This mildly entertaining action flick from near the end of the 1980s heyday for such material was effectively the last gasp for that good old-fashioned comic book variety of ‘shoot-em-up-and-blow-em-up’ Cold War actioners, where you always knew exactly who the good guys were, and the bad guys were pantomime-accented Soviets and their various misguided communist lackey client states. Not only did the end of the Cold War intervene to consign this sort of thing to history, but director Joseph Zito, a capable exploitation moviemaker who had carved a comfortable niche for himself in the action genre with several mainstream Chuck Norris movies after an early start in low budget horror (“The Prowler”) and some big studio slasher fare (“Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter”), seemed to disappear from view soon after too. For better or worse the film also launched Dolph Lundgren as a leading man after earlier appearances in “A View to a Kill” and “Rocky lV”, while the producer Jack Abramoff became a controversial figure for his links with a right wing Republican think-tank, who supposedly attained part of the movie’s $16 million funding from pro-apartheid South African sources, later ending up in prison after being convicted of tax fraud. Setting these colourful behind-the-scenes stories aside, and considering the film in its own right (which was extensively re-written by Zito to play down the right wing politics of the original screenplay, written by producer Abramoff) reveals it to be a curious hybrid combination of Zito’s top, imported filmmaking and acting talent, dedicated to the service of realising the most absurd, cartoon-like material imaginable.
Lundgren plays Nikolai Gurulevich Rachenko, a Special Forces commando trained as a soviet killing machine by evil General Vortek (T.P. McKenna) of Supreme Soviet High Command, and assigned a mission in the African state of Mumbaka, where a people’s uprising is threatening the stability of the Cuban/Czech-run military government its Soviet sponsors have set up in the area. Rachenko’s mission is to assassinate the leader of the rebel forces, Ango Sundata (Ruben Nthodi) – described as ‘a powerful and dangerous fanatic’ and a ruthless butcherer of men, women and children’ by Vortek during Rachenko’s highly misleading conference briefing. The Cubans have captured Sundata’s right-hand man, Kallunda Kintash (Al White), but have been ordered not to execute him; instead, Rachenko is to be flown in undercover, whereupon he is to arrange to get himself imprisoned alongside Kintash, and then work to gain the rebel’s trust by staging a prison breakout and pretending to desert so that he can eventually then infiltrate Sundata’s inner circle of freedom fighters in the desert, after which Rachenko is to conclude his mission by putting the unsuspecting leader out of commission.
Unfortunately, Rachenko is forced to stage Kintash’s breakout alongside a distrustful and foul-mouthed, commie-hating American journalist ex-pat friend of the African, called Dewey Ferguson (Zito regular M. Emmet Walsh). When the mission fails, not only does Rachenko earn the contempt of the African rebels he has tried to trick (as well as the Cuban and Czech army forces that weren’t in on the original scheme) but General Vortek strips him of his Special Forces rank in disgrace and has him tortured and condemned to execution. Escaping into the barren African desert (where he is attacked by venomous scorpions), the spiritually broken former commando is taken under the wing of a kindly bushman (Regopstaan) and a curious friendship ensues as Rachenko comes to realise that he was on the wrong side all along. He goes native and learns to hunt with a spear -- Bushman style; to eat grubs and survive in the inhospitable African desert with nothing but a pair of home-made scandals and unfeasibly tight shorts at his disposal.
Rachenko’s initiation is completed when he is branded with a scorpion tattoo, delicately carved into his flesh during a special Bushman ceremony. After the two unlikely friends come upon an impoverished village, the inhabitants of which have been wiped out by cruel Soviet forces wielding flame throwers, Rachenko decides it is time to revisit the now despairing rebels whom he previously betrayed, but this time as a true convert to their cause – and, with the immortal words ‘let’s kick some ass’, he sets out to dispose of the Cuban military outpost and his former bosses who control it.
