The other day Vince and I were making S’mores and chatting about life, when he pointed out that 2011 was the 20th anniversary of the end of the Cold War, that era in world history when everyone lived in pants-crapping fear that the U.S. and Russia were going to destroy us all. More importantly than global genocide and the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the Cold War had an undeniable impact on the movie industry, most notably in creating one of the easiest and most overused plot devices of the last 50 years.
Obviously, the Cold War gave us classics like Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate, and the entire James Bond franchise. It also gave us The Hunt for Red October and Tom Clancy’s career, as well as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and wherever else Shia LeBeouf and
his grandfather Harrison Ford take us. It gave us The Manhattan Project, The Good Shepherd, Thirteen Days, Top Gun, Good Night, and Good Luck, and even Salt, which was a modern reminder of just how hilariously off-the-wall – and flat out terrible – some Cold War films were.
In fact, those are the films that I want to celebrate – the movies that both embraced the terrifying nightmare of global war and laughed in the face of four decades of silent terror. Because without them, we’d probably all be living in mountain bunkers or adapting to our tentacles.
Cold War Influences: Before Mike Myers was regurgitating the same characters through two decades of Austin Powers films, James Coburn was the original Bond spoof. Whereas Sean Connery’s Bond gave us a womanizing, invincible British secret agent taking on the world’s most evil villain – a Polish national, mind you, but a man hellbent on world domination – the Derek Flint films gave us a womanizing, invincible secret agent that was just more over-the-top and hilarious in his efforts to fight the global terror.
As a Movie: I first saw Our Man Flint when I was a kid, but I watched it again a few years ago, as well as In Like Flint, and they hold up pretty well despite being almost 50 years old. They’re goofy as hell and poorly acted, but while Dr. Strangelove attacked the Cold War with dark satire, the Flint films reminded people that when they came out from under their school desks, it was still OK to laugh.
Cold War Influences: I don’t know much about the politics of Hollywood in the 1970s, but I assume that the atmosphere of the post-Vietnam War wasn’t much different from today’s loathing of the efforts in the Middle East. But this film was ultimately unique because it called the Vietnam War what it was – a muscle-flexing endeavor meant to scare the Soviets into submission.
As a Movie: For starters, you can actually watch the entire film on YouTube here. It’s a pretty dark film and it makes a pretty damning statement about the government with an ending that puts Jerry Bruckheimer’s action schtick – namely The Rock – to shame.
Cold War Influences: A pair of goofball slackers somehow talked themselves into joining the U.S. Army, despite that whole Cold War thing happening, and after a series of hilarious antics in boot camp, their company ended up in charge of protecting a top secret U.S. spy RV. So of course they stole it, took a road trip into Czechoslovakia and managed to get captured by the Russian army. And of course Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, hot pre-crazy Sean Young, and the classic 80s hottie P.J. Soles showed that even the biggest American idiots are better than the commie pinkos.
As a Movie: 31-years later and this is still one of the best comedies of all-time, and I can’t use kitchen utensils without giggling. In fact, thanks to HBO, I can narrow down my first set of movie boobies to either Stripes or Just One of the Guys. Either way, if you can’t laugh at John Candy getting his ass kicked by a bunch of hot mud wrestlers (or the Francis speech), then you may not be human. Or maybe you’re a KGB baby planted in USA to lead the uprising. I just blew your mind.
Cold War Influences: This may have been the first movie that was targeted at teens for the sole purpose of saying, “Watch it, or you’ll destroy the world.” More notably, it was a reminder that the emerging technological era was creating an even greater scare than the idea of a pissed off Russian madman pressing his big red button. Now computers were involved, and these strange machines could go haywire at any moment. Even through something as simple as a game of chess. Or, you know, Global Thermonuclear War. But it also drove home the message: “The only winning move is not to play.”
As a Movie: This might have been the movie that first made me want a computer, if it wasn’t Weird Science’s promise that I could build Kelly LeBrock with one. Regardless, this movie gave us Matthew Broderick as a young leading man and Dabney Coleman as one of the greatest villains of the 80s, and it remains significantly badass 29 years later, which is why a remake would be a mistake. *stares at MGM executives*
Cold War Influences: No movie better defined the era of the Cold War as a gimmick plot than Red Dawn. The story of a communist attack on American soil suggested that eventually the U.S. could be alone on the side of democracy and that would leave its borders wide open for assault. Eventually, Russian and Cuban forces – playing the game of “What if the Cuban Missile Crisis Took the Next Step?” – invaded, occupied and conquered America, starting with a small town in Colorado. Though in the end, we learned that America would eventually win, because nothing is stronger than the resolve of democracy. And maybe Patrick Swayze’s jaw line.
