Red Scorpion (1988, Joseph Zito)

I wasn’t aware of Red Scorpion’s production history, which has original distributor Warner Bros. pulling out because it filmed in Namibia, under apartheid South African control at the time, as well as the investors and producers being pro-apartheid… you’d think Warner would’ve checked. You’d hoped Warner would’ve checked.

And, now, if we can “but anyway” away from that grossness, I’ll get back to saying Red Scorpion isn’t bad, actually. For a movie with a questionable script—it’s a white savior movie about Soviets special forces titan Dolph Lundgren going to Africa to kill a revolutionary only to discover the Soviets are the bad guys and he really should be helping the native people. There’s also a thing where the Cubans are the real bad guys and the Russians are still basically okay. A little.

Lots to unpack with Red Scorpion, even before you find out the production history.

Also there’s M. Emmet Walsh, whose entire schtick is screaming about how everyone needs to kill Russians, go America. He’s a reporter covering the native Africans fight against the Cubans and Soviets. His entire bit is swearing and being that most fictive of creatures… the non-racist Reagan Republican. Walsh isn’t good by any stretch, but he’s also not bad in any particularly egregious ways. He’s got chemistry with costar Al White, who’s the revolutionary Lundgren needs to buddy up with in order to get to the leader.

Ruben Nthodi is the leader. He’s bad. Not like, not good but not too bad like Walsh or White, he’s just bad. It’s unfortunate, because the script’s surprisingly sincere in his characterization and if they’d spent the M. Emmet Walsh money on the Nthodi role… probably would’ve worked out better.

Will Lundgren discover the native Africans aren’t actually enemies of the people? Will he go on the requisite white savior vision quest with magical African bushman Regopstaan? Will Regopstaan and Lundgren, despite neither of them having much in the way of acting skills, be sort of adorable together?

It helps everyone sort of knew what to do with Lundgren… what to expect of him. He can run around, he can punch things, he can kick things, he can play injured, he can play like he doesn’t understand the language, he can do pretty much everything but talk. He’s totally fine just playing a silent, gigantic, slow on the pickup hulk. The movie misses the chance to call him “Blondie” in the lost in the desert sequence but of course it does… Red Scorpion gets by on a strangely sincere flex in its exploitation, some surprisingly solid action editing from Daniel Loewenthal.

Well, not in the third act, which isn’t a complete misfire but is far from a success after the surprisingly solid second act. Red Scorpion gets a whole lot of mileage out of the Lundgren and Regopstaan material in that second act.

Plus the third act has Lundgren attacking the bad guys wearing Jack Tripper shorts? Like, I guess it makes sense in the second act when he loses all his clothes and his body seems to be excreting oil to protect against the sun, and leads to one of those adorable Regopstaan subplots… but for leading the assault? Pants, man, pants.

Or it’s like the one time cargo shorts would be okay.

There are some special effects gaffs (and also some rather good effects) and Zito doesn’t really shoot the interior action sequences well, but Red Scorpion’s… not bad given the litany of caveats.

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