"Let's kick some ass."
That's preeeeeeeetty much the plot summary for Red Scorpion right there too. Red Scorpion, filmed after that one-two punch of Rocky IV and Masters of the Universe, stars Dolph Lundgren as Soviet Spetsnaz soldier
Nikolai Rachenko. Less a man than a soulless instrument of war, Rachenko is dispatched to assassinate the fiercely anti-Communist leader of a rebel group in South Africa. Infiltrating the rebels is easy enough: gargle some vodka, get tossed in the clink, bust out the leader's right-hand (Al White), and earn enough of his trust to get up close and personal with the big man himself. Actually killing the guy...? Well, that proves to be a little more problematic. Rachenko's handlers don't take the news of his failure all that well, torturing him in the hopes of learning whatever rebel secrets he's keeping squirreled away in that tightly-cropped head of his. After pulling off another daring escape and being taken under the wing of an elderly African bushman, Rachenko witnesses first-hand the horrors his former comrades have been inflicting on the proud people of this country. Rachenko signs up with the rebel forces, cocks a shotgun, and steels himself for some steamy, blood-spattered Commie-on-Commie action.
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Red Scorpion is...yeah, definitely a mid-to-late '80s action flick, with all the bulging pecs, helicopters, tanks, heavy artillery, manic high-speed chases, Jeeps flipping over, endless sprays of gunfire, and shit blowing up that you demand. I mean, it's comfort food, and part of that's playing exactly like a big stack of the action movies that Cannon was churning out in those days. Hell, they even got Invasion U.S.A. and Missing in Action's Joseph Zito to hop into the director's chair. There's not a whole lot to separate Red Scorpion from the rest of that one-man-army-for-truth-justice-and-the-not-Communist-way bunch. Sure, the couple of standout action sequences are more than a little bit badass. The African backdrop makes for some pretty spectacular visuals at times. The plight of the tormented Africans themselves packs more of a sincere emotional wallop than these sorts of action flicks usually do. Tom Savini contributes a couple of grisly make-up effects pieces that make for some of Red Scorpion's most brilliantly cringing moments. Plus you score Dolph Lundgren in the lead, and you're never gonna hear me complain about that. There's kind of a visceral thrill seeing Lundgren
field so much of his own stuntwork, leaping off a motorcycle onto a speeding truck or marching just a few feet away from another colossal explosion. No cheating with CGI (well, obviously) or optical wizardry this time around.
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There's just not a whole lot of review to write here. Red Scorpion's good enough, but if I didn't have to sit down and hammer out this write-up after seeing it again for the first time in however many years, it'd be a distant memory about twenty seconds after the fact. I like Red Scorpion, but it's really, really, really routine. Because his character is a coldly manufactured weapon whose heart is only just now starting to beat, Dolph Lundgren can't exude the sort of personality or charisma that usually draws you in with '80s action flicks. M. Emmett Walsh's grating comic relief journalist scores nothing but groans throughout just about every last frame of screentime he gets. The movie kinda takes a while to get going -- Red Scorpion starts not with a bang but with a conference room -- and the pace has a tendency to sputter once the adrenaline rush of its action sequences has worn off. It's beyond awesome that Synapse Films has restored an uncensored version of Red Scorpion that's never been seen on these shores before, but with as badly as the middle stretch of the flick sags, I wish it were shorter rather than heading in the other direction.
Red Scorpion is an okay-to-pretty-good action flick from the tail-end of the '80s. I mean, it's not the sort of movie you're likely to speak about with hushed awe like Predator or Die Hard. It's not the sort of movie you're likely to speak about, period. Still, there's just something about these Cannon-inspired shitkickers that I can't get enough of, and I'm always game to pal around with Dolph Lundgren in 1080p. Even if you're not all that bowled over by Red Scorpion itself, the story behind the movie -- a 19-year-old king giving the production the boot a week before cameras were slated to roll, the looming spectre of Apartheid stomping all over distribution, and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff having conceived and produced the whole thing in his earlier years -- is pretty damned impressive, and all of that's covered in great detail throughout the extras on this Blu-ray disc. The movie itself is nothing all that great or noteworthy or whatever, but you know if you're a sucker for this flavor of action flick, and if you are, Red Scorpion definitely comes Recommended.
As you'd probably expect from a shiny, new Blu-ray disc with Synapse's logo stamped on the cover, Red Scorpion looks pretty much perfect. The filmic texture of the original photography has correctly been left intact, not
smeared away by overzealous digital noise reduction. The bitrate's high enough to handle that sheen of grain without any hiccups, and there's not a trace of wear, speckling, or damage anywhere throughout the movie's hour-forty-five runtime either. Red Scorpion's palette isn't dazzlingly colorful but comes through pretty well, and I get the sense that I'm seeing every last bit of definition and detail that can possibly be resolved. Sure, the film stock has that yeah-this-was-shot-in-1987 look to it, and the photography struggles under lower light, but Red Scorpion is still one of the better looking late-'80s action flicks I've come across on Blu-ray. No complaints on this side at all.
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The AVC encode for Red Scorpion spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. The presentation is presented without any matting, so you score a few extra scanlines' worth of the original photography.
