“ Actors: Dolph Lundgren, M. Emmett Walsh, Al White, Brion James, Carmen Argenziano / Director: Joseph Zito / Writer: Arne Olsen / Producer: Jack Abramoff / Classification: 15 / Studio: Arrow Video / Released: 13 Feb 2012 / Run Time: 105 minutes „
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This Arrow Blu-ray is currently £9 on amazon.
A lot of late 80s action films focused on the Cold War, with our heroes giving the Russians a damn good kicking at every opportunity. This one, from 1988, slightly bucks the trend by having a Russian as the hero - although he predictably concludes that Communism is wrong after being exposed to early rock n roll, being tortured, and then hanging out with some African nomads for a while. (Although I suspect that African nomads probably have a share-and-share-alike attitude to personal property that is rather at odds with the harshly Reaganite capitalism of the late 80s. Just saying.)
Nicolai is Spetznaz, which basically means he's a badass Russian soldier. Like a ninja, I guess, but Soviet. He's assigned to track down and kill a freedom fighter in Africa, where the Soviets are currently helping prop up a repressive regime (for those too young to remember, the Cold War was basically fought in the third world, as each side chose which psychopathic dictators to support). Nicolai has to befriend another freedom fighter, Kallunda Kintash, boost him out of prison, help him track down the leader, and then kill them both in a sneaky Commie double-cross. Unfortunately he screws up, gets tortured by his own side, and ends up questioning his faith in Lenin (or whoever) after he gets stung by a scorpion and taught how to hunt with spears by some nomads.
It's a pretty dumb action film, then. It was controversial for being made in Angola, which at the time was being pretty much run as a satellite of the fascist apartheid government of South Africa. It was therefore deemed to have broken sanctions against SA, and was cut loose by its studio, Warner Brothers. The film got a very limited release, and only really became a hit on home video a few years later. If things had gone differently, maybe Dolph Lundgren would have become as big a star as Arnie.
Lundgren had already played one Russian - the fearsome Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. I'm not sure what made Hollywood think that big, blond and Teutonic (Lundgren is Swedish) equated to 'Russian'. I guess they were still using Nazi visual signifiers, just changing the accent a bit. Lundgren followed Rocky IV with Masters of the Universe, in which he played a (rather charmless) version of He-Man. Red Scorpion should have established him as the next big muscle-hero, but it sadly didn't work out that way. He's not really anyone's idea of a great actor, but he has a certain charm, and is easily as good as Schwarzenegger.
The film is careful to only cast white and Hispanic actors as the villains. The blacks are an oppressed minority who are just crying out for a huge blond man to lead them to freedom. The main villain is a Russian general played by TP McKenna, an actor I have a lot of time for, but one who never quite hides his Irish brogue under a faux Russian accent.
On the heroic side, Al White is pretty good as Kintash - at first he looks like the kind of drearily stereotyped wise black man character that Hollywood is so horribly patronising towards, but he gets to be pretty handy with a machine gun. Unfortunately his African accent is a bit dodgy. When he says 'there will be much feasting' it sounds like 'much fisting', which would make for a very different - and perhaps more interesting - film.
The other notable cast member is M Emmett Walsh as Ferguson, an American journalist. He gives a ridiculous performance. Walsh is a very good actor, but presented with such a stereotyped role he goes completely overboard. He swears all the time and gives smug lectures to Nicolai about freedom of speech. He also plays Little Richard a lot - I wonder if anyone told him Little Richard was gay. As Ferguson is clearly meant to represent the voice of Reagan's America, I suspect not.
That said, with its emphasis on Dolph's glistening pecs and sturdy bare legs, there is a vaguely Rocky Horror subtext to the film. Needless to say, there aren't many women involved, and those that there are tend to be passive victims. This is a man's world, and the film is probably best enjoyed by boys in their mid teens. Luckily its 15 rating allows for that - mostly it's just dunderheaded action scenes, not unlike in any other inoffensive war film. The only really nasty part comes when Dolph is being tortured, which features some nasty (but curiously bloodless) needle play.
It's certainly fun if you like that kind of thing. I love the bit at the beginning where Dolph struts into a bar and starts a fight with anyone who looks at him. The gunfights are a bit generic, but not terrible. The only bit that misfires is the sequence where Nicolai gets adopted by a tribe of nomads. That just grinds the film to a halt. Steven Seagal might have been able to make that work, but Dolph can't. Sorry, Dolph.
The direction is fine - functional and perfectly adequate. The director previously made the fun slasher movie The Prowler. The music is a bit disappointing, though - heavy, portentous and orchestral. The bursts of Little Richard are most welcome, but then it's hard to imagine many situations in which that wouldn't be the case.
This looks OK in HD. It's not an earth-shattering experience, but nor is it bad. A lot of 80s films tend to look a bit underwhelming on Blu-ray, apparently due to the film stock in use at the time, and while this has quite good levels of detail (every bead of sweat on Dolph's straining torso is visible), it's not a huge jump up from DVD.
It has some decent extras. The best are a director's commentary (he's a personable chap); and a chat with Dolph about the film. There's also a pretty good booklet which explains the film's background a bit, and basically admits that it's not very good.
Hardly essential, but it's nice to see films like this coming out on Blu-ray. The more variety the better, and while this isn't going to be top of many people's lists of either best film or best HD transfer, it's nice that it's there.