• Red Scorpion

    Released by:
    Synapse Films
    Released on: June 12, 2012.

    Director: Joseph Zito

    Cast: Dolph Lundgren, M. Emmet Walsh, Brion James

    Year: 1988

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    The Movie:

    The history behind Joseph Zito’s 1988 action opus Red Scorpion is, in many ways, just as interesting as the movie itself. The film was plagued with trouble during its shoot, with political strife in its original location of Swaziland resulting in a change to South Africa during the apartheid years. The resulting controversy lead to Warner Brothers, who had originally agreed to distribute the film, backing out of the deal and the film wound up going way over budget and leading man Dolph Lundgren distancing himself from the picture. On top of that, the project was spearheaded by none other than Jack Abramoff, the infamous Washington lobbyist and former College Republican Committee Chairman who was convicted on corruption charges years later! The movie holds up well, however, thanks to some fantastic action set pieces, a good sense of humor, some fun performances and some excellent camerawork.

    The story begins when a special agent for the U.S.S.R. named Nikolai Rachenko (Dolph Lundgren) is hauled into the office of his commanding officer for a briefing on his next assignment. Given Nikolai’s experience working undercover, he’s to be sent to a fictional African country to assassinate the leader of an anti-communist resistance movement named Sundata (Ruben Nthodi). To do this, he gets himself arrested and winds up in a cell with an American journalist named Dewey Ferguson (M. Emmet Walsh) and a member of the resistance, Kallunda Kintash (Al White). He helps the pair escape and it looks like he’s deserted the red army they assumed he served under – until they lead him back to Sundata, at which point he attempts to follow orders and take Sundata out.

    When he’s outsmarted by the resistance forces, he winds up on the receiving end of some pretty harsh treatment from the motherland and winds up in the desert where he’s bitten by a scorpion. Taken in by a bushman named Gao (played by a real life African bushman named Regopstaan), Nikolai soon sees the horrors that his people have inflicted on the natives and quickly changes sides for real this time, leading the resistance fighters on a charge against the evil communist oppressors in the ultimate fight for freedom!

    It’s noted in the extras that Dolph’s character in this film is basically an extension of the character he played in Rocky IV, a very cold, stoic and highly trained example of ruthless communist era Russian machinery. He plays the role well, offering no emotion in the first half of the film and doing his job as efficiently as he can with the sole intention of carrying out his mission to the best of his ability. Of course, once things backfire and he realizes the error of his ways, his change of heart is almost immediate and his odd and unlikely relationship with Gao serves as the sort of paradigm shift that sets the last half hour of the movie into motion where he goes about trying to set things right. As it is in a lot of action movies, there’s the theme of redemption running throughout Red Scorpion and Lundgren handles this character development well. Walsh is there really only to provide comic relief, something he’s proven himself quite capable of time and again throughout his career, this film being no exception.

    At the same time, he also proves to be pretty much invincible, a Superman of sorts able to take on a ridiculous amount of red forces with only fleeting help from a ragtag group of rebels and… Emmet Walsh (he did come in handy for Chuck Norris a few years earlier in Zito’s Missing In Action, after all!). When all the dust settles this is an action movie first and foremost and let’s level here, it’s the violence and explosions that are what most people are going to remember about this film. On that level it delivers, and the fact that all of the special effects were done ‘in camera’ (meaning no CGI or computer enhanced fire here, this is the real deal!) makes the action set pieces all the more impressive. The use of a real Russian HIND helicopter adds some authenticity and as Lundgren notes in an amusing story in the extras, the weapons training the cast received on the shoot was very real indeed.

    In the end, Red Scorpion may not be a film that’s easy to take seriously, but it does tell a cool story, make great use of some often frighteningly authentic locations and offer up some superb camerawork courtesy of (former Gerard Damiano) cinematographer Joao Fernandez, the same man who shot Deep Throat and The Devil In Miss Jones! The film was followed by a sequel called Red Scorpion 2: Spear Of Destiny but it didn’t really have anything to do with this original picture.


    Red Scorpion
    hits Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer and the results are impressive. Detail looks solid throughout and the movie’s arid looking color palette is reproduced very nicely. Black levels are strong and deep and there’s no evidence of edge enhancement or noise reduction, the movie looks appropriately grainy, just as it should. Skin tones look nice and lifelike, there weren’t any noticeable issues with shimmer, banding or contrast blooming and both detail and texture consistently impress. That scene where Dolph is lying face down with the scorpions on his back? You can see the pilling on his tank top and the dirt on his face and neck as clear as you could hope for. There are no compression artifacts either – Red Scorpion looks really, really good here. Not every shot is as razor sharp as the next (close up shots show more detail than some of the long distance panorama shots out in the desert, for example) but all in all this is a pretty huge step up from previous DVD releases and a very fine transfer all around.

