For me, being a film lover is comparable to being a treasure hunter. An endless quest to overturn every rock and see what may be found underneath. And there are no greater treasures for this particular film lover than action films from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Call it the powerful tug of nostalgia, but when I revisit classic action films of my past, or even better yet, discover new action films of that era, I get a bit overexcited.
So, it is with that fair warning in mind that I declare Red Scorpion a new love in my life! I had a blast with this film from start to finish. And the only bad part is that sad feeling a treasure hunting film nerd sometimes feels after they have unearthed a gem and wondered: When will I next uncover something so fun?
Am I overhyping or overselling Red Scorpion? Absolutely. But a man has his guilty pleasures, and I can’t hide mine!
Red Scorpion is a particular class of movie. Definitely not an “A-list” action feature from the 1980s, but very much at the upper crust of the “B-list” from that era. Director Joseph Zito is a bit of a genre hero who brought us such classics as Missing In Action and Invasion USA before unleashing Red Scorpion. And I argue that Red Scorpion easily trumps either of those films in quality, although Dolph Lundgren probably never achieved the cultural saturation that Chuck Norris did.
Red Scorpion offers the best of 1980s action excess, but oddly and successfully pairs those tropes with a genuine hero’s journey. Nikolai Rachenko (Lundgren) is Spetsnaz, one of the most elite Soviet soldiers. And he is tasked with a daring mission: An undercover assassination of an African rebel leader who is causing the USSR trouble. Rachenko must go alone, gain access to this rebel general, and assassinate him. Along the way, however, Rachenko meets up with a rebel lieutenant and an American ex-pat (played by M. Emmitt Walsh!). Nicolai begins to bond with these men and has some adventures with them. But he remains on course to assassinate his target. When he fails at this, he finds himself alone in the world. Nicolai is tied up and cast out; only to be found by his former commander and ultimately stripped of his rank and tortured.
Of course, our hero manages a daring escape, but finds himself now utterly alone. It is at his lowest point that he finds himself stumbling through a barren African desert and poisoned by a scorpion’s sting. At rock bottom, Nicolai is discovered by Gao, a native bushman, and begins his path to genuine redemption and ideological change.
Now don’t take me all too seriously here, because although Nicolai’s ideological shift feels fleshed out and genuine in Red Scorpion, the culmination of his shift comes to fruition with the utterance of that powerful rallying cry: “Let’s kick some ass.”
Yes, once Nicolai spends his needed time out in the desert (thirty days and thirty nights?) with the bushmen (which works a lot better in its execution than it sounds like it would on paper), he emerges ready to fight for the rebels’ cause.
At that point, marked with a tribal tattoo of a scorpion on his constantly exposed pectoral muscle, Nicolai becomes an unstoppable soldier of justice. And he will reap awesome, brutal vengeance upon his former comrades.
As I’ve mentioned, Red Scorpion is a legitimate gem of the 1980s action movie canon. It captures a still-rising Dolph Lundgren and uses every strength in his arsenal to create one of his most iconic action heroes. It also displays director Joseph Zito’s strengths in combining awesome practical effects work with a reasonable-sized budget and a healthy sense of humor. Everyone involved knew what Red Scorpion was supposed to be, and it holds up incredibly well here in 2012 because all involved brought their appropriate levels of game to this fun feature.
And although I don’t want to assign all too much meaning to Red Scorpion, it needs to be noted that Nicolai’s journey of change plays very believably. Yes, Lundgren is an enormous, hulking mass of a man. A born action hero. But almost all of Nicolai’s thought process is processed internally, in that stoic manner that all the best action heroes implement. And the filmmakers cast a genuine, and incredibly aged, bushman chief to play Gao. The visual pairing of an aged and withering native man walking in the wilderness with the biggest hunk of European flesh ever birthed is striking and bizarrely effective. Gao isn’t concerned with politics or war. His simple willingness to care for Nicolai, teach him, and heal him, is all Nicolai needs to understand that he has been fighting for the oppressors.
I feel like the stars aligned on this project to generate an end product that entertains on all the right levels and offers a surprising amount of authenticity amidst its exploding arms and battle helicopters fueled entirely by testosterone. And it is a matter of record that future political lobbyist and prison inmate Jack Abramoff was the producer on this film and made sure that it had an overall anti-Soviet tone and therefore a “ra-ra-America” feel to it.
I want to keep writing and highlight the incredibly cool gun that Dolph ends up wielding towards the end. Or the amazing makeup effects of Tom Savini which were used for an incredible looking torture sequence and the aforementioned exploding arm. I want to talk about how close the explosions all seem to be going off around our lead actors and… alright, I’ll stop gushing and just tell you that Red Scorpion is a 1980s action gem which deserves the awesome treatment it has gotten from Synapse Films in this Blu-ray release.
I love that we live in a time in which a small film distribution company such as Synapse Films can resurrect a movie like Red Scorpion and bring it to us in a glorious high definition. Red Scorpion was given a brand new 2K digital scan, and the audio was remixed as well. There is a commentary track with director Joseph Zito which proves that Zito is a very fun loving and earnest director who is proud of his work without sounding grandiose. And there are even some really interesting interviews and rare behind the scenes video footage from the production. Synapse Films has undoubtedly created the definitive edition of Red Scorpion with this release.