BR: Red Scorpion (1988)

November 16, 2012 | By

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Film: Very Good/ BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras:  Excellent

Label: Synapse Films/ Region: A, B, C / Released: June 12, 2012

Genre: Action / Exploitation / Propaganda

Synopsis: Betrayed by his Soviet superiors, a special forces expert goes rogue in war-torn Africa.

Special Features:  Audio commentary with director Joseph Zito and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson / Featurette: “Hath No Fury: Dolph Lundgren and the Road to Red Scorpion” / 2 Interviews: “Assignment: Africa” interview with producer Jack Abramoff + “Scorpion Tales” interview with make-up effects artist Tom Savini / Tom Savini’s behind-the-scenes video footage / Animated Still Gallery / Making-of liner notes by Jeremie Damoiseau / Theatrical & TV Trailers / Reversible sover design / New 2K transfer of uncut version / Bonus DVD version with identical extras




Synapse’s new Blu-ray of Red Scorpion – which features the first North American release of the needle-friendly uncut version – places the film in a better context than prior bare bones video releases. It’s still a disposable exploitation action film, but its origins and production history are uniquely rooted in politics and ideology of the era.

As described by producer / co-screenwriter Jack Abramoff, the former Washington lawyer and lobbyist was approached by a documentary crew as a consultant for a proposed film on the Angolan Civil War which was arguably sustained by divisive internal forces and ongoing support by Communist / East Bloc / Cuban (Cuban?) and rival Western powers which exploited the war as a defining battle between East vs. West in classic Cold War stances.

Abramoff intriguingly felt the conflict would be better served through a fictional drama, and when the documentarians chose to walk away from the project, the former lobbyist took his story of a Soviet special service officer and eventually got a production deal with Warner Bros. Pre-production began in Swaziland, but everything was scrapped and rebuilt in Namibia, with equipment and munitions effects aide coming from the South African Army.

By this point, WB had pulled out of the production, but filming eventually moved forward with Shapiro Glickenhaus as the main production entity, and Dolph Lundgren in the starring role – a part Abramoff had written expressly for the strikingly built actor after seeing him in Master of the Universe (1987) and Rocky IV (1985). Playing Lt. Nikolai Rachenko, Lundgren is a perfect fit, and the script keeps him minimally verbose (which works both for the character and Lundgren’s limited dramatic range).

RS is essentially a variant on the theme of internal betrayal – something expressly exploited in the second Rambo film where its eponymous character is used and lied to by his superiors, and then wages war against the corrupt faction of his military, fueled by personal rage if not a hunger for revenge after being recaptured and tortured.

Worked into RS’s design is a lengthy vision quest storyline where Rachenko is saved by a bushman (beautifully played by 95 year old tribe leader Regopstaan), taught a few tricks of survival, and sent on his way to reunite with the rebel forces he was ordered to cripple. Many of the scenes are filler material, but they’re also part of the script’s longer design which labours to reinforce the evils of Soviet caricatures and their effects on native peoples.

RS is strikingly anti-Communist propaganda with Rachenko eventually adopting the behaviour, humour, and blue-worded catch-phrases of hard-living U.S. journalist Dewey Ferguson (M. Emmet Walsh, devouring scenery with profanity and sweaty sneering), and it’s a classically drawn battle between an oppressive foreign regime whose poisonous ideology has divided a nation and needs to be expunged by free-thinking, poorly armed, noble-minded rebels. The film works swell on this propagandistic level, and a major plus are a series of elaborate practical effects with real stunts, explosions, car crashes, and explosive destruction; RS is a time capsule of the era’s politics (which haven’t aged that much, really), but it’s also mindless action packaged in a very slick production.

Joseph Zito’s fairly straightforward direction is augmented by Joao Fernandez’ evocative cinematography which exploits natural locations and makes the sets look more sophisticated. Jay Chattaways’ score offers a great blend of orchestral and synth, with melodic and action cues giving Rachenko some of the depth Lundgren isn’t able to convey because of his often stoic dialogue. (The limits, however, feel natural: he’s a Soviet soldier in Africa with marginal English. Surrounded by people who generally detest or distrust him, he has little reason to be verbose.)

Synapse’s Blu-ray and DVD boast really crisp transfers and robust soundtracks, with the 5.1 remix spreading out the surround image and retaining most of the bass oomph present in the original 2.0 mix. The BR transfer is slightly grainier, but it gives the film a grittier feel, matching the coarseness of Rachenko’s interactions with his former superiors, and seeing for himself the villages laid to waste by the deadly / sexy Hind air gunship that’s aptly treated like a demonic machine by Zito and the sound editors.

Prior video releases tended to trim minor and whole sections of the film, with special hatred towards the torture scenes involving Rachenko and the insertion of long needles. Tom Savini’s effects are grisly, but limited, as Zito wanted to maintain a careful balance between exploitation and comic book; the latter is really the best way to appreciate the film.

There’s also small discussion on the commentary track with Zito regarding deleted material, as well as the truncated finale that’s really the only flaw in the film: Rachenko returns to the rebels, proves his determination to fight with them, and the editors brutally smash-cut to an assault-in-progress which goes against the other carefully choreographed and paced action scenes. It’s still a finished sequence, but missing is the transition material that may have once existed.

The commentary is brisk and informative, and avoids duplicating material in the other featurettes. Savini’s habit of videotaping the building and use of his effects work offers up rare behind-the-scenes footage of the torture and severed hand effects, as well as an explosive head which, according to Zito, was solely created by Savini to kill time while waiting between sequences in the small city.

Lundgren is given a fairly lengthy career profile, and Abramoff is also interviewed after recently serving 3 years in jail for fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy (as heavily covered in the U.S. media).

Although Zito and Abramoff had no intention of making a sequel, the film’s success and fan base ultimately convinced Abramoff to produce a new entry in 1995, featuring a new group of characters, and filmed in, er, Canada, because that’s where the next Cold War battle was prophesized to occur by Nostradamus himself.

Note to fans & collectors: Synapse’s special edition differs significantly from the U.K. release by Arrow Video, with the latter offering booklet notes by Calum Waddell, an intro and new featurette with Lundgren, an interview with composer Chattaway, and different audio commentary with director Zito and moderator Howard S. Berger.



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


External References:

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