Wedged between high profile box office hits Commando (1985) and Predator (1987), Raw Deal (1986) has become something of a forgotten movie in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. It was a gritty crime story made at a time when the action star could seemingly do no wrong with every movie doing well at the box office. Not so with Raw Deal, which barely made a profit in comparison to action movie rival Sylvester Stallone and his own crime movie Cobra (1986), which was a huge hit. Both were hyper-violent movies with a large body count, but Raw Deal was a little too generic, a little too formulaic despite Schwarzenegger’s trademark humor. Or maybe audiences couldn’t buy an Austrian bodybuilder infiltrating his way into the Italian mafia.
When a mob witness and the FBI agents protecting him are brutally murdered by an efficient team of mafia hitmen from the Patrovita family, Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin), the father of one of the men killed, seeks out an old friend, Mark Kaminsky (Arnold Schwarzenegger). He’s a disgraced ex-FBI agent now sheriff of a small town who spends his time catching speeders and arguing with his drunk wife (Blanche Baker). When she hurls a freshly baked cake (with the word, “shit” scrawled on it no less) at him, he merely dodges it and replies dryly, “You should not drink and bake,” in what is possible the worst line ever uttered in a Schwarzenegger movie. You have to give credit to the screenwriters – Gary DeVore and Norman Wexler – for actually trying to give Schwarzenegger’s character some semblance of a backstory and actual conflict in the form of marital strife.
Mark meets with Harry who tells him of his desire of revenge for his son’s death. He asks Mark to go undercover in the Patrovita organization and destroy it from within. In exchange, Harry will pull some strings to get Mark reinstated as an FBI agent. Putting up Schwarzenegger against an old pro like Darren McGavin was probably not a good idea as it only highlights his lack of acting skills. McGavin is quite good as the grieving father determined to take down Patrovita at any cost. So, Mark fakes his own death and Harry sets him up with a new identity – Joseph P. Brenner from Miami (?!) – and bankrolls the clandestine operation.
Mark goes about getting noticed by the Patrovita organization in typical Schwarzenegger fashion – by breaking up a crooked gambling operation run by a rival mob outfit led by Martin Lamanski (Steven Hill). There’s something almost comforting about the movie’s paint-by-numbers action sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of The A-Team and are filmed and edited so cleanly that we always know what’s going on as Mark busts some heads and then drives a truck into the joint.
Watching Arnold Schwarzenegger work a room in Raw Deal is amusing and fascinating because he walks so stiffly, like he’s an alien trying to act like a normal human being. Even his line deliveries are robotic in nature, but you have to give him an A for effort. He is obviously more comfortable in the action sequences where he gets to beat guys up while dispensing quips. And that is part of Schwarzenegger’s charm. Admittedly, there is something inherently silly about him managing to infiltrate the mob by merely slicking back his hair and wearing expensive suits, but let’s face it, with every one of his movies you have to suspend your sense of disbelief. However, Raw Deal’s premise pushes it perhaps too much – hence its disappointing box office returns. Audiences just weren’t buying him in this role.
The script clumsily attempts a romance between Mark and Monique (Kathryn Harrold), a beautiful gambler, that results in our hero passing out before he gets anywhere with her in bed. Of course, it’s all a ruse because Mark is still loyal to his wife and Monique is spying on him for Max Keller (Robert Davi), the right-hand man to Patrovita’s (Sam Wanamaker) top enforcer Paulo Rocca (Paul Shenar). Poor Kathryn Harrold is saddled with the thankless gangster moll role, but gets a bit of a backstory with Monique’s gambling problem and actually helps Mark out in a scene where a bunch of Lamanski’s goons try to work him over. She gets in a few shots instead of being a helpless damsel in distress. God bless her, Harrold gives it all she has and really sells the mundane dialogue as best she can.
The always interesting to watch Robert Davi shows up as a thug who puts on classy airs, but is supposed to be showing Mark the ropes even though he’d rather hang him by them. Davi is one of those guys that exudes an authentic tough guy vibe and he gives his scenes with Schwarzenegger a palpable sense of menace. Maybe I’ve seen him playing a good guy in too many episodes of Law & Order, but I just couldn’t buy Steven Hill as a rival mob boss. He looks too frail and out of place among the gangsters. He also doesn’t get much to do and the scenes he has are unconvincing.
Another problem with Raw Deal is that it doesn’t have a bad guy who provides a credible threat to Schwarzenegger’s character. Commando had a memorable villain in the crazed Bennett, played with over-the-top gusto by Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior), and Predator had a nearly invisible alien picking off the movie’s team of badass protagonists in deadly efficient fashion. In comparison, Raw Deal has Sam Wanamaker’s blustery mob boss who doesn’t do much but yell at his underlings and wastes Paul Shenar (Scarface) as an ineffectual right-hand man. I had hopes that Robert Davi would step up get a chance to go toe-to-toe with Schwarzenegger at the movie’s climax, but his character is dispatched partway through and his absence leaves a sizable void that is never filled.
Not surprisingly, Raw Deal was savaged by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film one-and-a-half stars and wrote, “It replaces absolutely everything – plot, dialogue, character, logic, sanity, plausibility, art, taste and style – with a fetish for nonstop action.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Though the language is vulgar, the macho posturing absurd and some of the plotting inscrutable, Raw Deal has a kind of seemliness to it.” The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “Actually, it’s the audience who needs the sympathy; Schwarzenegger seems faintly bemused but game for the script’s most howling excesses; he simply lowers his head and gets on with the action.” Finally, Gene Siskel gave the film one star and wrote, “How can you screw up an Arnold Schwarzenegger action picture? All you have to do is give the guy a gun and tell him to shoot.”
In some respects, Raw Deal is reminiscent of the television show Wiseguy, which also featured a cop going undercover to fight crime, only way more violent and not as well written or acted. What saves it from being a total waste of time is the perverse, dare I say cheeky, sense of humor occasionally at work, like when Mark casually takes out one of Patrovita’s gravel pits full of anonymous flunkies with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones blasting on the soundtrack. Naturally, the highlight of Raw Deal is its climax when Schwarzenegger goes into killing machine mode, transforming into a one-man-army as he take out a room full of on Patrovita’s men.
Raw Deal is one of those ‘80s action movies that you don’t have to think too hard about (or at all), but just enjoy it for what it is – a competently made genre piece with car chases and shoot-outs. And so this movie was considered a hiccup in an otherwise successful run of movies in the ‘80s for Schwarzenegger as he went on to make Predator and a string of other very successful efforts, continuing his cinematic competition with Stallone. Raw Deal tends to be a forgotten movie in Schwarzenegger’s career and watching it again only reinforces why this is the case.