Color, 1988, 106m.
Directed by Joseph Zito
Starring Dolph Lundgren, M. Emmet Walsh, Al White, T.P. McKenna, Brion James, Carmen Argenziano, Ruben Nthodi
Synapse (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Splendid (Blu-Ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD5.1
Color, 1988, 106m.
The avalanche of macho action movies in the 1980s produced some astonishingly weird slices of testosterone on film, many of them courtesy of either Cannon Films or Sylvester Stallone (or, in some cases, both at the same time). Made near the end of that cycle was one of the more controversial offerings, 1988's Red Scorpion, which started life as a standard big-studio blockbuster but morphed into a politically-charged indie offering from Shapiro-Glickenhaus, the same guys who brought you Maniac Cop and the Basket Case sequels. How and why it turned out that way fills the majority of the extras for this film, a vehicle for Swedish-born action star Dolph Lundgren sandwiched among his roles in Masters of the Universe, The Punisher, and the awesome I Come in Peace.
Not many movies would dare to put anti-Communist rhetoric and African racial conflict in the same story, but this one does its best with the story of KGB agent Nikolai Rachenko (Lundgren, natch), sent to Africa to take out the "dangerous" head of an anti-commie rebellion. He and his comrades arrange a stint in jail to make him look like a deserter, where he winds up with a motley crew of characters including a sweaty American reporter (Walsh) and a freedom fighter (White). However, a few nasty twists of fate leave him stranded out in the desert, where he gets a big wake-up call to the evils of communism and, after communing with a local bushman, learns how to use his formidable shooting skills to fight for justice.
Anyone who's seen their share of '80s action movies should have an idea of what to expect here: truck chases, machine guns, bulging muscles, comic relief, and a pounding synth score (courtesy of Jay Chattaway, of Maniac and Silver Bullet fame). The composer here shouldn't be much of a surprise since it's directed by his usual partner in cinematic mayhem, Joseph Zito, who had a serious hot streak that decade with The Prowler, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Missing in Action, and Invasion U.S.A. However, the most famous name involved with the film was its producer, Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who also founded the anti-communist International Freedom Foundation in the mid-'80s and was sent to jail for four years, covered in the pretty amazing documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money (and the less amazing studio movie version with Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack).
The whole story of how this film came to be is covered in depth in the Synapse release, a dual-format edition containing both a Blu-Ray and a DVD. (Obviously watch the first option if you can; along with looking a lot better, it also has more exciting menus!) The transfer itself looks about as great as a Shapiro-Glickenhaus title from 1988 possibly could; as usual, the film stock doesn't allow for terribly deep blacks or a lot of saturated color, but it's a terrific HD presentation with a natural filmic texture and a thankful absence of any distracting digital tinkering. For reasons no one can quite sort out, the film was trimmed in most markets; the biggest cut was a scene involving a village attacked by flamethrowers, while a number of other tiny little edits (sometimes mere frames) were performed to the heads and tails of certain shots throughout the film. In any case, the Synapse version represents the longest available version of the film with the missing scene and the other little snippets stuck back in their rightful place. The exclusive DTS-HD MA audio track is also excellent, delivering where it counts with plenty of expansive use of all channels during the action scenes. The original stereo track is also included, likewise in DTS-HD MA; in a surprise move, optional English subtitles are also added for the deaf and hard of hearing, a very welcome gesture.
The audio commentary with Zito features myself so there's obviously no way of reviewing that one, but hopefully it will prove enjoyable as it covers the origins of the production, how it had to change shooting locations at a late date, the perils of working with live scorpions, and what Zito thinks of that period of his career turning out high-profile guy movies. Of course, this wouldn't be complete without some Lundgren, and the star appears for his own video featurette, "Hath No Fury: Dolph Lundgren and the Road to Red Scorpion," in which he talks about getting cast as a Russian (for the second time after Rocky IV), how he got his start in acting, and the path his career was taking at the time. Easily one of the most appealing action stars of his generation, he's still fun to watch as he covers one of his key titles. Incidentally, while the Synapse version may be the definitive Blu-Ray on the market, two earlier ones are also available. A German one amusingly released as part of "The Expendables Selection" is fine but definitely on the modest side, while the UK one from Arrow features a more worn-looking but good HD transfer and its own separate slate of extras including a different audio commentary with Zito and Howard Berger (the director of Original Sins, not the effects guy), which spends much more time on the political end of things. Lundgren also has a half-hour "All Out of Bullets" featurette, which covers some of the same ground but with a few variations of its own, while Chattaway has a 12-minute interview about his collaborations with Zito.
Anyway, back to the Synapse extras. Next up is the juiciest one and the big shocker of the set, "Assignment: Africa," in which Abramoff (who got out of prison in 2010 and penned a book about his experiences) delivers a thorough rundown of how he became involved in the film, the ways it slotted in with his other activities outside of filmmaking at the time, his memories of working with his star and director, and how he saw its political agenda aligning with his own. Amazing stuff. Finally FX maestro Tom Savini appears for "Scorpion Tales;" you won't really be able to spot his work until fairly late in the film (and many of his concepts never even made it before the camera), but he has plenty to say about going to Africa and generating some brief but memorable bits of bodily mayhem including a particularly grisly bit of business during the climax. Some behind-the-scenes camcorder footage from the set comes afterwards as well, including a few fun shots for those familiar with the movie. Finally you get a gallery of stills and artwork from the theatrical and video releases, a trailer, TV spots, a reversible cover (the back one reflecting the US poster art), and liner notes by Lundgren expert Jérémie Damoiseau, who covers everything from pre-production to the problematic theatrical release in a succinct but excellent history well worth reading before watching the actual film. If you're a Dolph fan, this release will be very tough to beat for a long time.