As a Movie: This was the tent pole film for inclusion on this list, with a few others right behind it, because it loaded the cast with Hollywood’s hot, young names and shamelessly played to decades of fear. The fact that it’s being remade is a crime, but even with the hokiest of acting and remarkably exploitative plot, it’s a classic. This movie made me want to hide in a refrigerator and shoot at people with my toy “A*Team” gun, until my parents eventually explained that I would suffocate and die in the fridge. At least George Lucas eventually proved them wrong.
Cold War Influences: Like Stripes, Spies Like Us created a relentless comedy with the Cold War as a convenient backdrop, except this time the lead characters were bumbling CIA desk jockeys propelled into the world of espionage. Despite its primary purpose as a showcase for Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd in their hilarious primes, it still delivered the message that if we want to put an end to the threat of nuclear war, we need to work together. Also, that the biggest threats may actually come from within.
As a Movie: This is still one of my Top 5 funniest movies of all-time and there’s not a chance that passes at a restaurant that I don’t ask, “Won’t you gentlemen have a Pepsi?” The timing on exchanges between Chase and Aykroyd were perfect, and it’s almost depressing how hilarious this movie was and what its stars have become. But if you only take away one thing from this movie, let it be Vanessa Angel in a snow suit.
Cold War Influences: Another comedy that utilizes the Cold War as a plot tool, this one playfully asked the question: “What would happen if the Average Joe was sucked into a dastardly CIA plot concocted by our beloved villain, Dabney Coleman?” While the connection to espionage is one-sided – Tom Hanks’ character is only implied as a possible Russian spy by one CIA agent trying to fool another – it still offers us the timeless chase, complete with assassination attempts and the seductive female operative, played by the poor man’s Daryl Hannah, Lori Singer.
As a Movie: Hanks wasn’t yet a star, so this movie has always flown under the radar – like the criminally under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano – but for being an 80s rom-com disguised as a comedic thriller, it’s a pretty solid film. It also marked the beginning of Hollywood’s fascination with turning Jim Belushi into a star. We’ll get more into that shortly.
Cold War Influences: I can only imagine that Drunkards have been reading this, tapping their feet and wondering, “When the f*ck is he going to mention Rocky IV?” This is the granddaddy of all Cold War films. Forget Strangelove, Rocky IV put everything in front of us in the most insanely imposing and stereotypical propaganda style imaginable. The good, pure American faced off against the murdering, unapologetic Russian machine. The Russians used technology and machines, and Ivan Drago was cold and calculating as a puppet of the Soviet Empire. Rocky was the hope of the rest of the world, clinging to his will and desire to do what’s right. I want to punch Putin just from typing that.
As a Movie: Rocky IV was also the perfect 80s movie, complete with songs by Survivor and Kenny Loggins, and it included probably the greatest montage in movie history. Hyperbole be damned, I have no problem anointing the mountain training montage above all others.
Cold War Influences: Jumpin’ Jack Flash could have basically been called The Woman with One Red Shoe. It was the same story of an Average Jane unknowingly dragged into the world of espionage, except she eventually found out about it, instead of Hanks’ character who had no clue, and she found herself dealing directly with the KGB, which was also Hollywood’s go-to villain organization.
As a Movie: There was a time, friends, when Whoopi Goldberg was more than just a flatulent rape apologist. She was also once a hell of a comedic actress, as proven in her starring debut. Also with a role in this spy comedy was Jim Belushi, who is about two more films away from solidifying his role as the Cold War’s top comic relief. Also, his brother was really popular but was dead, so 80s Hollywood was all about discount versions.
Cold War Influences: By this point in the 80s, multiple themes were being recycled and overlapped, and essentially what we have here is E.T. or Monster Squad meets the Cold War, and of course only a few little kids, led by Leaf “Joaquin” Phoenix, can stop the world from crumbling into WWIII. In Russkies, the alien or monster is now a lost Russian soldier who washed up in Key West after a botched intelligence mission. And because kids are smarter than military leaders, they’re able to befriend the “evil” soldier and help stop two wayward leaders from each side from causing armageddon.
As a Movie: If you were a kid in the 80s or early 90s, then you ate this sh*t up. While Monster Squad remains my go-to 80s friendship parable, Russkies at least helped undo some of the mental damage that Red Dawn caused a few years earlier. Now I want to hug Putin.
