Red Scorpion Blu-ray Review
Directed by Joseph Zito
Written by Jack Abramoff
1988, Region A, 105 minutes, Unrated
Blu-ray released on June 19th, 2012
Dolph Lundgren as Nikolai Rachenko
M. Emmett Walsh as Dewey
Al White as Kintosh
Nikolai Rachenko is an elite member of the Soviet Special Forces on a mission to infiltrate a rebel army in Africa and assassinate their leader, a notorious butcher named Sundata. Nikolai manages to get himself arrested and thrown into a cell with two men, Kintosh, a prominent member of the rebel army, and an ugly-American journalist named Dewey. After a brief face-off with local authority and a fantastic prison break choreographed to the music of Little Richard, Nikolai has gained the prisoners’ trust and soon arrives at the rebel base.
Sundata is no chump and easily sees through the Russian menace and waits for him to fuck up. It doesn’t take long for Nikolai to fail at his mission and get kicked out of the camp only to return to his less-than-thrilled comrades. He is briefly tortured for information and then stripped of his rank and honor. A second escape finds our protagonist back in the desert with only his tiny shorts to protect him. Luckily, a 95-year-old bushman comes along and befriends the giant muscle-head before discovering that his village has been destroyed by the Russian army.
Nikolai learns that his comrades are actually a bunch of jerks that need to be blown up and he returns to the rebel base with a new mission…blow the dicks out of Africa. Kintosh, Dewey and a generous serving of Little Richard aid in the downfall of the Russian/Cuban armies and patriotism soars as the bad guys are shot to shit. The end of the adventure finds our hero surrounded by new friends and beginning to show signs of a sense of humor, one of the several (read: all) previously absent emotions.
Red Scorpion is a film more memorable for the drama behind the production than for anything within the movie itself. The history is that the teenage King of Swaziland saw the size of the production and fearing it was a military coup in disguise, refused the producers access to his land days before filming was scheduled to begin. The solution was to simply relocate the movie into neighboring Namibia, controlled by the South African government, ignoring the UN sanctions against the country for continued crimes against the population.
Producer Jack Abramoff, a future blight in the world of political lobbyists and a federal felon, managed to ignore the growing strength of the anti-Apartheid movement, and funneled the necessary money into the right hands and soon production was under way, until Warner Brothers, the studio financing the picture, got word of these shenanigans and pulled out of the deal. Independent financing came together to finish the picture and the rest is sort-of history.
Director Joseph Zito (Missing in Action) seemed like an obvious choice to direct this explosive cheesefest. If he could revive Chuck Norris’ career then he could surely help Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV) carry a picture. The script called for some torture scenes and battle carnage, so director Zito tapped special effects legend Tom Savini, with whom he had previously worked with on The Prowler, Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter and most recently the Chuck Norris film Invasion U.S.A. Numerous script changes streamlined the anemic plot and emphasized the fish-out-of-water dynamic of Dolph and the bushman (Regopstaan).
The number of clichés this film embraces while trying to strike out on its own is laughable, but in the end the movie is as satisfying as its closest box office contender of the day, Rambo III. This release is being touted as the original uncensored version that, although playing intact in theatres, was subsequently re-edited for various video releases. Despite having Savini’s work in the film, the only significant material reinstated here involves a small village showered with flammable liquid moments before a literal firing squad arrives with flame throwers. The scene is less gratuitous than the notoriety would suggest.
There are some notable oddities in the supporting cast, starting with an all too brief performance from the late, great Brion James (The Horror Show) as a military henchman. Also on hand is Al White (Airplane jive talker #1) as rebel lieutenant Kintosh. Perhaps the most familiar and welcome face is the legendary M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple) saddled with the comic relief as Dewey, the abrasive journalist and President of the Little Richard fan club. Walsh seems to be having a fine time cashing this paycheck and it is always nice to see this legend appear on screen, so I can’t fault his presence here. I don’t know why the soundtrack is so overstuffed with Little Richard tunes, but they provide a cue for when audiences are supposed to be having fun.
Overall, Red Scorpion is a nice artifact from a time capsule of cinema that ended with the Cold War. Dolph Lundgren has recently escaped the direct-to-video graveyard with his role in The Expendables films, and with this success hopefully a new audience will seek out what once made this guy fun to watch. Hopefully somebody will release a re-mastered Showdown in Little Tokyo.
Video and Audio:
Another quality release from Synapse Films as there is little doubt Red Scorpion has ever looked better. While this is not exactly a reference-quality disc, the colors and fine detail produce the desired effect and pop from the screen. The original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is faithfully presented with solid blacks and a natural amount of film grain.
In a nice attempt to satisfy new audiences and purists alike, the audio options include both the original stereo mix as well as a fully re-mastered 5.1 DTS-HD track that really delivers during the many action scenes. Dialogue is a little thin at times, but never fully buried beneath the mayhem.
First up is an engaging commentary track with director Joseph Zito and Mondo Digital’s Nathanial Thompson. The conversation is casual and fun with all aspects of the production covered. While a little light on Abramoff and the Apartheid scandal content, there is enough information to satisfy listeners. A fun drinking game may come with every time Zito mentions placing a “marker” cue for audiences that he isn’t attempting to make Apocalypse Now. Indeed he knows exactly the kind of film he made, but at times appears uncomfortable when some of the lacking qualities present themselves.
The main supplements come in the form of a series of featurettes:
"Hath No Fury: Dolph Lundgren and the Road to Red Scorpion" is a discussion with the action star and his career leading up to this cinematic classic. Lundgren instantly comes across as likeable in this half-hour conversation that covers everything from dating Grace Jones (A View to a Kill) to the amount of stunts he performed himself on Red Scorpion.
"Assignment Africa" lands the most surprising interview as post-penal producer Jack Abramoff sits down for a 15-minute discussion of the production and its lesser known sequel.
"Scorpion Tales" is a 10-minute visit with special effects master Tom Savini. The man is always welcome and knows exactly what fans want to hear. Goddamn, that Savini can tell a story.
Even better than Savini stories is the rare glimpse at his home movies. Reliably bringing a video camera to most sets, here we are granted a 10-minute look at behind the scenes footage he shot on set in Africa in 1988.
A pretty self-explanatory animated still gallery, a seven-minute slideshow providing a glimpse of marketing print ads, promotional art and assorted stills are also available.
Rounding out the special features are the original theatrical trailer and TV spots.
The two-disc set also includes a DVD version of the special edition.