Say what you want about the 1980’s, but studios new a thing or two about churning about some memorable B pictures. The 70’s are revered for their Grindhouse productions, and I think many studios had to go through that phase in order to best position themselves for these incredible 80’s cult classics. There were so many of them, sprinkled through the decade, and RED SCORPION remains a true gem definitely worth a look if you’ve never enjoyed it and maybe even worth a second look if you have.
Lt. Nikolai Rachenko (played by Dolph Lundgren) is a Soviet Special Forces killing machine who’s assigned to infiltrating a band of rebels in Africa. His mission is to assassinate their leader before his anti-Communist propaganda turns more of his nation’s people against the Soviet forces. But a failure and a change of heart later, Rachenko joins forces with the man he was sent to kill, now waging an all-out attack on the Soviet Army!
(The film is over twenty years old, so the usual spoiler rules don’t apply, folks. I’ll try to mind my P’s and Q’s, but I may cross into sacred territory, if you don’t mind.)
As a B picture, there’s plenty to love about RED SCORPION. Clearly, the film was written with an action star in mind, and the 80’s put Lundgren on the map. He faced off with Stallone in ROCKY IV. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE followed, and, while a bit of a cinematic blunder, it still cemented the blonde as a ‘go-to-guy’ for bad-buttness for years to come. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (with Jean-Claude Van Damme) was still a few years away, but Lundgren clearly had the look. Only a big bronze body with chiseled good looks could play the Anti-Rambo with such aplomb, punctuating his dialogue with bursts from a machine gun or hacks from a machete, so the Dolphster was snatched up and put to good service by no less than Jack Abramoff (yes, you may need to do some reading to understand the history, good readers!).
Certainly, RED SCORPION was a tailor-made action vehicle. The story practically revolves around one action sequence after another. Lundgren beats up his captors in jail. Lundgren steals a military vehicle. Lundgren endures a truck chase. Lundgren rides a motorcycle. Lundgren trades barbs with veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Lundgren poses and sweats in desert. Lundgren dives away from explosions. Of course, the tale event features some noble ‘come-to-his-senses’ moments as the wounded and ailing Rachenko is befriended by an African bushman who kinda/sorta teaches him the error of his ways, but, as you can expect, it’s all remains centered around the rat-a-tat of machine guns and the blam-blam-blam of Soviet tank fire, of which there’s plenty.
My biggest complaint with the picture is that it never quite felt like it delivered a suitable ending. Sure, Lundgren and his new allies best the Soviet military, but for enduring the last stand the audience was essentially only treated to a popular catch phrase at the time (not printable here). My guess is that the production either ran short of funds and had to judiciously tack on the final scene as haphazardly as they did, or Director Joe Zito lost his copy of the shooting script. (It could happen.) In any case, what they delivered never did justice to the character or his thematic arc; rather, it kinda/sorta feels like a punchline, and that remains to this a day a creative disservice to an otherwise respectable first (and only) outing for Rachenko.
Still, the picture remains widely entertaining. Lundgren proves he had the right stuff to grunt and sweat with the best action stars, which is largely why he remains in employ even today. You know when he goes running through the compound where his curiously 80’s shorts (think Lt. Dangle from Comedy Central’s RENO 911), he’s bound to kill or maim somebody, and – so far as an action star will tell you – there’s nothing wrong with that.
RED SCORPION was produced by Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment. DVD distribution is being handled through Synapse Films. Video and audio presentation here is very solid, though whoever miked Lundgren deserves to be in an unemployment line somewhere. Granted, it’s pretty obvious he struggled a bit with some of the dialogue, but no matter how high I cranked the volume up on this it never quite sounded like what the subtitles told me was said. The disc is full of extras, including a commentary by Zito and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson; some terrific behind-the-scenes and ‘looking back’ featurettes; as well as an assortment of trailers, notes, and stills. It’s a handsome presentation for one of filmdom’s curiously overlooked action films.
A solid three-star RECOMMENDATION. You want to see how a great late 80’s B movie looks? Check out RED SCORPION. It’s actually aged fairly well, given the fact that much of the stunt work was done in-camera AND by Lundgren himself AND you can see that it’s him! Nicely done. While the Blu-ray probably doesn’t really add all that much in terms of its digital resolution, I’m happy to proclaim that, if you’re a fan, than you owe it to yourself to have it in your library.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Synapse Films provided me with a Blu-ray DVD screener of RED SCORPION by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
Dolph Lundgren's own corny 80's action movie akin to Arnie's Commando has the beefy Swede again playing a Russian badass who is tasked with murdering an African freedom fighter. It's kinda like Avatar, only good.