** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

Written by Randy Feldman

With Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, and Jack Palance.

The penis, when in the hands of an actor, never amounts to much more than comic relief, even when it is only wielded metaphorically. Though the penile jousting in Tango & Cash is merely verbal, this tale of two boyish cops on the trail of a punitive crime lord is straight out of the junior-high locker room–a $25 million fantasy of male pubescent fear and adolescent power, right down to the tenor of its dialogue and its perverse imagery. Even though it is full of the labored wisecracks that inhabit all bastard children of 48 HRS., it is not clear that this movie knows how hilarious it is. Director Andrei Konchalovsky might have scattered comically overstated camera angles here and deliriously baroque compositions there as clues, but since an argument with Stallone led to Konchalovsky’s exile from the production before it was finished–no glasnost in Hollywood–we cannot know with certainty exactly what footage the talented Russian emigre supervised. We end up with a loony curiosity, a hodgepodge of neuroses masquerading as a good time, anxiety trying to pass itself off as daring, and puberty pretending to be manhood.

A certain amount of youthfulness exists in the very bones of buddy-cop films, a genetic legacy from their grandparents, the just-plain-civilian buddies of the 60s such as Butch and Sundance. That youthful charm is what attracted the womenfolk to the two frontier bad men, and Ray Tango (Stallone) and Gabe Cash (Kurt Russell) try for that same insouciant appeal. Of course, Butch and Sundance’s boyishness was framed from an adult perspective. They were appealing because of the putative innocence they projected in a world of adult compromise (or were supposed to project; I cannot admit to being exactly beguiled by the smug pair).

However, in Tango & Cash, even a nominal nod toward the settling viewpoint of maturity is discarded. These guys are supposed to be appealing because they are the biggest 13-year-olds in a world designed and populated by the 13-year-old imagination. The film’s only romance, such as it is, flames up between the sloppy, sexually swaggering (though nonperforming) Cash and Tango’s sister, an alluring-but-virginal darling who makes a living as a dancer in one of those glitzy nightclubs from hell that exist only on Hollywood soundstages. After Tango mistakes a massage session for a bout of lovemaking, the two big galoots argue over whether the dissolute Cash is good enough for vacant-eyed Kiki (cute for Catherine), until the two finally decide that, well, yes, Cash can “date” Kiki. “Date?” Is that what 40-year-old detectives do with girls? No, of course not. It’s what teenage boys do with girls, particularly girls named Kiki.

However, the mating nomenclature of freshman life is only an aside to the film’s main thematic development, which is the enactment of adolescent revolt against a father figure. It’s a revolt that bestows an awful independence, because it isolates the rebelling youth from parental protection and sets him adrift in a world full of new threats and dangers. Only by overcoming a variety of opponents can the young man assert his right to independence and emerge from the evil paternal shadow.

In days when Joseph Campbell perches on the best-seller lists and Indiana Jones goes to war with his father, these dime-store Jungian baubles would be gaudy enough. Given the overblown treatment they get in Tango & Cash, it’s positively mortifying.

Essentially, Tango and Cash (without the benefit of their incorporating ampersand) are framed by evil drug lord Jack Palance, a gangster so powerful he can manipulate any corner of officialdom at will. Sent to prison after they enter a strategic guilty plea (“This fucking sucks,” as Cash puts it), they end up in maximum-security hell, where the inmates run a world of torture and potential rape.

Tango and Cash’s entry into the general prison population is preceded by a shower scene, during which they make their first nervous jokes about homosexuality. After entering the general population (in the most visually striking scene, as blazing pieces of mattress and paper fall on them from the cell blocks) and fighting off a few more threats, they end up in the basement under the control of a sweaty contingent of body builders dressed in swaddling clothes. The two cops are then bound in chains and held over electrified vats of water in a steamy torture scene that looks like a 19th-century European vision of Turkish depravity. Though they struggle, neither can do anything; both are doused with water and shocked with the eel-like power line.

Well, Doctor, you won’t believe what happens next. Having endured the unendurable, the two are fairly free to wreak vengeance on their torturers, eventually violating the desert lair of their nemesis (who is filmed from a ground-level angle so often one begins to wonder how Palance moved about the stage at all). Explosively penetrating an outer wall with a sleek black van armed with machine guns, they soon turn that vehicle in for a pair of huge construction machines, with which they beat down the walls protecting the criminal inner sanctum. I suppose it’s just lack of time that prevented them from mounting submarines and swimming through underwater tunnels.

One would think a way would exist to make all this jell into some sort of expressionist farce. Imagine, for instance, David Lynch or Paul Verhoeven being handed this material. Konchalovsky is capable of turning this kind of material back on itself. But it is hard to imagine the stars involved here would be willing to take a chance on not appearing absolutely in charge. The ostensible humor here is of the macho one-liner variety, and much of it falls flat. There is just too much Ratso and Cowboy for us to believe in Butch and Sundance.