Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ready Player One still flying the flag for beloved touchstones of the Reagan years, we’re looking back on some unsung gems from the 1980s—the movies from that decade that deserve their own loyal fan followings.
There are certain kinds of films that benefit from the lowered stakes of cable television. Chief among these would be the ’80s comedy: In its early days, HBO made its bones from the decade’s bumper crop of funny movies, most of which greatly benefited from the leveled playing field afforded by being one click away from Charles In Charge. HBO ran these bulk library purchases ad nauseam until they finally found an audience willing to settle. In the process, those movies earned a devoted following through sheer repetition—or simply by exceeding rock-bottom standards. After all, on cable it becomes nearly impossible to separate the good from the merely enjoyable or even watchable. A film becomes a comfort-food favorite because it moves along briskly, has a few solid gags, and maintains a distinct yet uniformly agreeable tone throughout. And the more memorably high-concept its plot, the better.
Real Men falls squarely within this category. I would even take one bold step further and argue that it is an actually good, unfairly overlooked comedy. But the polarized reaction I’ve read online tells me otherwise. Certainly, the critics who caught it in 1987 would disagree with me. “Barely released to theaters and for good reason,” raves Leonard Maltin in his one-and-a-half-star review. “Doomed from the start,” crows Orange County Magazine. That these are two of the only critical write-ups of Real Men in existence speaks not only to the film’s poor reputation, but to its limited and ignominious release. MGM/United Artists, still in a debt spiral stemming from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, saw the finished film and panicked, dumping it in just two major cities, where it wound up grossing well under $1 million. No one saw Real Men. No one liked Real Men. Were it not for HBO, where it was given a marquee run for what feels like half my adolescence, no one would even remember it.
But Real Men flourished in those easygoing, eh-what-else-is-on? surroundings. You certainly can’t get any more “low stakes” than a buddy comedy starring Jim Belushi and John Ritter, after all, a pairing that is a natural fit for cable’s affable mid-tier. The latter, although a huge TV star thanks to Three’s Company, hadn’t really translated his slapstick skills to movies yet. The former was only then overcoming the shadow of being America’s consolation Belushi, just then graduating from supporting turns in movies like Thief, The Man With One Red Shoe (another HBO mainstay), and About Last Night. Real Men, along with that year’s thriller The Principal, likewise marked Belushi’s first marquee role—though certainly no one would put Belushi/Ritter on the level of other ’87 buddy comedy duos like Lethal Weapon, Planes, Trains And Automobiles, Throw Momma From The Train, Innerspace, Outrageous Fortune, etc. Though maybe it had one up on Big Shots.
Real Men also marked the directorial debut of Dennis Feldman, a screenwriter who had already a burgeoning career in the lazy-HBO-afternoons genre, including beloved classics of watchability like Just One Of The Guys and the Eddie Murphy fantasy-comedy The Golden Child. After Real Men flopped, Feldman abandoned not only the director’s chair but comedy, instead fashioning himself into a writer of sci-fi creepers like Species and Virus. The fact that it’s a one-off, and thus ostensibly as pure and personal an expression as Feldman ever managed, gives Real Men the air of an oddball cult curio, even if it doesn’t actually have much of a cult.
Like all of Feldman’s films, Real Men boasts a relatively high concept: Belushi plays a hotshot, Bond-meets-MacGyver government agent named Nick, who recruits Ritter’s insurance salesman Bob on a quest to save the world. Their mission: deliver a glass of water to some visiting aliens, who in turn have promised to give humanity either “The Good Package”—a magic cleanser that will reverse a chemical spill that promises to wipe out all life on Earth in just five years—or “The Big Gun,” a weapon large enough to destroy the entire planet. In between, Nick and Bob have to dodge Russian spies and rogue CIA agents who are both out for the Big Gun; in fact, one of them even took out Bob’s doppelgänger, an agent whose kind, John Ritter-ish face is the only one these all-powerful yet apparently super-skittish aliens trust. So Nick has to kidnap the nebbish pushover Bob—a man described by Nick’s superiors as “Average… maybe a little less”—then coerce him into being his reluctant partner, schooling him in self-confidence along the way.
What makes Real Men more than just another sub-Midnight Run road trip is how gamely it embraces its absurdity—even beyond asking you to buy that every woman finds Jim Belushi irresistible. It’s a Cold War semi-satire that treats Reagan-era brinksmanship with an eye-roll and wanking motion, just another cartoonish backdrop for guys goofing around, trading Hope/Crosby banter and play-acting like overgrown kids. Through a repeated contrivance, Ritter—who’s well within his tripped-up wheelhouse here as the panicky Bob—even becomes convinced he can shoot people by aiming his finger-guns and yelling, “Bang!” (It works better in practice than it sounds.) During one bullet-riddled showdown with the Russians, the gunfire suddenly stops as the Soviets all simultaneously break for lunch. (“They’re not as dedicated as we are, Bob,” Belushi shrugs.) In what is probably Real Men’s most well-known sequence, they’re attacked by rogue CIA agents who are dressed, for no logical reason, as circus clowns.
These are knowingly dumb scenes, yet Real Men also never fully commits to being an out-and-out spoof, instead occupying a less easily pigeonholed middle ground of surreal, deadpan silliness. That looseness doesn’t always work: Belushi’s romance with a bookish librarian who’s also a whip-brandishing dominatrix has all the wit of a Playboy cartoon; another tangent involving Nick’s transgender father (played by Ilsa star Dyanne Thorne) has Belushi giving a surprisingly progressive speech of acceptance, yet the punchline still revolves around Ritter being grossed out. Still, the whole breezily ramshackle thing is held together, remarkably well, by Belushi: His Nick ambles through impending apocalypse with a carefree indifference and the kind of coolly meta detachment that was the style at the time, repeatedly insisting, “Don’t make a big thing out of it.” Nick is determined to have a good time all the time, and by the power of suggestion—propelled along by Miles Goodman’s Danny Elfman-esque score—you do as well.
Or maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s just my own repeated exposure to Real Men that has deemphasized its flaws. That was the argument offered that year by The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who—in a screed against Feldman’s The Golden Child and the success of mediocre, star-driven comedies in general—bemoaned home video’s rapidly spreading erosion of audience standards, saying, “Nowadays, as the whole film-watching process becomes more gradual and less immediate, the funny film and the dud are more easily confused. By the time something turns up on video or on television, the initial reaction it generated will be largely forgotten.”
To which I say: Yeah, well, good. Some films are just meant to relocate to cable and get a fresh start, and there is truly nothing gambled by giving them that shot—especially when it comes to comedies, whose highs are only increased in relationship to the lowered bar of your living room. I think Real Men is a uniquely weird, perfectly enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. Don’t make a big thing out of it.