Inessential Essentials: Revisiting Live Action Hero Dolph Lundgren in Red Scorpion

The film: Red Scorpion (1988)

Why It's an Inessential Essential: Co-scripted and produced by Jack Abramoff, Red Scorpion is a starring vehicle for Sweden's own living action hero, Dolph Lundgren. Being the modest gentle giant that he is, Lundgren has nothing but good things to say about the film during the interview segment he shot for Synapse Films new release of the movie. But that says more about Lundgren's personality than it does the crackerjack B-movie. As self-styled Lundgren expert Jeremie Damoiseau remarks in his annotated(!) liner notes, Red Scorpion nearly ruined Lundgren's career (more on this shortly). 

Lundgren plays Lieutenant Nikolai Rachenko, a Russian "killing machine" that is tasked with murdering the leader of a group of rebel insurgents leading a coup in Africa. The Russians want the rebels stopped so they hire Rachenko to cozy up to the rebel leader's advisor, now imprisoned by the Russians. In spite of repeated warnings from a smug, four-letter-word prone American journalist (M. Emmett Walsh, scowling up a storm), the rebel leader's advisor grows to trust Rachenko, who in turn starts to see the murder and destruction caused by his comrades. Rachenko inevitably changes sides and becomes a hero, but only after being tortured by needles, attacked by scorpions, shot at, assaulted by a tank, thrown onto a moving motorcycle and berated repeatedly by the inimitable Walsh.

How the DVD/Blu Ray Makes the Case for the Film: In his liner note, Damoiseu gives a stirring and comprehensive history of Red Scorpion that reveals how the film's freaky production history helped to make it a memorable role for the charismatic--look at him pout!--athletic--thighs as big as a Rob Liefeld comic book character!--and smart--has a master's degree in chemical engineering!--Swede.

According to Damoiseau, Red Scorpion was a vanity project for Abramoff, who Lundgren describes during his supplementary interview as "patriotic," and, "fiercely anti-Soviet." Case in point: the film's budget more than doubled from its original $8 million. Furthermore, production on the film continued even after the New York Times reprinted a story that revealed Abramoff and director Joseph Zito were disrespecting the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 by shooting in South Africa. That article stirred up considerable controversy, like when, to quote Damoiseau, "Sweden's own Isolate Africa Committee called for a boycott of all films starring Dolph Lundgren." The controversy surrounding Red Scorpion, which got a meagre first-run domestic release in America of 1,200 screens and grossed $4 million in its first two weeks, also made it difficult for the Lundgren-starrer The Punisher to be released in American theaters one year later in 1989.

But at the same time, what makes Red Scorpion so fun is the fact that everyone was clearly throwing caution to the wind when they made it. The film could have been shot anywhere but instead it was shot in the desert, causing the film's shooting schedule to distend from its original 2 1/2 months to 4 1/2 months. The film's crew similarly used real guns and real dynamite for stunt-work. And while Tom Savini's make-up effects certainly wasn't real, Lundgren did many of his own stunts. Several live black scorpions were let loose on his back in one scene (their stingers had rubber tips put on them) while a P.O.ed hyena took a bite out of Lundgren after the filmmakers shot a deleted scene that's not featured in Synapse's release but is alluded to in Damoiseau's essay.

Other Trivia: Lundgren is such a generous and kind raconteur that it's pretty funny listening to him reflexively trying to defend some things that any other star else would either conveniently gloss over or dismiss. He praises Sylvester Stallone's detail-oriented direction of Rocky IV but also commends Red Scorpion director Zito for his zeal: "Zito was very postitive and had full momentum all the time rather than focussing on the individual scenes." Furthermore, Lundgren's not even sure why he did some of the stunts that he did for Red Scorpion, saying about a stunt where he jumps onto a speeding motorbike: "I don't know if I was just stupid or if Zito wanted it." He added, "Crazy! I would never do that today."



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