Dolph Lundgren may not have been the most popular of the muscle-bound action stars of the 1980s, but he was definitely the most Swedish. Nobody else even came close, not even Van Damme, who was almost Swedish but stopped at Belgian. Yet most of Lundgren’s roles required him to hide his adorable Swedish accent. That includes his Red Scorpion character, Lt. Nikolai Rachenko, a Soviet assassin who mostly just mumbles because Lundgren had evidently forgotten how to do a Russian accent between Rocky IV and this.
This ripe, fragrant pile of movie-like material from the Cold War begins at shadowy Soviet headquarters, where jowl-faced leaders have summoned Nikolai, a sentient Ken doll on steroids, to give him an important mission. Seems there’s an anti-Communist uprising in a Cuba-controlled part of Africa, and the Reds need Nikolai to infiltrate the rebels and murder their leader, Sundata. Nikolai is all business. When the Cuban official overseeing the mission extends his hand to him, Nikolai won’t shake it. That’s the movie’s way of telling us that he is a cold-blooding killing machine, or possibly racist.
Nikolai goes to the Soviet/Cuban military base in Africa where one of the rebels, a fellow named Kallunda (Al White), is being held prisoner. The plan: get tossed in jail himself, befriend Kallunda, earn his trust, go with him back to his secret rebel base, kill Sundata, maybe kill some other people, take a safari, go home to Moscow, drink some vodka, break Rocky. How a uniformed Russian soldier plans to win the confidence of an anti-Communist African rebel is not explained, but Nikolai undoubtedly has something in mind. I mean, what’s the alternative — that it’s a poorly thought out plan in a badly written movie?
Nikolai gets arrested by pretending to be drunk and picking a fight in a bar. I think this scene is meant to be funny, but it’s hard to tell when it has idiocy instead of comedy and Dolph Lundgren instead of an actor. Nikolai is put in a cell with Kallunda (maybe the jail only has one cell?), and they are joined by Dewey (M. Emmet Walsh), an irascible, potty-mouthed American journalist who sides with the rebels and haaaaaates Russians. Hoo boy, does he ever hate them! He can’t even stand to be in the same cell as Nikolai, let alone talk to him. Dewey is in the place where a racist character would normally be, the sort of blowhard who’s due for a comeuppance when he realizes the object of his hatred isn’t as bad as he thought. But the object of his hatred is a Soviet assassin whose job is to murder freedom fighters. He IS as bad as Dewey thinks. Was Red Scorpion made by the Soviets? How great would that be??
But no, we soon realize the direction the story is headed: Nikolai will come to see the error of his ways, switch alliances, and help the rebels defeat the Russians. Not before there’s a lot of time-killing and wheel-spinning, though! Time-killing and wheel-spinning are Red Scorpion‘s chief exports.
One thing that is curiously absent from the movie is scenes of supposed first-class Soviet hitman Nikolai killing anyone, or in any other way demonstrating that he’s the best there is in his profession, or that he is even good at it. When he, Kallunda, and Dewey escape from jail and go to the rebel camp, he does try to assassinate Sundata … and he gets caught, beaten up, and handed back to the Commies.
It’s only after his bosses torture him for failing to do his job that he realizes the Soviet Union is evil — which may be true, but it’s also true that he failed to do his job (I’m just saying). He escapes from Soviet torture prison — 70 percent of the movie is Lundgren escaping from things — and gets lost in the African desert, where he’s rescued by a kindly bushman. While he’s being nursed back to health, his former comrades are attacking the rebel village. While he and his new bushman friend are walking across the desert, with Nikolai gradually getting nakeder until he’s just in cut-off shorts and sandals, the Russians and Cubans are killing every character who doesn’t have a name. (Good news, Kallunda, Dewey, and Sundata! Sorry, everyone else.) What’s left of the rebel army is glad to see Nikolai when he does finally show up, but that’s clearly only because he’s the main character of the movie and their adulation is obligatory.
To be fair, Nikolai does kill a lot of people once he arrives. He gets his hands on some guns and starts firing at Soviet and Cuban soldiers right and left. He even shoots a guy’s arm off just as the arm is about to throw a grenade! You have to give him credit for that. But still, he doesn’t do anything the rebels couldn’t have done themselves (except maybe the arm-shooting-off thing). Perhaps what we’re supposed to focus on is Nikolai’s personal journey of self-discovery, where he realizes he should stop killing for the Communists and start killing for the non-Communists. That is a pretty inspiring message. We all reach a point in our lives when we must decide whom we’re going to kill for.
Speaking of which, Red Scorpion was produced and co-written by Jack Abramoff, the sleazy lobbyist who would eventually serve time in federal prison for tax evasion, mail fraud, and other corruption. Abramoff’s film was partially financed and supported by the pro-apartheid South African military, in violation of the international boycott. At the time, doing business with South Africa was barely less heinous than working for the Soviet Union, so it’s like if Abramoff used dog-fighting money to make a movie about the evils of cock-fighting. As they say in Sweden, what a jåckåss.