Having wrapped up my series on the action movies of summer ’89, I’ve been enjoying the freedom to dart around to different topics that catch my interest. But I realize there’s a little bit of unfinished business to get out of the way. There were two movies I reviewed in The Last Summer of ’80s Action that spawned not-even-on-DVD-in-the-U.S. sequels five years later. There’s nothing hugely special about either of these part 2s, but you know how I am. I had to see them. And the one that follows series-opener RED SCORPION seems like a good epilogue or postscript, because it really signals a change in world politics.
Remember how RED SCORPION part 1 was produced with the cooperation of the racist regime in South Africa? The sequel is having none of that. In fact it explicitly casts racists as the bad guys. GOP lobbyists Jack and Robert Abramoff are still credited as executive producers, but the movie strays far from their original mission of making conservative arguments in genre movies. The villains are even described in expository dialogue as “ultra right wing.”
Though the specifics of the movie never feel true to life, some of the generalities are depressingly current. It opens with a white supremacist mass shooting in a rock club called Heaven. It’s a gang of shooters, not a lone wolf, and it’s Movie World so they seem to just get away with it, not get shot by police. But it’s a planned gunning down of innocent people in public – even singling out everybody who’s not white – as a terroristic act. Sadly familiar these days.
The perpetrators are followers of Andrew Kendrick (John Savage, who owned that brownstone in DO THE RIGHT THING), who’s basically a Neo-Nazi cult leader trying to enter the mainstream to run for office. He preaches in a revival tent in front of a giant picture of himself wrapped in a Nazi-esque symbol, in private he doesn’t mind a little seig heiling in front of swastika banners, and he has a straight up Nazi-acting henchman named Hans (Vladimir Kulich, THE 13TH WARRIOR, SMOKIN’ ACES, THE EQUALIZER, SAVAGE DOG, THE DEBT COLLECTOR).
But the first speech we see him make could be made by most of the current GOP. A taste:
“Aren’t you tired of aliens coming into this country and taking our job opportunities, bring their friends and their families over to take advantage of our welfare programs?”
In 1994, even an action movie produced by infamous right wing operatives knew that saying that one sentence that hits four of Trump’s favorite talking points makes you evil. In 2019, in fact just the other day, the Trump administration invoked that welfare bullshit in a new policy to cut down on green cards. But this white supremacist character’s words are actually toned down from what Trump would say! Trump would throw in an “invasion” or “infestation,” call them “illegals” instead of “aliens,” call it “chain migration” so it sounds more ominous than just helping friends and family, and he’d definitely accuse them of being criminals. And not one member of his party in Congress would publicly call him on one word of it, because they believe that shit is working to get the base riled up. It is a fact that the current mainstream Republican stance on immigration is more extreme than the intentionally sinister speeches made by neo-nazi b-movie villains 25 years ago. Congratulations GOP.
Kendrick is different from Trump in that he passes for an intellectual, having written books about his philosophy and stuff. But he’s like Trump in that he claims “We don’t condone violence here” when in fact, yes, he very clearly condones violence here. And he gets angry at the one freelancer for The Guardian (Jerry Wasserman, THE FLY II, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2) who asks him tough questions at the opening of the Citadel’s new public-pandering soup kitchen (in fact he has him abducted and tortured), but the rest of the reporters are willing to go in and try the food with him like he’s a normal politician.
The hero of the movie is Nick Stone (Matt McColm, star of Nightman, police officer in THEY LIVE, pirate in CYBORG, agent in THE MATRIX RELOADED, young version of James Garner in SPACE COWBOYS) who, after a fiasco at a big undercover drug bust, gets sent by his boss Colonel West (Michael Ironside, HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II, HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING) to some kind of off the books, you’ll-be-disavowed-if-they-catch-you mission (the Deep State!) to infiltrate Kendrick’s Citadel Foundation. But not to stop white supremacist terrorism – to get back the Spear of Destiny his guys stole from a museum.
The leader of the squad is Sam Guiness, played by Jennifer Rubin, who I know best as the beautiful… and bad member of another elite squad, the Dream Warriors. When he meets her it’s that dumb cliche that he can’t hide his surprise that it’s a woman.