This Blu-ray disc piles on two 24-bit lossless soundtracks: one in Red Scorpion's original stereo and the the other newly-remixed to 5.1. When I say that Red Scorpion doesn't sound like a remix at all, I absolutely mean that as a compliment. The aggressive use of the surrounds throughout the action sequences coupled with the sheer number of smooth pans from channel to channel...I mean, it all sounds so organic and so natural that if I didn't know better, I'd probably have assumed this is how Red Scorpion was always mixed. The elements used for this remix are in terrific shape, sounding at least a few years more recent than they actually are. The low-end really rattles the room while reinforcing all those megaton explosions and throaty engines. Every once in a while, I'd feel like there's too much bass -- as if such a thing were even possible -- and dialogue sometimes slinks a little further into the background than I would've preferred. The balance is generally spot-on, though. There's one point after a high-speed chase where the actors' breathing and slivers of dialogue bleed into the surrounds, and that's a little distracting. This is probably veering head-on into irrational nitpicking, but I was kind of surprised that the shotgun blasts that kick off the final siege sound so meek compared to the other havoc being wrought. Whatever, though. This is a really, really great remix, and I think even the most die-hard purists will be impressed by how well-done it is.
Red Scorpion also sports a set of optional English subtitles, captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing. Oh, and the disc's commentary is also a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track, so that's kind of amazing too.
Red Scorpion is a combo release, packing in an anamorphic widescreen DVD in case you haven't made the leap to Blu-ray or just don't have a BD player handy while you're out and about. The reversible cover gives fans their choice of art, and there's a very detailed set of liner notes tucked inside penned by Dolph Lundgren über-fan Jérémie Damoiseau. Both the DVD and Blu-ray disc are region-free/all-region for those of you on the other side of the ocean.
The impressively hefty list of extras keeps going from there too.
- Hath No Fury: Dolph Lundgren and the Road to Red Scorpion (25 min.; HD): Best thing about this Blu-ray disc...? This half-hour-ish conversation with Dolph Lundgren, hands down. The
superhumanly charming, endlessly awesome Lundgren kicks things off by talking about how he landed into acting: dating Grace Jones and scoring a bit part in a James Bond flick. I mean, if the interview ended there, that'd already make it one of the best conversations ever, and yet the already-established awesome-ness just gets ratcheted up with really in-depth discussions about Rocky IV and Masters of the Universe. Red Scorpion is naturally the dominant topic on the bill: weapons training under hardened warriors, fielding a lot of his own stuntwork, filming while an honest-to-God war was underway in nearby Angola, and how the location was so far removed from everything that there was literally nothing to do but work, sleep, and drink. If this interview had gone on for another hour, I'd still be all over it. The short answer: required viewing.
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- Assignment: Africa (13 min.; HD): Oh, wow! Producer Jack Abramoff -- and, yeah, it's that Jack Abramoff -- sits down to talk about putting together his first feature film. Abramoff chats about how his experiences in Angola led him to dream up the premise for the film and eventually to produce such an ambitious action flick independently. From there, he talks about being forced out of Swaziland all of a week before filming was scheduled to start, how the Red Scorpion crew built more bases in South Africa than the Soviets actually did, toiling away in an area with no real film infrastructure, and his involvement in the sequel.
- Scorpion Tales (10 min.; HD): Special make-up effects creator and all-around legend Tom Savini talks about his work on Red Scorpion: a gig that involved essentially zero prep time, three key sequences, and one gag that was never actually used. It kinda goes without saying that Savini delves in depth into his splatter wizardry, but that comes after ridiculously awesome stories about thinking he and his family were gonna die in a flood, suffering through one barely-edible meal after another, and how a Bond workshop kind of saved the day. Obviously well-worth setting aside ten minutes to watch.
- Original On-Set Behind the Scenes Footage from Tom Savini (9 min.; SD): Well, with a heading on the menu like that, there's not a whole lot left for me to say here. This set of fly-on-the-wall footage as cameras rolled on Red Scorpion covers more than just Tom's two big setpieces, with plenty of shots of stuff blowing up around Dolph.
- Audio Commentary: Director Joseph Zito fields Red Scorpion's commentary track, joined by moderator Nathaniel Thompson from Mondo Digital. Zito covers pretty much everything and then some: the score, the editing, the slew of different cuts of Red Scorpion that have been floating around for the past quarter-century, using an actual Russian tank captured in the war across the border in Angola, a skirt-chasing ninety-something-year-old bushman, not leaning on any miniatures or optical effects when shit blows up, and how filming ultimately spanned thousands of miles. A hell of a lot of fun and really comprehensive to boot.
- Motion Still Gallery (7 min.; HD): Rather than force you to mash a button a couple dozen times, Red Scorpion's image gallery automatically cycles through an extensive set of one-sheets, video art, production stills, and behind-the-scenes shots.
- Trailer (2 min.; HD): Last up are a high-def theatrical trailer...
- TV Spots (3 min.; SD): ...and a few minutes' worth of promos on the small screen.
The Final Word
Red Scorpion is a mostly routine '80s action flick, but if you were weaned on Cannon asskickers or are just a sucker for Dolph Lundgren, this Blu-ray disc's definitely worth checking out. The high-def remaster and six-channel remix are both first-rate, there are a hell of a lot of extras for this sort of movie, and it's all of fifteen bucks on Amazon. Recommended.
A Few Extra Screengrabs...