I’ve always been fascinated with Senator Joseph McCarthy. For those who don’t know, he’s one of the dickweeds who perpetuated “The Red Scare” in the 1950s, seeking out and persecuting anyone with perceived ties to the Communist Party. I understand the fear mongering (dickweedish though it is), but the theory that just being exposed to Marxist ideas would forever taint you against capitalism ironically implied that America was an inherently weak nation. The 1988 badass action movie Red Scorpion doesn’t buy into. Dolph Lundgren plays a Soviet Spetsnaz who goes undercover to eliminate an anti-Communist uprising in Africa, only to turn on his own country in the process, because democracy is just… that… awesome.
There’s something beautifully subversive in that premise. Lundgren, coming off of a famous turn as the Russian super-boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, once again plays a brutish Soviet thug on a mission that threatens the free world. But this time, he’s supposed to be the hero. Asking Americans to root for a Russian patriot in the late 1980s was a risky business, and while the film – finally available on Blu-ray via Synapse – is at its heart a minimally high-concept brawny action whizbang in the vein of Commando and Rambo: First Blood Part 2, it’s even more valuable as a curio; a snapshot of shifting American attitudes towards Communist Russia on the eve of The Cold War’s whimpering finale. And if you’re not buying that, let’s just say it’s only interesting because it’s weird. It was produced by Jack Abramoff, so really… how could it not be?
The film opens in a boring old boardroom where Communist leaders assign Spetsnaz soldier Dolph Lundgren to infiltrate an “evil” resistance movement in Africa and assassinate their leader. To ingratiate himself, Lundgren shoots up a dive bar and gets thrown in jail with one of the revolutionary leaders, played by Al White, and an American reporter played by the great M. Emmet Walsh. Walsh gets to beat up on Lundgren a lot in Red Scorpion, and the only thing odder than writing that sentence is watching it in action. As the lone American in the cast, Walsh is responsible for expressing the blind hatred the target audience has towards the Russian hero’s country. Walsh’s distrust for Lundgren never wavers, making it seem like Walsh is going to learn a valuable lesson, but he’s actually 100% correct. The audience knows that Lundgren is not to be trusted, so Red Scorpion actually justifies American xenophobia whilst simultaneously turning it on its head. Like I said: f*cking weird, right?
So they escape from prison and bounce from one glorious 1980s action sequence to another, shooting down helicopters and road warrior-ing themselves out of desert car chases, but when the time finally comes for Lundgren to complete his mission he screws up royal. Or maybe his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. Either way he winds up on the receiving end of Commie torturers who were supposed to be on his side. Lesson learned, jaded and vowing revenge, Lundgren escapes, eventually receiving some kind of magical powers from the indigenous people and joining forces with the revolutionaries to rid Africa of his former employers, wearing little short shorts all the while.
It’s kind of amazing that Red Scorpion ever got made. Surely executives somewhere must have been pulling their hair out, worried that American audiences would never accept a Russian bad guy protagonist wearing short shorts in a film with no female protagonist (and hardly any women at all) to take the proverbial curse off of that mental image. But under the direction of Joseph Zito, who brought you Crispin Glover’s spastic dance in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, it’s a buff badass action film with plenty of explosions and nary a hint of irony. It get really slow in the middle, especially when Lundgren goes walkabout and teaches bushmen how to say “sandals” for long stretches a time, but it’s a small price to pay for a macho action throwback you might have missed back in the heyday of such a thing.
Synapse has pulled out all the stops on the Blu-ray release of Red Scorpion. It’s actually amazing how many special features a film like this is able to support: audio commentary with the director, interviews with Abramoff and special effects artist Tom Savini, even original behind the scenes footage makes an appearance. Whether you remember Red Scorpion fondly, or just want to know how this kind of movie actually happened, this is the set for you. And the new 2K transfer and 5.1 surround sound mix are spectacular, particularly for the kind of production this was. It looks like you could lick the sweat off of Dolph Lundgren’s pecs, although I’m pretty sure your HDTV manual advises against it.