CHEESY, SLEAZY CINEMA Last year found Jack Abramoff a peculiarly hot commodity at the movies, especially if you consider he spent most of the year in federal prison and hadn’t exercised his own Hollywood ambitions in nearly a quarter-century.
But then his recent on-screen exposure was not of an ilk he’d have chosen for himself: as subject of a documentary (2010’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money) and biographical drama (plain Casino Jack, also 2010) both depicting the now-infamous Washington, D.C., lobbyist as personification of that Shrub Era conservative jingoism, corrupt backdoor business deals, egomania, and greed that helped land us in our current economic craphole. And which got him four years, ending last month even as former Republican House Majority leader and BFF Tom DeLay faced the start of his own money-laundering slammer stint.
Abramoff was not likely to have enjoyed either portrait, not even as semi-sympathetically (albeit poorly) portrayed by Academy Award-winning thespian Kevin Spacey in the weaker film. If he’d been able to invent his own starring vehicle, no doubt it would have been more a flatteringly bold cross of 1987’s Wall Street (the Michael Douglas part), 1960’s Exodus (the Paul Newman as he-man crusader for Israel part) and 1980s Rocky-Rambo Stallone (the whole enchilada, from bulging biceps to rippling Old Glory and Commie-wasting weaponry). In the Reagan America of his physical if not yet political prime, he really was a bit of all those things: bodybuilder, Zionist, rabid anti-Red.
Whether he ever harbored dreams of being a celluloid hero, or was always content to become a real-life Supermensch, Abramoff did once make a movie — exactly one — exemplifying his beliefs and self-image in suitably cartoonish fashion, before realizing Hollywood’s corridors of power were puny game for a real man. So he moved on to the more hallowed halls of D.C. and Manhattan. But first, there was Red Scorpion.
This 1988 actioner starred 6-foot, 5-inch Swedish meatball Dolph Lundgren, hot from playing the robo-Russkie villain in Rocky IV (1985) and He-Man in Masters of the Universe (1987), as a “perfect killing machine” sent by evil Soviet commanders to assassinate a resistance leader in a fictive African nation under the thumb of Communist oppressors.
Tending not to play well with others, Lt. Nikolai Rachenko spends his first night here in jail for “disorderly conduct” — after a few drinks he’d kicked open a saloon door, beat up half the patrons, and machine-gunned the joint. Boys will be boys. He shares a cell with a local freedom fighter (Al White) and an American reporter (M. Emmet Walsh at his formidably most-obnoxious). For no obvious reason our steroid miracle of a KGB enforcer decides moments later to switch sides and help them escape. This effort requires killing about a million extras playing Russian and Cuban military occupiers to the tune of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” (Because nothing says “Democracy rocks!” like the orgasmic trills of an African American queen.)
Slowly-dawning ability to feel empathy for suffering peoples indicated by the heavings of his perpetually oiled torso and completely unintelligible mutterings, Nikolai is recaptured by former masters and made to endure homoerotic torture. He escapes again, staggering through the desert alone, shirtless and shiny. Bushmen rescuers teach this Golden Bwana something or other — like Billy Jack, he sweats, grunts, and hallucinates toward enlightenment — and give him a scorpion tattoo as diploma.
Now armed spiritually as well as abdominally to do good, his reappearance in civilization spurs Walsh to call this juiced Russki “the gutsiest goddamn sonuvabitch I ever met.” (Arne Olsen’s screenplay, from the brothers Jack and Robert Abramoff’s story idea, is seldom even this articulate.)
The climactic triumphant popular uprising at one point hinges on Lundgren lifting a truck out of a sandtrap with his bare bulging guns, a bit included purportedly because Jack Abramoff was an iron-pumping addict himself at the time. (What makes the scene funnier is that it evidently occurred to no one that Nikolai’s load would be lightened if Walsh got his fat ass out of the truck cab for a minute.)
