Released in between Commando (1985) and Predator (1987), John Irvin’s more understated Raw Deal (1986) looks and feels like a forgotten ’80s Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, which it is. Following the films that turned Arnold into a global superstar—Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Terminator (1984), especially—Raw Deal seems like a thoroughly pedestrian crime film, the type of narrative that would be more likely to find itself in an hour-long episodic format in the decades to come. But beneath the surface the film is much more grandiose and cynical than at first meets the eye.
Arnold is an FBI agent who is kicked out of the bureau, only to become a small-town sheriff. He is then enlisted by his previous employer in an off-the-books revenge mission to get his job back: going undercover with the mob. It doesn’t read like the type of role for which Arnold would be best suited, having just come off of films that prominently utilize his muscular build, but this is not quite the routine crime film it was advertised to be. With a four-person writing team, including Italian scribes Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni (who helped pen scripts for Sergio Leone and Fernando Di Leo), Raw Deal imports to American screens the poliziotteschi genre, tough-as-nails police procedurals that bloodied the screens of Italy throughout the 1970s.
That isn’t to say that Raw Deal is without any of Arnold’s characteristic humor or the flair of the 1980s. It features his famous quip, “You should not drink and bake,” after dodging a cake, as well as a convertible drive-by sequence in a rock quarry, set to The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Raw Deal is unpredictable. The body count is high, the politics are grim, and its sense of humor, when present, is wholly bizarre. It feels like an alternate-universe version of Commando, a film where Arnold is reduced to mere-mortal status, thrust into a world populated only by bad guys (including his fellow law-enforcement officers), and tasked with saving it (yet again), only this time he doesn’t even seem to want to.
Raw Deal screens tonight, May 22, on 35mm at Nitehawk Prospect Park as part of the series “B-Sides.”