Cold War Influences: This one’s a stretch because it was just a complete farce that mashed together a bunch of ideas to create an ideal stoner comedy. But the film involved a race between the U.S., Russia and a rogue CIA/FBI faction to broker a deal with an alien race that would provide the Americans with an element that would save the planet, the Russians with a “Big Gun” that could destroy America, and the rogue faction with whatever the hell it is that they wanted. In retrospect, I’m not sure that I can fully describe this movie.
As a Movie: It’s just a horrendous mess of ideas, but for some reason it’s one of my guiltiest pleasures. Between the transgender dad and the CIA clown operatives, this movie just works from a silly, why-the-hell-not perspective. But again, we’re like one movie away from crowning Jim Belushi as the 80s Cold War king. I feel it coming.
Cold War Influences: The story revolved around a girl who was basically sleeping with half of Washington D.C., but Kevin Costner’s Navy-hero-turned-Pentagon-employee stole her heart from the Secretary of Defense, who then killed her. To avoid being charged with murder, he made up a story that the girl’s other lover was actually a KGB operative named Yuri, so everyone went crazy trying to find Yuri. The problem is that he didn’t exist… OR DID HE??? Yes, he did. It was actually Costner and he was planted in the U.S. by the KGB as a kid and he infiltrated the government to a high level.
As a Movie: This movie was tits back then and it holds up pretty well now. The ending had one of the best movie twists I can remember, and it showcased Costner in his prime, in probably his best non-baseball role. Hollywood should celebrate films like this while burying Water World.
Cold War Influences: Little Nikita gave legs to the recurring idea that “they” could be living among us, and people could have even been sent to the U.S. by the KGB and they may not even know it. In this case, River Phoenix – the Phoenix brothers owned the child-Cold War relationship, by the way – eventually learned that he was actually a Russian, living with his spy parents, who were in great danger of being hunted down by both a former KGB operative, acting as a vigilante spy killer, and a Russian spy catcher. Thankfully, FBI agent Sidney Poitier was like, “Aw hell naw!” or something.
As a Movie: I’d say this was a great movie, but I’d rather give you a homework assignment. Watch Taylor Lautner in Abduction and then watch Phoenix in Little Nikita, and then answer this question: What the hell has happened to the quality of teen actors in this country?
Cold War Influences: Take Red Dawn and remove all of the hunky young actors and replace them with a horse-teethed madman, but keep the absurd plot that Mexico suddenly resorted to communism and teamed up with Russia to invade America, and you have Gary Busey in Bulletproof. The only major impact this film had in the Cold War era was that it probably made world leaders call each other and question if it was all worth it.
As a Movie: We’ve discussed Bulletproof here before. Watch the video above and then watch the “Everything is Terrible” video cut:
I’ve seen the whole movie and it’s absolutely hilarious in all the wrong ways. But I think the moral of this movie is that Russia is the butthorn.
Cold War Influence: Welcome to the beginning of the end. By 1988, the well was running dry on the recycled Cold War themes, hence Bulletproof, which we can also assume ushered in the new era of cinematic Glasnost (sure, those Reagan and Gorbachev guys probably helped, too). Enter Iron Eagle 2, which presented the idea that U.S. and Russian soldiers were the same, and they could work together to defeat the new evil – the Middle East.
As a Movie: Iron Eagle had the distinction of being released before Top Gun in 1986, but Bruckheimer’s tale of greased up volleyball playing fighter pilots blew Iron Eagle away so much so that when the idea of a sequel was raised, 80s F-list heartthrob Jason Gedrick not only declined a starring role but he agreed to be killed in the beginning of the sequel. That should be a flag redder than any communist’s blood. (But I still love this movie.)
Cold War Influence: Again, this was the era of understanding each other. Sure, the tensions were still high – nobody trusted the Moscow police officer who must come to America and track down the ruthless Russian killer. But with a little help from his new wise-cracking American police detective partner, not only would we get results, but we’d get laughs, too.
As a Movie: Ladies and gentlemen, your 80s Cold War comedy king, Jim Belushi! This is also a forgotten classic in the Arnold Schwarzenegger quote arsenal. My personal favorite is “Go and kiss your mother’s behind” but the “Vodka” retort is pretty great, too.
