear throwback to The Name of the Rose, while the explosion of rhythmic consonance towards the end of the second cue gives it all a much needed kick of kinetic energy. It’s in cues like these where Horner’s music is at its most challenging; it’s entirely textural, and at times quite abstract, with no melody to latch onto. Your level of appreciation for this music will depend entirely on your capacity to tolerate extended sequences of little more than synth pulses and pan pipe bursts which at times can verge on the annoying. I have a slight advantage in terms of this music because this is Horner, and I often find myself noting and acknowledging certain textures and certain rhythmic ideas that he used in other scores – I find that sort of stuff interesting. If you don’t, then significant portions of this are likely to be completely excruciating.

The 9-minute finale of the score is “Bus Station,” and in this cue Horner brings everything together – Danko’s intense rhythmic ideas, Ridzik’s freestyle jazz, Rostavili’s synth motif, the multitude of specialty instruments – and gradually turns up the intensity over the course of the cue, as the two dogged police officers (who have now grudgingly learned to respect each other) close in on the drug-dealing gangster for the last time. There’s some very interesting instrumental combination writing in the cue, some of it featuring especially notable passages for cimbalom, pan pipes, and piano, but the crushing synth chords sometimes mar it – I prefer these pieces to be cleaner and more streamlined, and the repeated dissonant interjections from the electronics sometimes get in the way. The last four minutes or so of the cue feature some especially robust and propulsive action writing, again with the rhythmic ideas culled from Commando, augmented by tolling bells that give it a sense of destiny. It’s actually quite thrilling, and is among the most impressive examples of this type of writing in Horner’s career.

In the end, as I mentioned, your appreciation for Red Heat will rest entirely on your capacity to tolerate Horner at his most unusual, his most modern, and his most aggressive. There are no sweeping love themes here, and no moments of orchestral beauty beyond the opening and closing references to Prokofiev’s Cantata. It took me a long time to glean any enjoyment out of this score, because the screaming jazz, the abstract synths, the contemporary rhythmic writing, and the total lack of a melodic core was completely removed from everything that brought me to Horner’s music in the first place. However, in recent years I have found myself becoming more fascinated with this aspect of Horner’s musical personality, and while I still don’t especially like it per se, I can at least appreciate what Horner was trying to do, thinking outside the box, and defying expectations of what his music sounds like and what he is capable of writing. As such it comes recommended for anyone with a desire to dip into the stranger corners of Horner’s career, if you can find a copy for a decent price.

Buy the Red Heat soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:01)
  • Russian Streets (1:36)
  • Cleanhead Bust (4:17)
  • Victor Escapes (2:54)
  • Tailing Kat/The Set-Up (7:56)
  • Hospital Chase (4:31)
  • The Hotel (6:21)
  • Bus Station (9:34)
  • End Credits (4:04)

Running Time: 44 minutes 16 seconds

Virgin Movie Records 90989-2 (1988)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Nancy Fogarty. Album produced by James Horner.

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