Red Scorpion (US - BD)
Gabe takes a mission in Southern Africa with Dolph Lundgren's fabulous haircut...
Soviet Special Forces “killing machine,” Lt. Nikolai Rachenko (Dolph Lundgren), is assigned to infiltrate an African rebel uprising and assassinate their anti-Communist leader. Taken into custody and tortured after the mission fails, he stages a harrowing prison escape. Befriended by an African bushman while on the run, Nikolai discovers he was fighting on the wrong side of this violent conflict all along. Nikolai finds the rebel army once more but, this time, he’s on their side and wages bloody war against his former comrades!
Despite my best efforts, I find that I simply can’t find the hours in the day to be an expert (or even a faux-expert) in every major exploitation genre and B-movie movement. In picking my battles, I’ve neglected ‘80s and ‘90s, American-made STV and limited-release action flicks. I’m mostly ignorant when it comes to the bulk of Chuck Norris’ post-Bruce Lee career, I haven’t seen any of the American Ninja movies since I was 11, and the supposed value of The Expendables was lost on me, because I spent my time waiting for something to happen, rather than sitting quietly and enjoying the milliseconds these B-has-beens were sharing on-screen. Now, if you want to talk slasher movies from the early ‘80s, I’m right there with you. I can talk on that for hours. So when I hear the name ‘Joseph Zito,’ I don’t think Missing in Action or Invasion USA, I think of two of the best slashers of the golden era – The Prowler (1981) and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). Few filmmakers working in the formula-driven genre were able to mix the fun, carnival-ride aspects and disturbing violence of slashers, but Zito’s entries are at once revolting and amusing. His early work expertly (or, for all I know, accidentally) toes the line between mainstream acceptability and true grindhouse grit and really deserves comparison to more popular-era counterparts like Sean Cunningham and Wes Craven.
But this is a review of one of Zito’s better-known B-action flicks, a little cult favourite called Red Scorpion staring a genuine badass named Dolph Lundgren. I’ve got friends that could tell you all about the first time they rented Red Scorpion on VHS tape. They probably watched it at a sleep over and hooted and hollered at every explosion and kill. But, for me, this is a first-time experience, and one I’m forced to approach without any real sense of nostalgia. Through outsider eyes, Red Scorpion doesn’t feature quite enough crazy to excite my exploitation instincts. Zito’s direction is perfectly capable – he captures everything in frame, includes some choice, scope-inducing crane shots and doesn’t lose track of his story – but rarely shows the expected signs of grindhouse grit his slasher fans come looking for. Sadly, Red Scorpion ends up too well-made for me to really enjoy it beyond basic action movie expectations. Short of any major gore, I’m still forced to respect the slow-motion-enhanced vehicular smash-ups and admit Zito uses his Southern African landscapes to impressive effect (look at those giraffes!). The screenplay, written by producer Jack Abramoff, his brother Robert Abramoff, and Arne Olsen, is never interesting or unique (it’s basically a location and era transplant of half the political subtext-heavy spaghetti westerns you’ve ever seen, give or take a few characters), but it does maintain a steady clip between bombastic action sequences, which do pop-up with some explosive surprise. In terms of exploitation value, the script is pretty funny in its blatant, dated anti-Soviet propaganda (it’s the African companion piece to Rambo III) and some incredibly dopey overuse of the classic ‘magical negro’ trope.
Now, I may not have the taste for American B-action some of my friends do, but I have learned one universal truth over my years of DVD and Blu-ray reviewing – Dolph Lundgren is a genuine treasure, not the laughing-stock, sub-Schwarzenegger so many of us remember him as. In fact, Red Scorpion sits in the middle of Lundgren’s ‘salad days,’ right before his ‘best’ work in Mark Goldblatt’s The Punisher (where he is also tortured for information around the center of the film) and Craig Baxley’s I Come in Peace. This isn’t his best work due to the fact that he’s forced to keep the crazy wrangled in for the bulk of the film, but he still has an incredible and inescapable physicality, not to mention a sharp haircut; all of which make him hard to look away from. He also flexes his comedic muscle (intentionally?) as he fumbles in short shorts and is laughed at by a tiny, elderly bushman. Lundgren is supported by old standbys M. Emmet Walsh, Al White, T.P. McKenna, Carmen Argenziano and Brion James. Walsh pretty much rules the show whenever he’s on-screen, which is especially impressive since he clearly doesn’t really care about the character.
This release is described as uncut and apparently features some sequences deleted from previous R-rated US releases (for the record, the UK release is cut to PG). I don’t have the ‘cut’ release to compare myself, but, based on the edits listed on various websites, it does appear that previously missing material has been reinstated.
