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Red Scorpion (1988)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

RED SCORPION (1988)

Starring: Dolph Lundgren, M. Emmet Walsh, Al White, TP McKenna, Brion James, Regopstaan

Written By: Arne Olsen (also story), Jack Abramoff (story), Robert Abramoff (story)

Directed By: Jospeh Zito

The Short Version

Among the last of the Cold War classics.

Standard formula action takes a Soviet-style spin.

Do we really need an American character here? (Hint: no.)

There’s a reason Dolph fans love Red Scorpion; he makes it rock.

If you love 80s action, Red Scorpion is definitely worth your time.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

BACON CHEESEBURGER.

“Man, what I'd give for a bacon cheeseburger right now.  Wash it down with an ice cold glass of beer.  Fuckin' A.”


Pairs Well With...

STOLICHNAYA.

What, you thought I was going to say “ice cold beer” after the above suggestion?  Nyet, Comrade.  Nyet.

“Disorderly conduct.”


I’m going to say this up front: with the exception of a single detail, I love Red Scorpion.  To me, it’s an action classic, made all the more enjoyable thanks to a signature performance from then-rising star Dolph Lundgren (not so far removed from Rocky IV at the time).  I freely admit that it’s far from perfect, but as with so many of its brethren from the Golden Age of action, Red Scorpion doesn’t have to be.  It just has to be fun, hit most of the correct signposts, and show me something extra that I’m not finding someplace else. 

All three missions accomplished, spasiba very much, Comrade.

Red Scorpion is one of the last relics of unapologetic Cold War action, with its American release date coming less than seven months before the Berlin Wall came down and the whole world shifted.  It is, as most military action flicks are to at least some extent, shamelessly propagandistic (and I do mean shamelessly); however, it presents its views from a very unique perspective.  Rather than the standard “American(s) vs. Commie Bastards” rah-rah flick that one can find examples of by the truckload, Red Scorpion is told from the viewpoint of a member of the Soviet Special Forces – the Spetznaz.  Sure, the guy ends up deciding that the Soviets are actually a bunch of horrible bastards and goes turncoat on them so rah-rah The Evil Commies Still Suck, but that’s not the point.  The perspective is the point.  That’s the hook that makes Red Scorpion stand out from the crowd, and with the aforementioned aid of Dolph Lundgren, what has made it endure as a classic to legions of action fans for over twenty years.

Of course, there’s even more there if you want to see it…

…and less.

I’ll start with the “less” and build up from there.

The “less” is what any casual viewer will see.

It starts with the aforementioned propaganda slant, which is poured on with a fire hose.  Never mind that this was the time of Glasnost and Perestroika; in the world of Red Scorpion, the Soviets and their Cuban stooges are mindless monsters who are mean and evil just for the sake of being mean and evil.  No explanation is ever given for what they want in Africa – aside from Total Dominance, of course (I’d guess it’s gold or gems, but the writers didn’t bother to think that far) – and when they leave the fort, they don’t attack and hold objectives, but instead just blast the hell out of every village they see, occasionally spraying chem/bio weapons on people’s heads for a lark.  The level to which the Soviets are portrayed as Neanderthals and the Cubans as weasels goes beyond the standard mark and lands clearly in “absurd” territory, even given the Cold War.  (Hell, the Soviets of the Rambo flicks are portrayed with more sympathy.)

And in case anyone is too drunk or too dense to catch how awful these So-Ve-Yet and Cu-Banno Commie Bastards are, the script has seen fit to drop in a jingoistic American journalist (M. Emmet Walsh, one of two Blade Runner alums in this flick) to spell it out in tiny but loudly proclaimed words, often punctuated by “Fuckin’ A!”  This, to me, is the one place where Red Scorpion trips up.  If everything else is entertaining (which it is), I can deal with the rah-rah propaganda, but Walsh’s character is too much.  Even in the absurd world of Red Scorpion, he’s completely useless and adds absolutely nothing of significance to the story other than the fact that he’s the Token American.  The character is obnoxious and an active annoyance every time he’s on the screen (at no fault of the actor’s, mind), and his presence dilutes the Soviet-eye perspective that is the film’s most interesting up-front selling point.  The movie would be better without him.

Any casual viewer will also notice that the dialogue is pretty basic stuff, and that lots of stuff goes “boom.”  More dedicated fans will notice these things too, but instead of writing them off as proof of mediocrity, we revel in them, because we understand that there’s an art to these things, and that Red Scorpion gets them right.