    Audio options are offered in English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo Master Audio with optional English closed captioning. Both tracks sound very good here, offering clean and clear dialogue and some nice channel separation. Purists will opt for the 2.0 mix while surround enthusiasts will appreciate the added dimensionality that the 5.1 track provides. Bass response is strong across the board, with the explosions packing some welcome punch and gun shots offering some nice wallop, while the is mixed in nicely, never overpowering the performers in the mix. No complaints here, Red Scorpion sounds great.

    As far as the supplements go, things start off strong with an audio commentary featuring director Joseph Zito and moderated
    Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson. This is a solid track, with Thompson doing a fine job of keeping Zito talking about this picture throughout. As this was a fairly troubled production in terms of shooting and location, Zito’s got some good stories to share but he’s also got a pretty laid back attitude about all of this and a sense of humor about himself as well. One of the more interesting aspects of the talk occurs when the two discuss the Zito’s approach to realism in this film, and how to set audience expectations in order to accept a certain amount of or lack of believability in a movie like this. Of course we also hear about casting, Abramoff’s involvement, political issues that wreaked havoc on the production schedule and more, resulting in quite a well rounded and interesting discussion of the film, its history, its place in Zito’s filmography and its reception.

    Up next is a twenty-four minute featurette entitled Hath No Fury – Dolph Lundgren And The Road To Red Scorpion which is a pretty great sit down chat with the star of the film who talks about how he got into acting while working as a bodyguard on a James Bond film and through his relationship with Grace Jones. From there we learn about how he was cast in Rocky IV, which leads to his taking the lead in Masters Of The Universe and then Red Scorpion. Dolph is pretty candid about this and other movies he has starred in over the years, noting that this movie basically launched him as an action hero, a role he has managed to play time and time again over the years. He comes across as a really nice guy, very good natured and down to Earth and it’s a kick to hear him reminisce about the early years of his moviemaking career. He also discusses how he wound up doing a lot of his own stunts, what it was like working in Africa and an alternate opening scene that was considered for the film but never made.

    Equally interesting is a fourteen minute interview with producer Jack Abramoff entitled Assignment Africa in which the former Washington lobbyist discusses how he was initially approached by a documentary film crew who wanted to get his input on a project they were making about the issues going on in Africa in the eighties. This eventually took him on an interesting trail that landed him in the producer’s spot on Red Scorpion. He talks about the film’s politics, what the ideas were based on, and what it was like working with Zito and Lundgren and he shares a few interesting experiences about some of the issues that the cast and crew ran up against on this project.

    Tom Savini is up next in a featurette entitled Scorpion Tales (get it?) where he discusses his makeup effects work on this picture, the major set piece being towards the end where a certain character loses his arm. He talks about how he did what he did on the movie, what it was like working in Africa, and some of the complications that arose and how they eventually lead to budget issues which meant that some of his effects work wasn’t used. Savini also contributes some behind the scenes footage that he shot on the set of the film during the production, most of which centers around the parts that Savini would have been involved in like the shoot outs and the aforementioned arm scene. It’s kind of cool to get to see this stuff, it gives us a glimpse into what the set was like and how the cast and crew prepared for some of the more action intensive moments in the film.

    Rounding out the extras is an animated still gallery containing a load of home video cover art, promotional art and stills, a trailer for the feature, and a bunch of TV spots for the feature. All of the extras are in high definition and as this is a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack release, a regular DVD version of the movie and the extras is included in the same case. Also included in the same case is an insert booklet of liner notes written by Jérémie Damoiseau who runs the
    Dolph – The Ultimate Guide website that give a nice history of the production and distribution of this particular film. Last but not least, it’s also worth noting that the cover art for this release is reversible.

    The Final Word:

    Synapse Films has done a very fine job with this release of Joseph Zito’s Red Scorpion. Not only is the movie a blast and one of Dolph Lundgren’s finest moments but it appears on Blu-ray in excellent quality, impressing in both the audio and video departments. Maybe just as importantly, however, the film is presented with some excellent extra features - all killer and no filler! The commentary and featurettes help to put this one in its proper historical context and do an excellent job of filling in the story behind the movie, really leaving no stone unturned. All in all, this is the total package and fans of the film really ought to consider this one a must own.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Goldberg's Avatar
      Goldberg -
      Lundgren looks like some hipster from Brooklyn, albeit one on STEROIDS!