1.5 out of 5 stars

Following Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rise to superstardom with The Terminator (1984), there remained some contractual dregs for him to fulfil with producer Dino De Laurentiis, who’d brought the Austrian bodybuilder to mainstream attention with Conan the Barbarian (1982) and had signed him to a multiple-picture deal for sequels. Schwarzenegger honoured this by appearing in the loose Conan follow-up Red Sonja (1985) but wriggled free of doing more by instead agreeing to make Raw Deal for De Laurentiis, which cashed in on the success of the previous year’s Commando (1985).

Raw Deal is one of the least popular movies from Schwarzenegger’s heyday (often confused with the similarly bland-sounding Red Heat), and a rare flop at the box office after only grossing $16M from a $10M budget. It hasn’t been reappraised in the decades since its release and remains a generic action film, partly inspired by the Italian poliziotteschi genre (no doubt thanks to Sergio Leoni’s writers Lucia Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati’s involvement with the story), which struggled to meld a plot-heavy narrative with the more simpleminded one-man-army Commando style that suited Schwarzenegger’s on-screen persona and limitations as an actor.

Mark Kaminski (Schwarzenegger) is the sheriff of a small town and a former FBI agent fired for brutally beating a man who sexually assaulted and murdered a young girl. He lives with his alcoholic wife Amy (“you should not drink and bake”) who’s having a tough time adjusting to their change in circumstances, but gets a chance to return to his former life when FBI agent and close friend Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin) asks Kaminski to infiltrate a mafia outfit and dismantle their operation after they killed his son who was protecting some mob informants. So it’s not long before Kaminski fakes his own death to assume the new identity of felon Joseph P. Brenner, then endears himself to mob boss Luigi “Lou” Patrovita (Sam Wanamaker) by harassing his rival Martin “The Hammer” Lamanski (Steven Hill).

Raw Deal isn’t a particularly good movie, but it’s also a bad vehicle for Schwarzenegger. It doesn’t feel designed for his talents as a performer, particularly at this early stage when he was best known for playing a monosyllabic barbarian and a cyborg. It wasn’t even a serious attempt to evolve and do something more complex as an actor, as Schwarzenegger merely saw it as a means to avoid doing more Conan films at the time, so he sleepwalks through a rather languorous narrative that’s difficult for him to inject any charisma into.

Despite being partly inspired by Commando, there’s a lack of simplicity to Raw Deal and that works against it every step of the way because you quickly lose patience with the steady crime drama tone and mix of middle-aged men in suits and moustaches going through all the 1980s cliches of nasty criminals. If there was a decent action sequence every quarter-hour, things may have been different, but director John Irvin (The Dogs of War) fails to find enough inventive ways for Schwarzenegger to tear up the screen. There’s some enjoyable use of practical squibs whenever bodies are rattled with bullets, as was typical of the era, but not enough moments stand out as anything special. Even when the climax arrives and Schwarzenegger has tooled up in Commando fashion, shrugging on a Terminator-style leather jacket for good measure, the type of crazy mayhem you expect doesn’t really come. And it’s more puzzlingly devoid of any black comedy or signature kiss-off lines from Schwarzenegger, which were a big part of what made Commando so entertaining.

There are some interesting choices along the way, like how Kaminski avoids getting into a sexual relationship with gangster’s moll Monique (Kathryn Harrold), apparently because Schwarzenegger didn’t want his character to cheat on his wife and instead display higher morals. And this reminds us of how asexual Schwarzenegger is in all his roles, as he’s clearly always been aware that’s not where his strength lies as a performer. Even in True Lies (1994), which utilises sexual chemistry more than any other role Schwarzenegger had, the sexiest scene finds him sitting passively in silhouette watching his screen wife Jamie Lee Curtis perform an awkward striptease for him.

Sam Wanamaker makes for a decent enough mobster, but these films need someone of equivalent charisma to stand a chance of being forgotten about when Schwarzenegger’s around. Faring better is Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker) as Harry, who delivers moments of emotion beyond what Raw Deal deserves, and it’s always fun to see genre legend Robert Davi adding another Italian-American scumbag to his extensive resume.

Ultimately, Raw Deal suffers from Schwarzenegger being badly miscast in the lead. The screenplay was clearly not designed for someone like him (the worst possible choice to infiltrate the mafia without arousing suspicion), and director John Irvin struggles to find ways to make the story work more in the vein of Commando, resulting in an unappealing mish-mash. Schwarzenegger could have done better in the same role perhaps a decade later, but in 1985 he was more noticeably wooden and unable to play into the playfully self-mocking tone he’d develop as the ’80s wore on.


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4K Ultra HD Special Features:

StudioCanal has been on a crusade to bring the lower-tier Schwarzenegger movies to 4K Ultra HD disc, following Red Heat and Red Sonja, with Raw Deal next up for a restoration beyond its value as a piece of cinema. The original 35mm elements were scanned in 4K 16-bit and any scratches and damage were removed frame by frame before it was colour-graded by VDM Laboratory in France. The result is great for a movie of this budget and era, although chances are you won’t fully appreciate it unless memories of the fuzzy VHS are fresh in your mind. The existing Blu-ray wasn’t that much worse either. However, there is inconsistent lighting between some scenes and flesh tones are a little off sometimes.

The release also comes with new artwork by Flore Maquin which makes the film look considerably more exciting and iconic than it is.

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Man Who Raises Hollywood. If you have the Red Sonja 4K disc, here’s the same featurette.
  • Raw Deal: A Generic Gangster Movie. Dave Saunders talks about the film and Schwarzenegger with refreshing candour.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer.
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Cast & Crew

director: John Irvin.
writer: Gary DeVore & Norman Wexler (story by Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Donati).
starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathryn Harrold, Darren McGavin, Sam Wanamaker, Paul Shenar, Steven Hill & Ed Lauter.