Standing at six feet five inches tall, Dolph Lundgren was the strapping alpha male of 80s cinema. After landing a tiny role in the James Bond movie A View To A Kill in 1985, the latter half of the decade saw the chemical engineering graduate, ex-bodyguard and Karate champion at the height of his rippling powers.
Lundgren punched Apollo Creed to death in front of James Brown in Rocky IV in 1985, starred as He-Man in Masters Of The Universe in 1987, and two years after that, headed off to Namibia to shoot his toughest assignment yet: the action epic, Red Scorpion.
Apparently fated to play Russian characters – his brief appearance in the 007 flick was as a KGB henchman – Lundgren plays Nikolai Rachenko, an elite Soviet soldier sent on a mission to Africa. Ordered to kill the leader of group of rebels, Nikolai finds himself so horrified by the Soviet army’s treatment of innocent people that he switches allegiance, choosing to fight instead as a guerrilla soldier on the side of his new-found friend Kallunda Kintash (Al White).
If this brief synopsis makes Red Scorpion sound like it has something serious to say about oppressed people in other countries, forget it. There’s one scene sums up what Red Scorpion is truly about, and it’s where Lundgren’s stripping down to his undies by an inviting-looking pond, only for the tranquillity to be interrupted by a massive explosion that blows him approximately ten feet up into the air as all-out war kicks off.
Red Scorpion’s about abrupt, unsubtle action, guns, and, most importantly of all, Lundgren’s hulking torso. In fact, if Red Scorpion has anything to teach us about how to engage in a guerrilla war, it’s that a ripped, naked torso and close-cropped hair are more important than how many soldiers you have fighting alongside you.
To suggest that Red Scorpion is like a Rambo movie would be grossly unfair – Red Scorpion is a Rambo movie. It features the same kind of lone warrior fighting against an army of stunt men who were hired to play dead. There are friendly characters who help the hero out a bit, and who you just know won’t make it to the end credits alive. There’s a part where the hero’s tortured by the bad guys, just like in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and a Hind helicopter even makes a late appearance, just like Rambo III.
Unfortunately, director Joseph Zito didn’t have the budget of the second or third film in Sylvester Stallone’s action franchise, which means that he couldn’t afford to bring forth the same level of epic violence and once record-breaking bodycount of Rambo III. Red Scorpion’s action sequences are brief and relatively low-key, and what should be an epic bloodbath of a final act is surprisingly abrupt.
What Red Scorpion does have, though, is a cracking roster of boo-hiss villains, headed up by TP McKenna, who’s clearly having a great time as the evil General Vortek (“Checkmate, you rebel bastards!”). With the Cold War still plodding on, the Russians were a convenient source of villainy for Hollywood action movies, and Red Scorpion’s are as despicable as any in the 80s B-picture canon, as they torch entire villages with flamethrowers, and leave poor Dolph out in the desert in a tiny pair of shorts and no sun cream to salve his blistering skin.
Fortunately, the great M Emmet Walsh is around to bear witness to the Russians’ atrocities. Stuck in the thankless role of an American journalist, Walsh appears to have been hired to provide a running commentary on everything that’s going on. “The next sound you’ll hear will be the attack of a Russian Hind gunship!” he bellows into his tape recorder as explosions go off all around him. In fact, I suspect that Walsh only agreed to do the film because it gave him the chance to meet up with his old Blade Runner chum Brion James, who hams it up wonderfully as another sneering Russian bad guy.
All the senseless razing of African villages and terrible sunburn eventually becomes too much for Lundgren, and after making an old man laugh by throwing a spear at a boar, our hero oils himself up and leads his band of rebels into battle.
Initially armed with nothing more than a shotgun, Lungren storms the Russian’s stronghold and unleashes his righteous fury. Due to their inability to accurately hit anyone with a speaking role, Lundgren quickly cuts a swathe through the Soviets’ ranks, proving that, even if you’re more than six feet high and approximately five feet wide, you’ll never get hit if your opponent is fighting on the side of communism.
In his brief yet scintillating final battle, Lundgren lifts up a jeep (though why he has to do this is never clear) beats up an old nemesis, and in a stand-out scene, survives an encounter with Colonel Zayas (Carmen Argenziano), who threatens him with a grenade. “I hardly think you’re in any position to be asking questions, comrade,” gurgles the colonel. “This is such a small space. And this is such a very big grenade.”
Lundgren does what any sensible soldier would do: blows the colonel’s arm off.
Then, in a scene that appears to reference The Sword In The Stone, our hero spies what we can only describe as a Huge Chuffing Gun. It’s introduced lovingly, high on a pedestal, bathed in glorious light. Lundgren snatches it up and in a final orgy of bullets, kills the big villain of the piece: the evil Hind helicopter.
The most important thing to learn from Red Scorpion, then, is that if you’re going to get into a dirty guerrilla war against an army whose numbers and weapons far outweigh your own, make sure they’re communists. Also, don’t worry too much if you only have a shotgun to defend yourself with – a bigger gun is bound to come to hand later on. Oh, and for goodness’ sake, don’t forget to pack your lucky shorts.
Red Scorpion is out now on Blu-ray.