Action fans didn’t know how good they had it during the 1980’s.  Every month, you could look forward to a slew of new action flicks by actors who were so popular with their fans that they could be identified by last name alone: Stallone, Norris, Seagal, Schwarzenegger, etc.  Dolph Lundgren arrived a little later in the game, carving out his own chunk of the action market at the end of the 1980’s with films like Masters Of The Universe and The PunisherRed Scorpion was right in that early era for Lundgren and it is one of his best vehicles.

The story, co-plotted by controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is built around the spiritual/political awakening of a Russian Special Forces soldier named Nikolai Rachenko.  He is sent undercover by his superiors to Africa, where he poses as a defector from the army to buddy up with a rebel named Katunda (Al White).  Nikolai helps him escape, along with loudmouth journalist Dewey (M. Emmet Walsh), and the trio brave several soldiers to make their way to Katunda’s village.  That is where Nikolai meets his real target, rebel leader Sundata (Ruben Nthodi).

Nikolai makes an attempt to kill Sundata but is outsmarted and sent back to the Russian forces, who treat their former rising star as an embarrassment.  This forces Nikolai to make a desperate escape into the desert.  It seems he will face certain death until he is saved by a kind bushman, Gao (Regopstaan).  As he is nursed back to health, Nikolai realizes who the real good guys are in this situation – and he becomes an unlikely ally to the rebel forces as he finds a new destiny as a revolutionary hero.

Red Scorpion is an interesting piece of work because it takes chances with standard ’80s shoot-’em-up formula.  On the surface, it delivers all the genre’s staples. The story packs in a boatload of action scenes, all bracingly choreographed and done with real stuntmen and explosions.  It also highlights the one-liners fans expect from this era (“Let’s go kick some ass!”) and celebrates machismo in a non-ironic way: note that the camera worships Lundgren’s perfectly-chiseled physique all throughout the film.  Best of all, the midsection of the film is devoted to fall from grace/resurrection scenario that was a key part of Clint Eastwood’s westerns and action flicks.

However, Red Scorpion also steps outside the action film template in a few interesting ways.  For starters, it takes the interesting tack of siding with rebels over traditional military forces.  It’s also unique that the hero is not only a Russian but also one who rejects the orthodoxy of his training to become what his bosses would consider a terrorist!  Most surprising of all, there is a unexpectedly touching stretch of the film devoted entirely to the friendship Nikolai builds with Gao.  This latter bit offers a sort of oasis amidst the explosive chaos, told mostly through the visuals and non-verbal acting, and it’s a shock to see moments this gentle in such an otherwise testosterone-driven genre piece.

The unusual blend of tones works in Red Scorpion thanks to the steady guiding hand of director Joseph Zito.  If you don’t know the name, he’s an unsung filmmaker who has done a lot of work with a cult following in b-movie circles (Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter and Missing In Action, to name a few).  His work holds up well because he places a strong focus on craftsmanship: his films tend to have elegant visuals, strong editing and rich musical scores that often make them seem more expensive than they actually are.  He brings all those assets to the table here, giving the proceedings a confident feel that makes it easy for the viewers to sit back and enjoy all the crash-boom-bang.

Better yet, Zito had an above-average budget to work with on Red Scorpion and action fans will be happy to know he puts it all on the screen: there are several elaborate battle scenes with shootout and explosions, a few great scenes involving a Blue Thunder-ish attack copter and a really fantastic truck chase down desert roads with fights atop moving vehicles a la Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  Zito handles such beats with a likeably old-fashioned sense of craftsman’s verve – carefully structured and shot action, with no hyper-fast cutting –  and it’s made all the sweeter by the fact that all the stunts and explosions are achieved in camera (this was done in that last pre-CGI glory era of practical effects).

Finally, and most importantly, Zito is fairly attentive to acting.  No one ever watched action flicks from this era for the performances but Lundgren does solid work here: his line delivery can be a little rough in spots but he has an unassuming, natural quality that you don’t usually get in action film heroes, particularly when he has another actor to bounce off of.  Zito did well by Lundgren in that respect by securing a fine supporting cast.  Walsh acts as a strong comedic foil for Lundgren, essentially serving the same purpose he filled for Zito in Missing In Action, and genre film fans will be happy to see Brion James popping up as a quietly nasty Russian thug and Carmen Argenziano as a bullying Cuban chieftain who squares off with Lundgren at the end.

That said, the big scene stealer in the film turns out to be a first-timer: Regopstaan, a real-life bushman recruited for this film, gives a wonderful, totally natural performance as Lundgren’s desert savior.  With minimal dialogue he manages to give a performance rich in both humor and humanity – and don’t be surprised if his scenes with Lundgren end up being your favorite part of this movie.

In summation, Red Scorpion is yet another solid example of the meat-and-potatoes action fare that was a part of the American moviegoer’s diet during the 1980’s.  Lundgren has gone on to become one of the kings of the direct-to-video action market since making this film but Red Scorpion proves he had the goods from the beginning, particularly when he had a director like Zito to put him through his paces.