Has it come to this? That we can feel vaguely cheered that "Raw Deal" (citywide), where the bodies again pile up like cordwood, is a better made movie than "Cobra"? That's precious little to be thankful for--it's like being heartened that the burglars cleaned out the house but left the kitty litter box.
The difference between the two movies is sheer technical skill--and attitude. John Irvin, "Raw Deal's" director, who has made such subtle and adult films as "Turtle Diary" and television's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," has a nice eye for irony and for the larger- (and funnier-) than-life trappings of the genre. He doesn't have enormous opportunities to exercise this bent, since "Raw Deal" is constructed like a serial bomb: It goes off roughly every 12 1/2 minutes, littering the landscape with corpses. But you can detect an adult hand at work here, which could never be said for "Cobra's" arrogant and inept childishness.
And "Raw Deal" has Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose greatest virtue is not that he can toss grown men over ceiling beams, but that he has a vein of sweetness and self-deprecation that no amount of mayhem can obliterate. It has shone from him since "Pumping Iron;" it has allowed him to surmount silly and unwise pieces of action (such as the drunk scenes in one of the "Conan's" and here), and even his own awkwardness as an actor.
Irvin also is surrounded by superb artists: with--among others--cinematographer Alex Thomson who's done everything from "The Keep" to "Excalibur," and whose credit on "Year of the Dragon" as the person who photographed and operated the camera was a great point of personal pride, and the fine editor Anne Coates ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Beckett," "Ragtime," "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan.")
So what is all this talent unleashed upon? Don't ask. A mounting pyramid of bodies; death trivialized at every turn. A double-reverse plot in which ousted FBI-man Schwarzenegger is informally hired by FBI veteran Darren McGavin to infiltrate Chicago mafia lord Sam Wanamaker's inner circle, the better to discover a leak from the bureau itself. Because of a tipster, Wanamaker has been able to eliminate witnesses in protective custody before they can testify against him.
It seems that Schwarzenegger, now the least inconspicuous sheriff in all rural North Carolina, was relieved of his FBI duty after delivering a suspect in extremely damaged condition, in a case involving an 11-year-old girl. But, he protests, the man "molested her, he mutilated her, he murdered her." Do screenwriters Gary DeVore and Norman Wexler have it in for Schwarzenegger? To give a tongue-tangler like that to the Austrian Oak is not a kindness.
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.
He wastes a few dozen Mafiosi; he strips off his jacket; he plays a little chaste footsie with compulsive gambler Kathryn Harrold; he strips off his shirt; he blows away every living soul in the Mafia inner sanctum; he strips off his undershirt. For better or worse, he runs out of villains just before he runs out of clothes.
There is one scene that hints at what else Schwarzenegger could do--if any other director saw beyond the physique to the man inside. It's the last one, in which by sheer will power he persuades a wounded officer to try to walk on his artificial legs. It's the same, absolutely shameless moment of uplift that illuminated director Irvin's earlier "Champions," and damned if it doesn't work again, because Schwarzenegger and the other actor (it would be giving away the movie's only whiff of surprise to name him) breathe real life into it. But what bloody and bizarre surroundings in which to put two minutes of inspiration.