The other day I was reading an article about Jack Abramoff, the notorious Republican lobbyist at the middle of a bribery scandal that’s dragging down Tom Delay and supposedly ties in to at least 30 other DC ho’s. The whole thing is real complicated and the charge right now is for wire fraud but the investigation has brought to light all kinds of payoffs, exploitation of Native Americans, embarrassing racist emails and a supposedly coincidental death that anybody with at least one eye will notice appears to be a mafia style hit. We’re talking more corruption than even Senator Billy Jack probaly knew about.
Anyway, the particular article I read referred to Abramoff as a “former b-movie producer.” Holy shit! I thought. I guess I hadn’t been following this closely enough because I hadn’t heard that before. The trusty ol’ internet movie database explained that Abramoff had produced and wrote the story for the Dolph Lundgren picture RED SCORPION, not to be confused with RED SONJA, RED DAWN, RED SUN, RED EYE, THE RED VIOLIN, THE RED BALLOON, or Krysztof Kieslowski’s THREE COLORS: RED. He’s also credited as executive producer on RED SCORPION 2. That’s it although his brother Robert went on to produce a bunch of other movies I never heard of.
Further research brought me to this article from Salon all about Abramoff and RED SCORPION. It’s an interesting story, well worth clicking through the ads.
Now, I’ve always been real interested in action movies with a left wing subtext, because you don’t get it too much. There’s Billy Jack and there’s some Paul Verhoeven and John Carpenter movies. But mostly in this genre, especially in the ’80s, you had movies that bought into the Reaganite worldview, glorifying the blowing away of commies or inhuman street scum crooks. You got all the cop movies about those god damn liberals with their red tape, always going around and coddling serial killers, giving them a back rub and telling us we gotta be careful not to bruise their wrists when we cuff ’em. I always figured these attitudes came from copying the undeniably great DIRTY HARRY and the freakishly popular RAMBO 2, not from an actual political bias among creators of action movies. But here is one documented case of a right wing political operative deliberately using a Dolph Lundgren movie as propaganda for one of his pet causes.
Lundgren plays Nikolai, a Russian “killing machine” sent in to assassinate an anti-communist rebel leader in an unnamed (as far as I could tell) African country. To be frankly honest I was not entirely clear what was going on but I believe the Cubans are controlling this African country in conjunction with the Soviets and the African rebels are resisting.
I’m not sure what Nikolai’s plan is exactly, but he storms into a bar already drunk. When he loudly kicks the door open nobody notices, but when he burps the whole bar goes silent. Then he goes around shoving people in the face, steals a soldier’s machine gun and shoots the whole place up. (Property damage only.) He ends up in jail coincidentally in the same cell with an African rebel leader and a redneck American journalist played by the great M. Emmet Walsh. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to kill the rebel leader or get in good with him but at any rate he sees his fellow communist comrades trying to execute him and suddenly decides to beat them up and help the two capitalists escape.
Right away we discover the weirdest motif in this picture: for some reason Little Richard music is like Kryptonite to commies. They hate the shit. All freedom loving Americans and African rebels like to play “Good Golly Miss Molly” and shit like that all the time. M. Emmet Walsh even plays it over a loudspeaker on a truck as they escape, which seems to help. The end credits plays Little Richard’s “All Around the World,” but they added in machine gun sounds and explosions. So it’s a not so subtle warning that we are gonna import our rock ‘n roll to every last corner of the earth. The rock ‘n roll is a metaphor for capitalism and freedom, and the machine gun and bomb sound effects are a metaphor for actual machine guns and bombs.
Walsh plays an obnoxious character like usual but I think he’s supposed to be your buddy because he’s always talking about things like how you’re allowed to fucking curse all the time in America because of freedom of speech. So he’s a good American but as a journalist he seems a little suspect though, he goes around making recordings not talking about the facts of what’s going on so much as stating his opinion that it’s an outrage. God bless him for putting in 110% but you’d think maybe it would be smarter to stay at home if he’s just writing editorials.
The African and the American don’t trust Nikolai at first, even after multiple instances of running around Rambo style, killing entire platoons that are after him. Vast differences in marksmanship are always a key factor in these types of movies and fortunately it’s the good guys who have the miraculous shooting skills and the bad guys who shoot like they got no hands and they can only use their stumps. It’s not really explained why Nikolai is so fuckin badass, but his evil commie bosses expect alot of him, as if he’s an android or something. I thought communism was supposed to be about the commune working together at the expense of the individual, but they always expect Dolph Lundgren to do everything by himself. And when he doesn’t, they chain him up and beat him. Ironically, right wingers in the ’80s imagined commies doing the same type of pervy shit that they themselves are known for now.
Of course I am a man who would be proud to enjoy a Dolph Lundgren picture, but I can’t deny that this one is mostly a snoozefest. Most of the action doesn’t have too much momentum to it, it’s just spraying machine gun fire and various vehicles exploding. More importantly though there’s just these long drawn out scenes where not much is happening. You have to see tired-eyed Dolph stumbling drunk, stumbling tortured, stumbling dazed through the desert, etc. Also one thing about Dolph, he doesn’t have all that much charisma. I mean honestly, I bet this guy is fascinating in real life. He’s highly educated with degrees in everything from martial arts to chemical engineering. It’s gotta be interesting to talk to a guy that is actually smart but seems dumb enough that he could play Ivan Drago and Red Scorpion. And at the very least he’s gotta have some good stories to tell about dating Grace Jones and maybe James Brown on the set of ROCKY IV and of course Jack Abramoff.