The first half-hour of this plays out in fairly traditional ‘80s action flick fashion, with man-mountain Lundgren firmly establishing himself as a robotic He Man, trained as a muscle-bound Soviet fighting machine (i.e. the type of character that can be adequately portrayed easily with Lundgren’s limited range of abilities) and sporting an engagingly daft asymmetric blonde-dyed hairstyle which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a member of New Romantic one hit wonders Visage. The comic book barroom violence which enables Lundgren to get himself banged up with Al White’s easily deceived Kintash, sets the breezy all-action tone, alongside a relentless barrage of American Rock n’ Roll classics by Little Richard, which are frequently heard augmenting composer Jay Chattarway’s rousing soundtrack cues and which the Cubans and Czechs apparently enjoy to the total exclusion of all other types of music, despite their Soviet paymasters’ presence. A dynamically choreographed and exquisitely shot truck chase through the unusual, dusty mountainous African landscape (the production was moved from its initial Swaziland location and filmed in South African-controlled Namibia while at the time Apartheid was still in place – another cause for controversy which forced Warner Bros to pull out of its original distribution deal with Abramoff), in which Lundgren and the two escapees are pursued by tanks, a weaponised Soviet gunboat helicopter and machine gun-wielding motorcyclists, results in a Bond-style extended sequence culminating in plenty of the expected explosive action connoisseurs of this genre will no doubt love, but thereafter the film gets kind of bogged down in the sort of ponderous character development which sits ill-at-ease with the engagingly witless tone set up elsewhere, and which probably leaves a great deal of the action audience slightly nonplussed.
Romantic images of groups of running giraffe in a desolate wilderness make for an unusual and almost surreal backdrop spectacle to all the craziness, and Rachenko’s interactions with the rebels he has been sent to destroy allow him to witness first-hand the destruction and sorrow being wrought by his own people on the peaceful inhabitants of this oddly beautiful country he now finds himself lost in the midst of; but there is a distinct lack of action and drama for a long stretch in the middle portion of the movie, while Lundgren goes on his journey of spiritual renewal (which results in him dumping his dog tags in the desert to stirring musical accompaniment) and Vortek’s military forces do evil things to poor African villagers, such as drop flammable materials on them from the air and then send in troops in flame-retardant suits with flame throwers (‘most of them will never know what hit them!’ cackles T.P. McKenna, clearly happy to slum it in a cardboard cut-out role as a commie villain).
During this period, Lundgren spends most of his time flexing his biceps while wearing not very much apart from a very scanty pair of shorts which even his Bushman pal can’t help chuckling about. Incidentally, this Bushman was the real deal – a 95-year old denizen of Namibia’s desert wilds who had to have the very concept of a movie painstakingly explained to him through multiple translators before accepting the role, and yet still manages to act his co-star off the screen. Zito’s old partner on “The Prowler” and “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter”, Tom Savini, was flown in to accomplish some effective FX work in Lundgren’s torture scene, where the hero is chained up and slowly pierced with lengthy needles in a sequence that pre-empts one of a similar nature in Takashi Miike’s “Audition”. The finale delivers on the expected compliment of choreographed, highly dangerous-looking explosions and shootings and Lundgren’s cartoonishly violent escapades are topped off with an air-born exploding helicopter and one of the nastier characters being blown up by his own grenade after the hand holding it is literally machine-gunned off by the hero (another convincing Savini effect) during the highly unlikely climactic rebellion which ends up with a handful of Africans and one excessively muscular blonde bloke in camouflage make-up managing to cast off the heavy yoke of the entire Soviet empire.
“Red Scorpion” has previously struggled on its previous home DVD outings to escape a dark, persistent grainy look and in truth things aren’t much better on this new Blu-ray edition from Arrow Video, at least on my review copy; but apparently the release date for this is to be delayed while further restoration is applied. On my copy though, the darker sequences (and there are plenty of them during the first half of the flick) are often accompanied by a fuzzy wall of digital ‘visual noise’ -- but at least the daytime sequences look significantly better than they ever have before. Hopefully the distracting imperfections elsewhere will be sorted out by the time this hits the streets in mid-February.
