Red Scorpion a.k.a. Red Exterminator (1989): Breakdown by Kain424
A Spetznaz operative sent in to kill an African revolutionary has a change of heart and turns on his comrades.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Dolph Lundgren is Spetznaz Lieutenant Nikolai Rachenko
Rachenko is apparently the best of what the Russian special forces have to offer, a perfect soldier unmatched in combat and efficiency. In fact, all he seems to have is his pride in being a soldier. When his superiors discount his efforts, he immediately drops his allegiance to them but his Spetznaz pride remains.
I can’t tell whether Dolph is bigger here or in Masters Of The Universe, but he’s pretty damn huge here. Strangely, he’s playing a Russian again, something he would end up being known for despite only doing it a few times and very few people ever seeing this movie. I always thought this was the weaker of his Russian characters, but his action scenes are great.
M. Emmet Walsh is Dewey Ferguson
Walsh brings the same amount of enthusiasm to the role of the American reporter character that he did the American Vietnam vet in Missing In Action. As they are essentially the same character, I will only glaze over the character slightly. He is, in effect, they way Americans perhaps see other countries as seeing them: overweight, overinvolved, loud, and ultimately overzealous and obnoxious in their approach to solving other peoples’ problems. It’s endearing though, right?
Regopstaan is Gau
Gau seems to exist in another realm entirely, making the movie all the more interesting for including this character, which I think is purely an accident. While Rachenko represents a killing machine firmly detached from his fellow humans and Ferguson a man who feels so much he cannot have empathy for his enemies, Gau is on neither end of the spectrum. Nor is he someplace in the middle. He has some opinions on the Russian invaders (upon seeing a decimated village, he remarks that “the evil ones have been here”), but lives outside the realm of the conflict and helps Rachenko regain his help and makes him shoes. Played by a real, 95 year old bushman, Gau gives heart to a plot that otherwise is about as deep as a dinnerplate.
T.P. McKenna is General Vortek
Not much characterization is given to the character clearly originally named for a sci-fi flick, but we do see how blithely he wages a high-tech war against a primitive people. At best, Vortek is a military caricature. In a left-leaning film he’d also be the bad guy, that’s how much of a goofy stereotype he is. He doesn’t even care about his own troops.
Carmen Argenziano is Colonel Zayas
Zayas is sort of a flipside to M. Emmet Walsh’s Ferguson, but being a suspicious bad Russian instead of a suspicious good American. But even after Vortek sort of betrays him and Rachenko, Zayas remains a faithful soldier to the end. That’s either a strong character trait or bad writing. You decide.
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
Where to begin. Dolph’s “bad-ass” dress code includes eyeliner, a do-rag, and cut-off short shorts. Hello! In one of the moments where Tom Savini’s effects (yes, Zito was able to snag the great special FX guru) are memorably used, Lundgren is chained up and tortured by having large needles (nails, really) stuck through various points in his body. There’s a lot of gay sadism oozing through that scene. And this is without mentioning the constant use of phallic imagery (with the tanks, guns, big-ass knives, etc.) throughout the movie.
But the biggest gay throughline of the movie comes from Walsh’s reporter character, who has an unimaginable hate-crush on the beefy hero of the picture. Jumping into a waterhole fully clothed, Walsh beckons Lundgren to join him, telling him to “take it off. Take it ALL off!” And during the final battle sequence you should hear the loving, exhasperating way he tells his new ex-Communist buddy to “keep kicking that ass.” So much love.
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
Yeah, speaking of gay, women are almost entirely absent from this feature. Sure, you can spot them taking notes or raising children off on the background, but a lead character without a penis? Forget about it!
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ Over 170, and several animals ]
As mentioned before, the man behind the best special FX in the Friday The 13th films did the gore effects here. And with a bodycount this high, I’ll bet he had his hands full. Especially since he apparently only had two assistants. But he did a fine job, especially with a great scene where Dolph blasts off a guy’s arm with an AO-36. That was awesome.
As this is a Rambo-style war movie, we get a lot of deaths from gunshot and explosions. But there are also stabbings, broken necks, strangulations, and a whole load of poisonings. An unrated version exists somewhere featuring a minute-long sequence of Russian soldiers attacking a village with flame-throwers, but my search for this version has thus far been in vain. Naturally this means my bodycount tally may be off. But still, Dolph manages to net around 50 kills over the course of the film. Fuckin’ A.
Here are several versions I have of the film, all contain various cuts. The two North American releases are without differences, but there are a few minor cuts to the foreign copies, or just a shoddier transfer. One day I’ll find that unrated cut, one day…
[editor’s note: Arrow and Synapse put out uncut versions with new transfers a few years after I wrote this. They are excellent releases.]
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
Zayas tries to threaten Rachenko with one of the biggest grenades ever, but the big guy’s having nothing to do with that. He’s more interested in finding Vortek. So instead of prolonging his encounter with the sub-boss, Rachenko simply shoots off the colonel’s arm at the elbow and leaves the newly handicapped Cuban comrade to his own devices. It doesn’t end well for the poor guy.
After feigning drunkenness, starting a fight with some soldiers and shooting up the bar until the clip on the machine gun is emptied, Rachenko is confronted by Zayas, who asks, “Are you out of your mind?”
Rachenko belches and slurs:
“No. Just out of bullets.”
