RED SCORPION is more than a cold war classic about a Russki who comes around from communism, though that storyline is there. One could be forgiven for thinking that was the sum total of the fare in this late 80s blue plate special; before I watched it, I was expecting just an old school actioner. Which would have been fine because I’m an 80s child and so have a soft spot for the decade’s action flicks (along with other genres). You could argue the soft spot is justifiable only by dint of nostalgia but the 80s did turn out some good shoot-em-ups and RED SCORPION is among them. But, like I said, that shoot-em-up is just the skeleton. It’s more than muscle guy swinging a big gun around and blowing shit up, though there’s enough of that to satisfy the cinematic adrenaline junkie. There’s an actual character arc at work here that’s a little deeper than a Red with a heart of gold trope. The premise involves a Russian Special Forces soldier (Dolph Lundgren) who bites the hand that feeds after realizing who the bad guys really are – this is definitely a cold war film, even if it hit at the end of said “war” – and teams up with the oppressed Africans suffering at the hands of the Russians and their Cuban allies – MONDO 80s, like I said. (Yes, I know the cold war encapsulated more than the 80s.) But built on top of this premise is a personal odyssey. There’s more than Lundgren having an OMG THEY LIED TO ME moment then kicking ass. Lundgren’s character is at the center of this story and not just as the requisite gun-toting muscle. A highlight of the film, which includes a bunch of the gorgeous desert cinematography that elevates RED SCORPION, is the middle section when Lundgren’s character is friendless, the man without a country, alienated from his former Motherlanders and viewed as a deadly enemy by the Africans and their staunch anti-Russian American journalist colleague, a snarly, chomping role for the wonderful M. Emmet Walsh. He is befriended by a Bushman – played, no less, by a REAL Bushman – who serves as a sort of spiritual guide, and with almost no dialogue. This is an endearing, moving portion of the film and it shows where RED SCORPION’s heart really is, even if it was the brainchild of a Republican who was later embroiled in scandal. (Said scandal was not related to the picture (for those of you dying of curiosity it was lobbyist Jack Abramoff), though the film did have controversy of its own, having been shot in South Africa-controlled territory during apartheid.) RED SCORPION has guns, explosions and violence – but it also has heart. It’s very much involved in Lundgren’s character as a character and not just a stereotype. Even Lundgren turns in a quiet, thoughtful performance. He’s at his best with the Bushman. So wrapped up in Lundgren’s journey of self-discovery is the film that when the climax rolls around, it almost feels tacked on, as if the movie suddenly remembered it had an action story to wrap up. That’s okay, though; it’s an explosive (literally) ending, and quite satisfying. And it doesn’t run on too long after we’ve been lured into reflective mode by a surprisingly introspective second act.
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