The ’80s often get tagged as the age of the blockbuster, but the decade also saw a major incursion of independent films into the mainstream: not just from artists like David Lynch and Spike Lee, but from shlockmeisters capitalizing on the popularity of home video. Alongside the mega-hits Back To The Future, E.T., and Ghostbusters, the ’80s gave us the likes of Missing In Action and Invasion U.S.A. Joseph Zito directed the latter two films, and he helmed one of the strangest projects of the era: the lurid 1989 anti-communist action-flick Red Scorpion. Produced by Jack Abramoff—yes, the notorious lobbyist jailed for corruption—and intended to help popularize the right’s foreign-policy agenda, Red Scorpion stars Dolph Lundgren as a KGB thug who turns on his Soviet masters after he spends time with the resistance fighters of a small African nation. The production was troubled; Zito and company were kicked out of Swaziland and regrouped in Namibia, which at that time was controlled by South Africa, and thus subject to anti-apartheid cultural boycotts. The controversy—and some measure of action fatigue—led to Red Scorpion bombing at the box office, but movie cleaned up on VHS.
While Red Scorpion was nothing special in 1989, it looks better now. Maybe that’s because the beefy B-movies of today tend to be tongue-in-cheek, and rendered via CGI, while Red Scorpion is more earnest, and full of real stunts. Or maybe it’s because the culture that produced this movie now seems more distant and exotic (even though the politics haven’t changed that much). Whatever the reason, Red Scorpion’s barely functional dialogue and relentless string of explosive chase sequences no longer seem as exhaustingly hacky; now it’s more quaint. It’s easier now to appreciate what the movie does have going for it: namely Lundgren’s superhuman torso, glistening heroically in the desert sun; and M. Emmet Walsh as a gun-toting investigative journalist who praises America as the land of free speech and then proves it by yelping, “Well yippee-dee-fuck!” If Abramoff’s intention was to make the case for military intervention in communist-controlled countries, then Red Scorpion falls well short. But if he wanted to prove that America is the world leader in awesome pop trash, then the closing-credits soundtrack of rock ’n’ roll and artillery fire says it all. Mission accomplished.
Key features: A 30-minute featurette about Lundgren’s early career, a 10-minute interview with Abramoff, a 10-minute interview with Tom Savini (who supervised the gruesome images of slaughter and torture), and a jovial Zito commentary track.