There was a period in the 1980s when the idea of the profane macho-man devolved, from movies made by grown men with adult minds to movies made by grown men with adolescent minds, and most likely because the audience got younger and hopefully not the minds of men – and men who grew up on 60s & 70s tough guy movies took their young sons to the new ones coming out in the 80s – whatever the movie, as long as there was a male lead, big guns, bad guys, bad words and fucked-up action. And usually an objectification of females. In 1987 these men never took their sired to see Ishtar.
Harley & Marlboro makes several nods to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (a movie which is, equitably, rather chaste among many others in this canon), just as Ishtar nods off like a junkie to old Hope/Crosby capers. Beatty & Hoffman exude a certain shameless honesty, the male bonding that is both pathetic and exalting. Their songster schtick is out of whack and flat when merged with the silly 80s stagecraft, but these fashions become picturesque when Hoffman runs around Ishtar wearing a faux-futuristic Grace Jones-style headband.
Harley & Marlboro is just as shameless in its male-bonding scenario, and Crockett and Rourke’s pan-fried personas inspire a bit of trust in the subtext. These renegade pre-apocalyptic ramblers are out to save their favorite hangout, The Rock N Roll Bar & Grill, from the Great Trust bank, a financial conglomerate run by slick-haired, black shiny overcoat-clad android yuppies (a staple villainry of 1990s movies). One of the yuppies continually refers to Harley and Marlboro as “dilettantes.” Our guys just try keeping it real: classic Americans standing off in defense of hard-earned property. If the movie had been a hit, would it have spawned a series of blue-collar product-hero movies set in the not-at-all-distant future? Marlboro’s love interest is Virgina Slim (she’s a cop), and ex-WWF wrestler Big John Stud plays Jack Daniels (he gets blown away).
The audience for Harley & Marlboro, at the time, surely expected nothing more from Don Johnson and Mickey. But the audience of Ishtar expected more from Hoffman and Beatty (neither Don nor Rourke had ever made award-winning Communist epics or been part of the Tootsie consciousness). Ishtar falls in the canon of screwball but the actors and director veer back and forth between the self-awareness of it and of not - and the flick only works engagingly when not: Beatty reaching out to Hoffman on the Upper West Side ledge where Hoffman threatens to cast himself off, the inverted ironical moment of intimacy, “You have the guts to admit you have nothing. . .” Hoffman auctioneering in nonsense Bedouin language and Beatty disguised as a sandman pretending to understand the dialect. A fine metaphor for the characters’ relationship. And their fantasy hit song, "Dangerous Business," passes the Old Grey Whistle Test with depressing catchiness, a real kneeslapper in the sequences of the two actors as failures composing it, mistaking the random for the inspired, until they are crawling deliriously around the desert, spouting inane Tin Pan Alley rhymes. Producer Warren has withdrawn the film from the data stream for fear of subsequent exposure[?], but Don Johnson basically mimicked his portrayal of The Marlboro Man weekly as Nash Bridges.
ps: The Shine Box screened Ishtar on VHS, Harley & Marlboro post-analog.