Dolph Lundgren has never gotten the respect he’s so sorely deserved, and this is one of the many films demonstrating this massive injustice. Fans of Lundgren generally place his films in three distinct categories: lower tier (bad stuff like Retrograde), middle tier (decent to good efforts like Sweepers), and top tier (movies like The Punisher and occasionally his directorial efforts, such as The Mechanik). I would, without question, place Red Scorpion in the top tier.
The story follows a lieutenant in the Spetznaz forces infiltrating an anti-Communist revolutionary movement in order to assassinate its leader. Being a giant white guy in Africa, his plan is easily foiled and he is captured. To prove a point, the revolutionaries allow Dolph to live, sending him back to his commanders knowing full well the evil they will do to him. This, of course, marks the change in Lt. Nikolai Rachenko’s perspective. Especially when he escapes into the wilderness and is rescued from certain doom by the bushmen who lurk there. After restoring his health and teaching him the noble ways of the natives, Dolph sees a land in need of protection and mounts an offensive against the Russian invaders in an explosive climax.
As it was produced by the now infamous right-wing lobbyist Jack Abramoff, it’s certainly bald propaganda, but it’s fun bald propaganda. We get all the guns firing and explosions one could ask for, as well as a Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style chase sequence where Lundgren dangerously did his own stunts. The terrific final action sequence is easily the most memorable, pulling all the stops to ensure a bloody confrontation between Dolph and his former comrades. As the bodycount mounts, the guns our hero uses continue to increase exponentially in size. Eventually Dolph wields a truck-mounted cannon he has to donkey punch in order to fire!
Directed by Joseph Zito with a violent exuberance that could only have been accomplished in the 80s, the movie smashes its way across the screen like a leaner but occasionally meaner Rambo picture. Looking at Zito’s track record, this should come as no surprise. Zito had smashed into the mainstream in 1984 with the one-two punch of Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter (despite its name, the fourth, and often called the best of the series) and Missing In Action. If Zito was anything, he was a B-movie wizard, something like a cross between John Woo and Paul Verhoeven without heavy plot lines or technical consistency. Still, while his style tended to be campy and the action immensely violent, Zito could always be counted on to combine those elements into something fun, as he did with the wonderfully silly but definitive Chuck Norris epic Invasion U.S.A. Sadly, disputes with Cannon over the ensuing years and then production problems on Red Scorpion led to that being his last film for ten years. We’ll never know what great films we would have had from him had he stayed in the business during the bland 1990s. But rest assured knowing Red Scorpion is quite the action fest.
The movie is, in effect, a sort of rock and roll version of a Rambo flick, action clearly meant to be “cool” rather than just a particular means to an end. Arbitrary reasons of given for Dolph to take off his shirt and fire large wepaons at ever-increasing numbers of faceless bad guys, face-paint is applied for similar reasons, and the soundtrack consists almost entirely of Little Richard (likely because of how well it worked in Predator). By no means am I suggesting this is a bad thing, but rather that if one were to attempt a serious analysis of the film, it would surely be in vain. The message is clear from the get-go: America is good and awesome; Russia is cold and evil, even in Africa.
Surprisingly, amid this shallow interpretation of the Cold War, we still get a view of the sad fate of those likely viewed as collateral damage. The locals, caught in the crossfire of conflicting ideologies, are slaughtered excessively in the film. This extends from women and children to even the wildlife in the area. Houses are burned down, blown up, and people are shot or poisoned through chemical warfare. And whatever high-tech implementation the villains and film makers use to demonstrate these atrocities, there is no more effective means of conveying the damage being done to these peoples’ homeland than the rather amazing acting of one 95 year old bushman named Regopstaan.
Lundgren himself gives a very amiable performance here, allowing his character to go from brute killer to lost child and then finally to smiling brute killer. It’s not DeNiro, no, but it’s better than the material deserves. It also helps the movie flow, bouncing from being nasty, to sad, to awe-inspiring. Admittedly, it doesn’t reach the heights of any of the Rambo films it so desperately riffs from, but it certainly tries and, at times, I think it succeeds in being a worthy action film of their caliber.
In addition to the usual fun character work of M. Emmet Walsh, we also get Brion James as a smarmy Russian M.P. He doesn’t add a lot to the film, but I always enjoy seeing him pop up in a movie.
Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge about this film is there were many problems faced during the production. Funding was pulled on several occasions, at one point leaving the cast and crew stranded in Johannesburg for almost three months. This is, of course, after the rights to film in Swaziland were yanked out from underneath the film makers forcing them to turn to Namibia (then occupied by South Africa) in a last ditch effort to get the movie made. Unfortunately, the distributors at the time (Warner Bros.) were in a binding agreement (known as the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act; look it up, kids) to boycott South Africa for its practice of apartheid and dropped any attachment to the film.
Naturally, all this led to a smaller audience than Red Scorpion should have had. So regardless of whether or not the film was intended to be some sort of political toy of Abramoff’s, it’s not a bad bad actioner and certainly not a bad outing for Lundgren during his early career.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Communists bad, Americans good. Lundgren, a Swede, bad-ass. Also: “In America, an American can swear whenever, wherever and however much he or she fucking well pleases!”
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
[X] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[X] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[X] Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[X] Giant Explosion(s)
[X] Heavy Artillery
[X] Improvised Weapon(s)
[X] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[X] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
[X] Manly Embrace(s)
[ ] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[X] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[X] Stupid Authoritative Figure(s)
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[X] Torture Sequence(s)
[X] Unnecessary Sequel [Red Scorpion 2]
[X] Vehicle Chase(s)
[ ] Vigilante Justice
[TOTAL: 21 outta 25]