Synapse Films, who is currently giving Blue Underground a run for their HD-remaster money (even if their releases aren’t quite as interesting, overall), has pulled out all the stops for this release. This 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is reportedly a full 2K HD restoration of the uncensored version of the film. It doesn’t sound like the disc’s producers are working from the original negative, but there’s little reason to complain, given these results. The print shows its age a bit in terms of consistent clarity, but, for the most part, looks it like a brand new movie and without much in the way of obvious DNR or other such digital tampering. There is plenty of grain, which increases and decreases depending on brightness, but this all appears natural for 35mm. Artefacts are present in the form of occasional black and white blobs and some shimmer, but compression problems are minor, including some edge-enhancement and slight blocking on some of the brighter reds. Details are really quite sharp throughout, especially in well-lit, close-up, and middle shots. Backgrounds can appear a bit flat, but this appears to be a stylistic choice, and, when it really counts (in the case of a big establishing nature shot), the image remains complex without bleeding or compression effects. Colour quality is natural and clean, aside from the grain, and is well supported by rich black levels. Even the included standard definition DVD with this two disc set is a substantial improvement over most previous DVD releases, which were largely non-anamorphic (only the semi-recent German Splendid Films release was anamorphically enhanced).
Synapse has also gone all out for this release’s audio presentation in creating an ‘all new’ DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (though previous DVD releases have featured 5.1 remixes of the original Dolby surround soundtrack in the past). This remix is a bit overdone in terms of LFE enhancement (every gunshot and punch throbs the room like an earthquake for no good reason), but the sound is quite clear for a film this age and separates some of the mushier dialogue, though overall words are still pretty regularly tinny and feature minor overlap issues. The surround and stereo enhancement is mostly delegated to effects obviously added in post, but, outside of maybe a few awkward slices, the directional movement the mix doesn’t appear betray the original intent. This release also includes the original 2.0 surround for the purists in the house presented in uncompressed DTS-HD MA sound, so assumptions on style are pretty easy to infer.
The story behind the scenes of Red Scorpion is enough to write a book about, starting with alleged financing by the South African Defence Force through the International Freedom Foundation (a right-wing political thinktank co-writer/producer Jack Abramoff helped run). Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid then condemned the production for breaking the international boycott against South Africa and a series of stalls left the cast and crew sitting in Johannesburg with nothing to do for months as the budget ballooned in size. Abramoff also later claimed that the film’s relatively high levels of violence and profanity were all director Zito’s fault. This sordid story is partially told first in this disc’s audio commentary, which features director Zito and moderator/mondodigital.com guru Nathaniel Thompson. Zito is usually a good commentary participant (or at least was on the Blue Underground Prowler track) and works especially well with a secondary commentator, especially one as prepared and ready to ‘guide’ as Thompson (I wouldn’t call Thompson an idol, exactly, but he’s definitely among the internet critics that have inspired me as a writer, and deserves some big credit for his contributions). Part of me wishes Zito was a little more sensationalistic about the behind the scenes strife, but there appears to be no real bad blood between him and Abramoff. I’m also impressed by how much Zito remembers, considering his claim that he hasn’t seen the film in over a decade.
Next up is Hath No Fury: Dolph Lundgren and the Road to Red Scorpion (24:50, HD), a solid, delightfully honest interview with the film’s star, who runs down his education as a chemical engineer, his time as Grace Jones’ bodyguard-turned-boyfriend and his early film career leading up to Red Scorpion. Lundgren discusses his Red Scorpion character as a Joseph Campbell hero with a Frankenstein complex (which is way more credit than the script deserves) then starts in on the huge production issues with a polite face. Assignment: Africa (13:30, HD) is a new video interview with producer Abramoff, who is, disappointingly, not the massive personality you’d hoped he was based on the behind the scenes strife. Here, he follows basically the same story, but covers it from his personal and political slant. There’s also a very brief mention of the under-seen Red Scorpion 2. Scorpion Tales (10:10, HD) features generally under-utilized make-up effects artist Tom Savini discussing his time on the film, complete with footage from his personal home movies and a couple of unused effects. The disc ends with Savini’s uninterrupted video footage (9:10, SD), a still gallery, a trailer and TV spots.
I wasn’t entirely won over by the limited charms of Red Scorpion, but can appreciate Joseph Zito’s strong action direction and Dolph Lundgren’s understated performance. What’s more important here is that Synapse has really gone all-out with this special edition Blu-ray release. The 2K video restoration is clean and colourful without any signs of heavy digital tampering, the new DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is a bit heavy handed at times, but generally quite clean, and the extras include a solid commentary track, three entertaining and informative interviews and a fun collection of behind the scenes footage. I’m really not sure what else a fan could ask for and I highly recommend this release to those that already know what to expect from the film itself.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 12th June 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Extras: Director's Commentary, Hath No Fury: Dolph Lundgren and the Road to Red Scorpion, Assignment Africa, Scorpion Tales, Behind the Scenes Video, Animated Stills, Trailers and TV Spots, Reversible Cover, Liner Notes, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joseph Zito
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, M. Emmet Walsh, Al White, T.P. McKenna, Carmen Argenziano and Brion James
Genre: Action, Adventure and War
Length: 106 minutes
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