But on film he’s just a real tall piece of meat. Especially when he has to fake a Russian accent. He does better than most of the other guys in the movie, though. How are you supposed to believe Brion James is Russian? And even he does better than the guys playing Cubans. Except for Walsh and some genuine Africans, EVERYBODY in this movie is badly faking an accent, and that can be tedious.
There’s a couple good bits though. One part, he’s acting all sexy taking his shirt off to go swimming and all the sudden a bomb drops behind him causing him to flip into the water. But silly shit like that is the exception to the rule. The movie only picks up about 2/3 of the way through when he has a Billy Jack experience in the desert. I figured RED SCORPION was just supposed to be a badass title, but then he literally gets stung by a scorpion and passes out in the desert, hangs out with some bushmen and then they trick him into drinking scorpion juice and carve a scorpion design onto his chest while he’s passed out, possibly experiencing some sort of African vision quest. So I guess that’s why he’s the Red Scorpion, he comes from Russia and he drank scorpion juice once. I guess it is also possible that the actual scorpion who stung Dolph is the red scorpion, but if he is red I don’t know why he would sting a fellow red like Dolph. Especially if he knew it was going to help Dolph undergo a complete transformation of morals and economic systems. Come to think of it neither the scorpion or Dolph are red by the end of this adventure. So it should probaly just be called Scorpion.
Also by the way, commies are also called pinkos, so it could also be called PINK SCORPION. I wonder if they ever considered that.
After his scorpionation, he emerges from the desert to lead a rebellion against the Cubans and Soviets and whoever else it is that is the bad guys. You’re not really able to see his new scorpion scar but he is clearly a changed man because now he wears really short shorts. Who wears short shorts? Dolph Lundgren wears short shorts. One of the communists he fights is wearing no shirt, so it is really kind of tragic, I bet these two inappropriately dressed Russians have alot in common. But instead of sitting down in a bar together and telling stories about the battles they’ve fought and the strange juices they’ve drunk, they find themselves eyeball to eyeball in the battlefield, or actually in this case, in a hallway.
I should mention that at this point M. Emmet Walsh has driven in in a vehicle to lend a good ol’ American helping hand in the battle, but he is not present during the short-shorts vs. shirtless fight. If he was I bet he would say some shit like “no shoes, no shirt – no mercy.”
On the surface the movie is pretty harmless. We’ve all seen the overblown communist threat action movies of the ’80s, and this isn’t as over the top as RED DAWN or something. But the movie’s subject matter is another example of short sighted foreign policy, obsessing over one bad guy so much that we end up supporting a different bad guy that will later come bite us on the ass. RED SCORPION doesn’t have to be as embarassed as Rambo must be about working with the mujahadeen in part 3. But according to Salon the Abramoff brothers (who wrote the story and hired first time writer Arne Olsen, who would go on to write COP AND A HALF starring Burt Reynolds) based their fictional African country on Angola and their rebel leader on Jonas Savimbi. In the movie he’s a straight forward hero, in real life he was blamed for murders and later for a civil war that cost thousands of lives. And really you’ve got to be suspicious of any black movement propped up by apartheid South Africa. Because that’s fishy, in my opinion.
Which brings me to the truly sinister side of RED SCORPION revealed in the Salon article. No one disputes that the tanks and other military props in the movie were supplied by South Africa. The article also says that no one knows where the Abramoffs got the funding for the movie, but many (including members of the cast) believe it came from South Africa. Abramoff and guys like him worked with the South African government because they thought they were the last chance to stop communism from spreading through Africa. That’s why Dick Cheney for example would vote against a resolution condemning apartheid. Not because he HATES black people. Just because he hates communism, and doesn’t CARE about black people. So don’t worry, he is not a bigot – just a horrible, heartless, inhuman sonofabitch with no soul or morals, who maybe saw Rocky 4 a couple too many times.
I think this story is worth remembering because looking back, it’s hard to believe that even a piece of shit like Dick Cheney would’ve openly supported the South African government back then. But they did. They wanted to stop communism and they were willing to overlook fucking apartheid in their quest. If you can keep that in mind you can understand a little better why if he’s really trying to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism he would do it by burning people alive with chemicals, raping children in prisons and other unorthodox/insane/counterproductive methods. Because you can’t make an omelette without shoving electrodes up an egg’s ass and throwing its son naked in the back of a pickup truck and driving it around town in the cold night. Well actually you can but remember this guy likes apartheid so he makes weird omelettes.
And that’s how the making of RED SCORPION is relevant today. Somebody call the Criterion company, this is a behind the scenes featurette I need to see.
In the Salon article Olsen says of the Abramoff brothers, “They wanted to get a message across, but at the same time they were going for exploitation and of course trying to make some money.” Which is also a perfect description of Jack’s later career as a lobbyist.
Abramoff apparently had little to do with the sequel, and one IMDB reviewer claims it has a pro-communist storyline. It’s only on VHS and my video store doesn’t have it so I’m shit out of luck. Anyway, maybe if that fucker gets out of jail alive he’ll come back to Hollywood and make part 3. I’m not sure the current South African government would warm up to him as much as the old one, though.
UPDATE FROM THE FUTURISTIC YEAR OF 2018: Abramoff is no longer the only RED SCORPION producer/Republican operative to be connected to a huge scandal. Paul Erickson (who has no other credits) has been named (but not charged) in the indictment of accused Russian spy Maria Butina. He allegedly worked as a conduit between the alleged spy and alleged Republican politicians.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.