“No, I just wasn’t expecting–”
But from there it’s mostly cliches I like, such as the montage showing all the different team members in their regular lives as Sam introduces them in voiceover. The most memorable is computer expert Vince D’Angelo (Paul Ben-Victor, TRUE ROMANCE, MAXIMUM RISK). There’s a recurring thing where he tries to get women to like him by telling them they have beautiful eyes, and the filmatists are so fond of that joke that they end the movie on it. Billy Ryan (Michael Covert, director of AMERICAN STRAYS and DIRT) is enough of a hick that he has to be the one to go undercover as a white supremacist. Winston “Mad Dog” Powell (Réal Andrews, Port Charles, General Hospital, All My Children, Days of Our Lives) helps him by being the black guy who he threatens in front of everybody. And there’s a guy named Joe Nakamura (Tong Lung, co-writer of BEYOND REDEMPTION) who’s supposed to be a tae kwon do expert, but we don’t see much of it.
They first go on a raid wearing ALIENS style cameras, with Sam and Colonel West watching on monitors, giving them commands, watching them fuck up, still agreeing to use them as a team. First they have to be trained by the Russian expat Colonel Gregori (George Touliatos, the villain from GLADIATOR COP), whose brilliant philosophical idea is to tie them together and make them climb up a cliff, so they learn that if one of them falls they all do. They notice he has a tattoo of a scorpion, and once they start to bond with him he tells them about training the Red Scorpion Brigade, and how there was this one guy “Nikolai – finest fighting man I ever knew” and his hopes that this team will be “people with the courage to be like he was.”
So there’s your entire connection to RED SCORPION, but am I crazy – wasn’t he just Red Scorpion because those bushmen fed him scorpion venom and carved a picture of one into him? I don’t remember that being the name of his squad. Maybe it was both.
The most hard to swallow scene of the movie is the stunt they pull to get Billy Ray into Kendrick’s good graces. Mad Dog walks in during one of his sermons and starts yelling at him for being racist, and not one of these skinheads and what not make a move toward him, or even stand up, or even yell at him! Eventually Billy Ray threatens to shoot him, but everyone else remains calm even before Kendrick tells them to. That’s just not how it works.
But they bring Billy Ray into the fold and he’s almost immediately having sex with one of the racists (Suki Kaiser, BLOODHOUNDS II). I only mention this scene so I can note that he wears boxer shorts with pictures of hot dogs on them. Then he’s found out, so Nick and Sam have to go undercover as a rich conservative couple interested in funding the Citadel. This of course leads to one of those tense dinners where the bad guy brings out captured Billy Ray and others and tries to make them shoot each other, clearly testing what the fake rich couple will abide by, and maybe he knows they’re fake, we’re not sure.
There’s a good line where, just after executing a so-called coward at the dinner table, Kendrick asks his guests “More coffee?” But Savage doesn’t deliver it like a crazy, threatening line. More like he’s just being polite and doesn’t see the absurdity of it.
I want to love this movie. I like what it’s about, and many of the action movie traditions it follows. But so much of it feels like they didn’t quite have the rhythm to pull it off. There’s various shooting, lots of burning gasoline and exploding, some kicking, ziplining, etc. The valuable artifact is returned to its original purpose as a weapon. It’s more action than you get in some movies, but it all feels so stiff and basic it’s hard to get real excited about. I’m also sorry to say that Rubin isn’t very convincing with some of the tough boss lines, and some of the script’s attempts at witty dialogue exchanges come off awkward.
An example: Like in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD there’s a joke about the martial arts cliche of hands registered as lethal weapons. Sam is explaining Joe’s abilities and starts to say, “His hands–” Nick interrupts to guess “Are registered as lethal weapons?” and she explains that no, that’s not a thing. But what was she actually going to say about his hands? Why did she bring them up? It seemed like it didn’t make any sense.
But the proceedings are livened by Savage’s occasionally mega performance. He’s obessed with wind, I think mostly as some kind of Nazi metaphor, but it makes for some good goofs. When he’s about to be hit by a massive fireball he excitedly says, “Wind. WIIIND!”
And it doesn’t just blow him to pieces. First he catches on fire and runs around holding the priceless historic spear, yelling “I’m the wind!” A great fire stunt. But this glorious windy death he wants is cut short when the squad sees him and someone asks “Oh, aren’t you dead yet?” before they all casually shoot him. “Bye. Nazi,” says Nick dismissively.
Directed by Michael Kennedy, this is definitely much more fun than his THE SWORDSMAN, but not as fun as TALONS OF THE EAGLE. The script is by Troy Bolotnick & Barry Victor (CYBORG 3: THE RECYCLER), with a generous “based on characters created by” credit to Arne Olsen.