A movie rife with bad dialogue badly spoken — you’ll gulp as White seemingly enthuses “When we arrive there will be a celebration and much fisting!” — ends aptly with the worst pronunciation ever of “Fucken’ A.” Our heroes are then freeze-framed while strolling over another umpteen freshly killed Commies.
Red Scorpion was shrugged off as what it basically was, yet another Rambo ripoff arriving toward the tail end of that subgenre’s lifespan. (A theatrical flop, it did well enough on tape and cable to prompt 1994’s in-name-only sequel Red Scorpion 2, on which the Abramoffs got executive producer credits.) There certainly are more cheap, inept, laughable, senseless, just plain dumb films of its ilk — though this one does excel at dumbness — and unlike many it does have one good joke, involving a grenade and a decapitated hand. Otherwise, if not for its primary motivator’s subsequent antics, Red Scorpion would be just another forgotten B-grade cultural relic.
But the Beverly Hills-raised Abramoff — who spent the earlier part of the 1980s as an aggressive far-right youth activist — intended this first-last cinematic venture as a stealth combo of dynamite popular entertainment and anti-Red Menace propaganda. He modeled the character of “Mombaka’s” resistance savior Sundata (played by Ruben Nthodi) on real-life Angolan anti-Marxist rebel warlord Jonas Savimbi, a darling of later Cold War hawks. (Others would soon call him “a charismatic homicidal maniac.”)
It is still debated whether Red Scorpion‘s $16 million budget was secretly funded primarily by the South African government and/or military. Abramoff denies it — though he had already spearheaded support of the apartheid regime as College Republican National Committee chairman and founder of the dubiously named think tank, International Freedom Foundation. In any case, once protestors got wind of the production shooting in South Africa-controlled Namibia — defying an international boycott — a skittish Warner Bros. pulled out as distributor. (Scorpion was then picked up in the U.S. by Shapiro-Glickenhaus, who later gave us 1990’s Frankenhooker and 1992’s Basket Case 3: The Progeny.)
The shoot was fraught. Some actors and crew complained they were never paid; production was suspended for three months when money ran out; star attraction Lundgren was apparently quite the hulking handful on and off set. Afterward, Abramoff — who’d converted to Orthodox Judaism at age 12 after seeing Fiddler on the Roof (1971) — blamed the film’s potty-mouthed and violent excesses on director Joseph Zito (of future Tea Party fan Chuck Norris’ own 1985 anti-Commie classic Invasion U.S.A.) He founded something called the Committee For Traditional Jewish Values in Entertainment as penance.
That noble latter endeavor was abandoned about five seconds later, however, since by then Abramoff realized he had better things to do than mess around with pansy-ass showbiz. Among his future, better-known achievements — the ones that got him top billing as Inmate 27593-112 — were bilking casino-owning Native American tribes, keeping third world factory sweatshops safe from investigation, pimping Congress to myriad corporations, and otherwise pedaling corruption ’round the globe, all while clutching family values and raving against the Godforsaken liberals. He was ever so righteous about doing wrong.
Today, he’s free, if uncharacteristically silent, having finished both his hoosegow stint and a halfway-house stay during which he worked for below minimum wage at a Baltimore kosher pizzaria. One suspects he will not be flippin’ pie in the future, however. Sibling Robert Abramoff is still in the biz, producing such fascinating-sounding recent projects as 2009’s Pauly Shore and Friends, 2009’s Jesus People: The Movie, and 2010’s Dino Mom.
Lundgren, recently looking fine (if downsized) in 2010’s all-star Expendables, now directs his own direct-to-DVD action vehicles. Still fighting the good fight, alongside Israeli special forces and South African mercenaries, Savimbi died in a hail of machine-gun fire eight years ago. That event helped end Angola’s civil war after nearly three decades. And Red Scorpion lives on, more or less. I found my used VHS copy at Rasputin Music for 50 cents. Fucken’ A!