Cold War Influence: The Package managed to squeeze a few last drops out of the fear machine – others did as well, but this one tried really hard – by suggesting that even on the eve of world peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons, our biggest enemy wasn’t the guy across from us with the pen. Instead, there will always be people from both sides who will want the Cold War to linger for the sake of both profit and conquering the world, including Tommy Lee Jones, who was hellbent on assassinating the head of the state of the Soviet Union.
As a Movie: Most Gene Hackman movies get the job done, and I’m a sucker for a well told conspiracy story, even if it was at the tail end of a decade that had already almost entirely bludgeoned the Cold War movie plot to death. The Package‘s ending was a bit disappointing, but it was one of the rare Cold War films to escape the end of the genre for the sake of longevity.
Cold War Influence: Two New York City nightclub promoters, played by John Travolta with a mullet and Arye Gross, took a job opening a club in Nebraska, but they ended up in Russia, because they were drugged by KGB agents. Despite thinking they were in America, they were actually teaching Russians of all ages how to act hip so they could infiltrate our society as spies. But in the end, the Russian people wanted their freedom because AMERICA IS THE GREATEST! And then Travolta and Gross brought hundreds of illegal immigrants into the country and nobody cared.
As a Movie: If you think back to when Quentin Tarantino pulled Travolta from the wreckage of endless Look Who’s Talking sequels and you think about where Travolta is now, you should watch The Experts and throw a shoe at Tarantino.
Cold War Influence: Hollywood tried desperately to turn Dolph Lundgren into a leading man, but he was really just a great villain or guy who kicked ass and didn’t speak much. In the case of Red Scorpion, he was the ultimate Soviet killing machine – even though we had clearly buried that plot line – but then he was captured by an African leader that he was supposed to kill (we need to talk, writers of Bourne Identity). Instead, Lundgren was taught that Russia was evil and he took it upon himself to fight the army that trained him. I assume he stayed in hiding in Africa, because that’s plausible.
As a Movie: You can watch the whole film on YouTube here in case you need a good laugh. Sadly, Hollywood never thought to pair Lundgren and Yakov Smirnoff as the ultimate answer to Jim Belushi’s Cold War supremacy.
Cold War Influence: A former CIA agent and a KGB operative teamed up after the CIA agent realized that his bosses were up to no good and there was something bad going down. Basically, this film simply rehashed the idea that even after peace is declared there were still people trying to profit from the idea of war.
As a Movie: Remember that thing I just said about Gene Hackman getting the job done? That doesn’t really carry over when you pair him up with a professional ballet dancer who talks like he’s stuck on whisper.
Cold War Influence: A few months before Mr. Baseball sent Tom Selleck to Japan, The Comrades of Summer sent Joe Mantegna to Russia to put together a baseball team for the Olympics. Of course, they were all oblivious to our modern culture so Mantegna had his hands full, especially breaking through the tensions of post-Cold War hatred and angst, while trying to bone his attractive female Russian assistant.
As a Movie: In the early 90s, HBO was just barely scratching the surface of what would eventually become a decent enough made-for-TV movie empire, with classics like 1990’s Prayer of the Roller Boys leading the way. But in 1992, The Comrades of Summer gave us a just good enough baseball comedy by following the standard Hollywood formula. It’s no Bull Durham, but it was a hell of a lot better than Summer Catch.
Cold War Influence: For some ungodly, 8-years-too-late-reason, the Russian police needed help with handling the mafia, so they enlisted the help of the Police Academy, which, now that I think about it, was never assigned to a real city. So this random American police training institution that annually turns out some of the biggest f*ck-ups on the planet sent over its most famous group of morons to once again prove that even America’s biggest idiots are better than Russia’s smartest people.
As a Movie: As a movie? Not sure. As the orbital equivalent of a buttplug? Yeah, that’s about right. I’m really shocked, actually, that Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg haven’t been put in charge of re-launching this turd farm that sank when Steve Guttenberg flew away in a hot air balloon.
Cold War Influence: Buffalo Soldiers was one of several films that were forgotten after the attacks of 9/11 because it was satire of the U.S. government and, more specifically, the military leadership of the Cold War era, and people didn’t think that it was appropriate. Basically, it was the Catch-22 or MASH of a new generation, only it was significantly darker, with Joaquin Phoenix playing the ringleader of an outfit of drug-dealing and -using American soldiers in Germany. Needless to say, it’s not a favorite among government or military types.
As a Movie: It’s a decent movie, but as I said it is pretty dark in its satirical view of the government, so it’s definitely harsher than a better movie like Three Kings or Vince’s favorite Army movie, Delta Farce.