First and foremost, of course, there's Dolph Lundgren.  Though Red Scorpion is only his third headliner (second top billed) and fourth movie overall, it’s remained a favorite for Dolph’s fans, and rightfully so.  Despite being saddled with a haircut that no adult human being should have to endure, Dolph kicks ass, and he does it in classic 80s fashion, delivering kicks, punches, bullets, and one-liners with flair and efficiency.  The early bar fight and its lead-in rank together as one of Lundgren’s all-time classic moments, capped off by an exchange that some will write off, but which true genre fans will appreciate:

“Are you out of your mind?”

“No.  Just out of bullets.”

Classic, I say.

Nor is Dolph the only person in on the fun.  With all of the chases, fistfights, and gun battles, there’s plenty of gunpowder, steel, and bare knuckle joy to go around.  Of particular awesomeness for many fans is the appearance of Brion James (the other Blade Runner alum in the cast) as a Commie heavy.  He doesn’t get enough screen time by my count, but when he’s there, he’s a treat to watch.  And of course, it wouldn’t be a 1980s flick about nasty Soviets without an appearance by the infamous Hind attack helicopter (or at least another chopper pretending to be one); you know, the monstrous one with the giant wings bristling with firepower.  Aw, yeah!

Need another bonus?  Try this one: the nasty makeup effects, like those involved with the cringe-worthy skewer torture scene, are courtesy of Mr. Tom Savini.  Yeah, that’s right; the guy who made the original Friday the 13th bloody awesome.  You want quality?  There’s quality, my friends.

And just to make sure that Red Scorpion stands out from the crowd for more than just performing well with the standard “boom” package and rockin’ some major Dolph action, there is the aforementioned Soviet’s-eye perspective.  Even with the full understanding that these alleged “Soviets” and “Cubans” and propagandized caricatures, the fact is that other movies of this type don’t bother putting their cameras on this Red side of the fence unless there’s a Delta Force commando sneaking around behind it.  It’s different, and even for its obviously colored portrayals, it’s refreshing.  No American or other Western military uniforms, or ex-Green Berets or what have you acting as mercs.  In a genre full of clones, the fact that Red Scorpion keeps Red focus really does set it apart from the pack, and in a very compelling way.

So da, action fans, Red Scorpion delivers all of the goods you’re looking for, and then some.

And yet, though even most hardcore action fans stop here, satisfied, there’s still more to see, and I’m not just talking about the harsh beauty of the African wilds that the camera often captures to wonderful effect.

Beyond the action and the explosions and the hilariously bad cut of the Soviet uniforms (which no propagandist had to fake), Red Scorpion also provides an often overlooked series of moments that tell a great story without any guns, explosions, or even characters who speak the same language.  I refer to the transformation of our hero from a then-disgraced Soviet Spetznaz waiting to die under the African sun into the tribe-honed hunter who earns the name that is the film’s title.  This is some of the most powerful stuff in the entire film, and yet it is often completely overlooked, or treated as a training montage at best.  In fact, this is where Dolph Lundgren shows, for those who care to see, that he’s not just a muscular dude who can make ass kicking look good; he’s also a real actor.

Indeed, Lundgren’s challenge is even greater because the man opposite him is not an actor, but rather, a real, honest-to-goodness, 95-year-old Bushman (and tribal chief) named Regopstaan.  While watching our hero first be rescued and then trained like a Bushman and finally initiated into the tribe through a rite that involves ingesting scorpion venom, one can see that with little more than body language and a few words that don’t necessarily amount to character communication,  Lundgren conveys the full transformation of his character from “lost” to “found;” from one mindset to another.  This isn’t just filler, people; it’s real drama, and that’s real acting you’re seeing from Dolph Lundgren.  It floors me to think how few people seem to appreciate that, even amongst his fans.  If for no other reason, these moments by themselves should be cause enough for any Dolph fans out there to give Red Scorpion a second look.

And then of course there’s the fact that Synapse has just put together an ass kicking new blu ray release of the film, which delivers not only a great looking cut of the movie, but tons of worthwhile extras that any Golden Age action fan and especially any Dolph Lundgren fan will find very much worth the price of admission.  Forget the Netflix queue, folks.  This is a blu ray you go out and buy.

Bottom line, there’s a reason that Dolph Lundgren fans continue to look upon Red Scorpion as a classic title, and that’s because it is one.  All of the trappings of Golden Age action are there, along with a unique (if heavily skewed) Soviet-line perspective, and Dolph showing his chops not only as an ass kicker, but also as an actor.  Red Scorpion is one old school action flick that’s definitely worth revisiting.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012


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