"Joseph Zito's sluggish direction lingers on nonessentials. Tediousness could have been alleviated by dropping at least a reel's worth of trekking across the African desert. Lundgren provides little more than sustained beefcake."
— A 1988 Variety review of Red Scorpion, a film the entertainment news outlet describes as "a dull, below-average action pic." (The New York Times was even harsher, with reviewer Stephen Holden saying that "the movie's reflective moments belong to Mr. Lundgren's sweaty chest.") The film, with a story written by Jack Abramoff, his brother Robert, and Arne Olsen, came after a period when Abramoff had already dabbled in Republican politics, building ties to both Grover Norquist through the College Republicans and the Reagan administration during the Oliver North scandal. The film was something of a box-office flop, only grossing $4,192,440 in its domestic theatrical run.
If Red Scorpion was made by someone else, we probably wouldn't even be talking about it
The thing about Red Scorpion is that it's not a great movie by traditional critical standards. It's from an era of filmmaking when auteurs weren't the driving force behind independent filmmaking in Hollywood. The auteurs never really went away, of course—John Waters and David Lynch made some of their best films during this period—but a lot of low-budget action movies being made in this era were trying to riff off the Reagan-era Republicanism of the Rambo series. As Abramoff was both a Reagan-era Republican and a guy who grew up in Beverly Hills, he was pretty much the perfect person to take advantage of this B-movie trend.
The story of a Russian special forces operative (Lundgren) brought in to assassinate an anti-communist military leader, only to switch sides and join a group of freedom fighters in beating down the Soviets, Red Scorpion definitely hits on all the plot points designed to make red-blooded Americans cheer. (Watch the trailer here, if you'd like.)
Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment, the distributor of Abramoff's film, benefited from the changing nature of the film business. For one thing, there was a lot more distribution than there was even a decade prior—the home video market was blowing up, and premium cable ensured that even a terrible film could have life beyond the box office. That's why Shapiro-Glickenhaus films like Maniac Cop and Frankenhooker, despite being poorly-reviewed trash, are still fondly remembered by audiences with cable back in the day.
While these trends ensured Red Scorpion could be made and would have an audience, it also meant that it was far from unique in the market. Cannon Films, another independent filmmaker of the era, was making dozens of films just like this one every year, relying on a stable of well-remembered B-list action heroes like Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, and Jean Claude Van-Damme. (Side note: This documentary about Cannon is an amazing document of this era and its impact on filmmaking.)
Joseph Zito, who directed Norris in Missing in Action, brought Red Scorpion to the screen.
It's likely that without Abramoff's connection to the film and the wacky politics it introduces, it wouldn't even be worth a second look beyond fans of '80s action films.
But fortunately for us, it does have those ties to Abramoff—and those ties make the film a far more interesting cultural document.
The budget of Red Scorpion, which doubled after Abramoff decided at the last minute to move production of the film from Swaziland to South West Africa, a country then controlled by South Africa that's now known as Namibia. At the time Abramoff was making his movie, South Africa was facing a cultural boycott due to apartheid, and a 1986 U.S. law made it clear that doing business with South Africa was frowned upon. And, from a purely practical angle, it doubled the film's budget because they had to move the entire production more than a thousand miles away. But Abramoff had ties to the South African government at the time, so he likely was undeterred. "There was some indication even in those days that he was not the sort of person who would feel overly constrained by the rules," said Jeff Pandin, a colleague of Abramoff's in the era, in comments to Salon.
The most interesting part about Red Scorpion was who funded the film
One thing to understand about Abramoff was that his Hollywood career and his lobbying career weren't separate—they were like a giant melting pot of influence and propaganda. In fact, Red Scorpion was effectively funded by the South African military, thanks to the fact that the country was Abramoff's primary client at the time. If you watch the movie, in fact, you'll notice that the tanks being driven throughout are South African.
And looking at the plot—specifically below the surface points that involve Dolph Lundgren brandishing guns—the film was roughly based on the life story of Jonas Savimbi, an Angolan military leader who was considered a South African ally and a noted anti-Communist.
In 1986, Abramoff launched and headed an organization called the International Freedom Foundation (IFF), an organization that portrayed itself as an anti-Communist political think tank. In reality, though, it was a group meant to give some positive press and political cover to the South African government at a time when they were being pressured to release Nelson Mandela.
(Abramoff wasn't the only lobbyist-type backing South Africa at the time; as The Nation notes, Abramoff's old friend Grover Norquist, known these days as an anti-tax hound, visited a conference in South Africa intended to unify Americans in support of ending the anti-apartheid movement.)
Arthur Ashe, the late tennis star and anti-apartheid activist, spoke out against the film during its production, calling it an "endorsement of South Africa's policies." Members of the movie's crew found the funding for the film distasteful.
"We heard that very right-wing South African money was helping fund the movie," actor Carmen Argenziano, who played a Cuban colonel in the film, told Salon in 2005. "It wasn't very clear. We were pretty upset about the source of the money. We thought we were misled. We were shocked that these brothers who we thought were showbiz liberals—Beverly Hills Jewish kids—were doing this."
Nonetheless, it didn't stop the film's production, and the movie ultimately came out in April of 1989—less than a year before Mandela was released from captivity.
While the film ultimately failed at the goal of making the African National Congress look bad and ginning up support for South Africa, it was effective as a calling card for Abramoff. Most lobbyists of the era were busy trying to influence politicians in Washington; he went to modern-day Namibia with a camera crew to influence everyday Americans in movie theaters and on HBO. Maybe it didn't work out in the end, but it certainly helped boost his reputation when he finally did return to Washington in the mid-'90s.
"It was South Africa, so a lot of the guys I was working with and training with were real soldiers. My gun instructor went off on the weekends and killed some people who had tried to blow up a pipe line. You know, some actual terrorists. I did a lot of light firing exercises with these real South African soldiers. They were S.A.S regiments from Rhodesia. It was pretty intense."
— Dolph Lundgren, reflecting on the production of Red Scorpion in a 2011 interview with the now-defunct site Mondo Video. The Swedish actor did a number of his own stunts in the film, including a scene in which he had scorpions walking on him. "Jesus, I did so many crazy stunts on that film," he recalled. "It's unbelievable when I think back about it. It would never happen today. Nobody would ever let you do any of that stuff now."
As a cultural document, Red Scorpion is definitely a film that shows its age, one whose geopolitical conflicts have long been lost to history.
But it wasn't Abramoff's only production. In 1994, he produced a sequel to Red Scorpion, this time featuring neo-Nazi skinheads attacking the United States instead of Russians controlling an African nation. The film had no Dolph Lundgren, but it did co-star that one guy from The Wire.
Abramoff's last gasp as a producer came thanks to Austin St. John, a.k.a. the original Red Ranger from the Power Rangers. After St. John left the show, he created an instructional martial arts video, which you can watch here in full, because Austin uploads his stuff to YouTube. Abramoff has just three IMDB credits as a producer. Somehow, this is the third.
These days, Abramoff is more likely to have a documentary made about him, or to be played by Kevin Spacey in a movie, than he is to produce a film. The reason? Simple. Sometimes, real life is more interesting than any script.