There’s a strange nether-zone of fame where one is famous enough that you are a household name, but not famous enough that you can open movies based on your name alone. This zone is most commonly held by actors who were leads on popular TV shows. The powerful small-screen charisma doesn’t always translate to feature films. However, the studios will keep trying because, hey, this person is a big name. During the late 80s, this zone was where John Ritter lived.
Jim Belushi lived there as well, but for different reasons. He had the famous name, but that was because of his more-talented brother. However, in the late 80s, he supplemented being less talented than his brother by being more alive.
Someone in Hollywood clearly thought these two added up to enough fame to pair them up for Real Men. I’m not sure why else anyone would think this light sci-fi/ cold war espionage/comedy/action movie would be a hit.
The plot of Real Men goes a little like this: Jim Belushi plays a government agent of some sort (FBI? CIA? MIB? I don’t really recall.) who does his job in a super-manly way: shoot first, ask questions rarely, and have plenty of sex with lots of women. (“I didn’t know you smoked.” “Only after sex.” “How often is that?” “About a pack a day.”) He’s introduced being chased by bad guys in a hotel, and he literally jumps into bed with a strange woman as an evasion/distraction tactic before shooting the last bad guy. (“Ma’am, you’ve just done a great service for your country.” “Would you like me to do it again?”)
Belushi’s job is to get ordinary wuss John Ritter across the country to Washington DC by Friday so he can make a scheduled meeting with aliens.
See, the aliens were supposed to meet with some other agent (also played by John Ritter), but he was killed before the meeting, so the best replacement is a guy with no training who looks just like him. Because that’s what the aliens want. These aliens are bizarrely arbitrary. Even though they’ve had several meetings, or at least communication, with proper channels in order to set up the schedule and terms for this meeting… this meeting has to be done by a guy who looks like John Ritter at a park in DC on Friday night. No other way.
Why is this meeting so important? Because apparently humanity is doomed. The movie glosses over the details (mostly because Jim Belushi’s character, being the Real Man that he is, doesn’t delve into technicalities), but the basic gist is some poison got dumped into the ocean, which set off a reaction that will eventually kill everything up the food chain. All life on Earth will be dead in five years. Fortunately, the aliens have a cure for our self-inflicted injury, (“The Good Package”), which they will trade at this meeting for a glass of water. That’s all they want: a glass of water. The snag? The aliens are also offering “The Big Gun”, which can be used to destroy half a planet. So there are some in the US Government who want to get that instead. This is why the original John Ritter was killed in the first place.
I kind of love this scenario, because the Good Package/Big Gun decision is one of such obvious black-and-white right choice/wrong choice, and the only cost of the Right Choice is, for all intents, NOT making the wrong choice. But I can actually buy the idea that there would be people in the government who would still choose the “Big Gun”. If nothing else, it boils down Cold War Escalation to its most absurd: military supremacy is paramount, regardless of its pointlessness.
What Real Men really is about, though, is a study of what being a man really is all about, especially in the increasingly touchy-feely 80s. Jim Belushi’s secret agent is the quintessential alpha male, and suburban John Ritter is a definitive beta. His passive sensitivity is so ineffective, he can’t even get his son’s bike back from a bunch of teenage bullies. In essence, we have a road movie where two mismatched guys learn to bridge the gap between them. Belushi helps Ritter find his inner tough guy, and Ritter helps Belushi get in touch with his feelings. There’s a mousy librarian type hiding an inner dominatrix who helps with that as well. Though on some level, Belushi’s character has less of a journey. He’s already sensitive enough to be completely supportive of his transgender father (“the best looking of all the guys who were at IJ” he says, pointing to the famous Iwo Jima photo on the mantle.)
This movie is packed with strangeness, which is to be expected in a movie with aliens, secret agents and transgender ex-marine fathers. There’s a bit about supermarket tabloids all telling the absolute truth (later used in Men In Black). There’s a bit about a crack unit of superspies who are disguised as clowns. I think this one is solely for the joke of having John Ritter say, “Who are those clowns?” and then cutting away to… a pack of clowns about to ambush them in the alley. But my favorite joke is how the Russian spies will break for lunch in the middle of a shootout (“They’re just not as dedicated as we are.”), allowing our heroes to easily escape and make it to their rendezvous.
Now, is this a good movie? Of course not. This is a movie where Jim Belushi is an action hero/sex god, and John Ritter saves the world. This is a movie that ends with John Ritter punching out a milkman, then saying, “Try to be more sensitive.” That should tell you something about the quality at work here. Still, it certainly is clever, oddly compelling, and with some inspired surrealism.
But don’t make a big thing of it.