The commentary track, it has to be said, is a corker, with Howard S Berger moderating director Joseph Zito in what amounts to a career retrospective, taking in all the highlights of the director’s filmography, from his first feature, “Abduction”, to his big Chuck Norris action flicks of the mid-‘80s. Once Berger gets on to tackling the making of “Red Scorpion” the commentary becomes a tale of outrageous behind-the-scenes drama which is almost as compelling as anything on the screen itself. The film was a tough shoot with various controversial goings-on adding to the subsequent ‘scandal’ surrounding the apparent shady financial arrangements of producer Jack Abramoff, although Zito, who admits to not really knowing that much about the precise details, is adamant that Abramoff was great to work with and that many of the claims made about the funding of the movie aren’t true. What is true though is that the entire production had to be relocated across several thousand miles to Namibia, after the King of Swaziland withdrew permission for filming, apparently becoming nervous after seeing how much military hardware was being flown into the country, which then led to worries that the production was part of an attempt to overthrow him!
Zito also reveals that cast member M. Emmet Walsh fell out with him and was convinced that this move in location was all a set up, and that it had never been intended that the production was to have taken place in the independent state of Swaziland at all – which probably indicates just how much trust Jack Abramoff commanded at the time.
The disc comes with a short video introduction by star Dolph Lundgren, which can be selected to play at the start of the film from the main menu. The theatrical trailer is a typically rambunctious affair which also manages to include just about every one of the handful of lines of dialogue Lundgren has through the entirety of the film.
High Rising Productions contribute two worthwhile extra video features as well, the first being in the form of a half-hour interview with the mild mannered Lundgren in “All Out Of Bullets – Dolph Lundgren Remembers Red Scorpion”. Here the actor talks at length about his early career and his experience of shooting the movie in Sothern Africa at a time when every white person one encountered there seemed to be armed to the teeth in anticipation of an expected black takeover. He explains how he did almost all his own stunts on the picture, including many of the insanely dangerous ones; he singles out one particular scene, in which he had to be covered head to toe in live scorpions, as being ‘quite iffy’; in fact the commentary track reveals that Zito tricked Lundgren into agreeing to take part in this sequence by simply lying to him that the creatures weren’t really venomous! Lundgren talks about the film’s plot and the timeless mythic qualities it incorporates which help it overcome the specifics of setting and politics, and then mentions his subsequent career as a director in the years since, and how it has helped him in his own acting. Finally, he talks about his meticulous efforts to maintain his fitness and how it gets harder to do so as he gets older.
The second featurette is a 12 minute interview with composer Jay Chattaway entitled “Music With Muscles”. This is an interesting piece on composing for action movies, in which Chattaway explains his working relationship with Joseph Zito (the two had worked together many times before “Red Scorpion”); reveals a composer’s tricks for making music stand-out against the audio backdrop of constant explosions which inevitably pepper the climaxes of these kinds of action movie; and talks about how his work on “Red Scorpion” had to accomplish the task of providing much of the emotional shading in the relationship between Rachenko and Geo the Bushman, because neither of the characters actually talk properly at any point in the film!
The Arrow Video package comes with a choice of four cover artworks, a fold-out poster and a booklet with new writing on the film by Calum Waddell. The movie is screened in the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, the original uncompressed LPCM Stereo audio track is included, and there are optional English Language subtitles for the hearing impaired.
“Red Scorpion” is essentially quite trashy material but made to a meticulously high standard nonetheless. By the final frames, everything gets blown up, just as you’d expect, and performances are either incredibly broad or virtually non-existent (Lundgren basically just has to be pointed in the right direction). The simple classical structure of it sort of means it just works regardless, though, and action fans who don’t mind the occasional thoughtful poetic lull while Lundgren gets his head together amid breath-taking African landscapes with the help of his native friend, will undoubtedly have a good time with this otherwise undemanding comic book caper of a flick.
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