Sunday, May 13, 2012

Seeing Red double feature

Red Dawn (1984)
Director: John Milius
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson
Format: VHS (MGM/UA)

For his follow up to the 1983 Arnie vehicle CONAN THE BARBARIAN, director John Milius transported from mystical Cimmeria to contemporary USA and swapped swords and loin cloths for machine guns and army uniforms. The result was RED DAWN, an excellent "what if" actioner that stars a handful of not-yet-famous young actors.

RED DAWN is one of those movies - like THE OUTSIDERS, RUMBLEFISH and TAPS - where part of the fun is watching these young actors before they were famous. In fact, Patrick Swayze, C Thomas Howell and Darren Dalton (as well as William Smith, but he could hardly be considered a "young talent" at this stage of his career) had all appeared in THE OUTSIDERS the year before RED DAWN.

The opening scene sets up what is to come and is powerful stuff - paratroopers begin falling from the sky onto the football field of a small town US high school. When they start attacking, it's clear that someone is invading America, soon revealed to be Russia and its communist allies Cuba and Nicaragua.

A group of the students (including Sheen, Howell and Dalton), escape with an older brother (Swayze) into the mountains, taking supplies and weapons with them. They are soon joined by two teenaged girls (Thompson and Jennifer Grey). At first they are content to hide out, but when they witness the brutality of the invaders firsthand the teens begin fighting back, adopting their high school mascot and carrying out raids and attacks as the resistance group The Wolverines.

With a plot summary like that, it would be very easy for RED DAWN to get carried away with a "Rah, rah, USA, USA!" mentality, but it manages to restrain that side of things while still portraying the invaders as evil bastards who are keen on lining up townsfolk and murdering them by firing squad. This movie also resists the urge to trivialise war and make it all fun and games - characters die regularly and a downbeat (but necessary) conclusion offers some hope but doesn't fit into the "happy ending" mold.

There's lots of good action - explosions galore, tank battles, rocket launchers etc - but Milius also uses his talented young actors to bring a real heartfelt quality to proceedings. Swayze, Sheen, Howell and Thompson in particular shine. It's also fun to see some fleeting chemistry between Swayze and Jennifer Grey three years before their starring roles in Dirty Dancing.

While the kids take center-stage, the adult supporting cast has plenty of familiar faces - Harry Dean Stanton (ALIEN), William Smith (CONAN THE BARBARIAN), Powers Boothe (TOMBSTONE) and BEN JOHNSON (WILD BUNCH) among them.

I see on IMDB that a remake is planned for release this year, with North Koreans replacing Russians/Cubans as the invaders. While this original is far from perfect - its pacing lags in places - I doubt the remake will be able to top it.

A scan of my VHS copy of Red Scorpion

Red Scorpion (1988)
Director: Joseph Zito
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, M Emmet Walsh, Al White
Format: VHS (CEL/Vestron)

In the 80s Dolph Lundgren cornered the market on playing Russian badasses, despite actually being Swedish. After a non-speaking on-screen debut as a KGB agent in the 1985 Bond flick View to a Kill, Dolph shot to stardom as Rocky Balboa's Soviet nemesis Drago in the same year's Rocky IV (who can forget that training montage - Hearts on Fiiiiiiire!).

In 1987 Dolph top-billed for the first time as He-Man in the live-action MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, but I would argue he wasn't actually the lead actor, as a lot of that film's plot was taken up with the human protagonists (one played by Courteney Cox). It wasn't until the next year that Lundgren got his first chance to really taken center-stage in RED SCORPION.

Dolph is Lieutenant Nikolai Rachenko, a crack Soviet soldier based in Africa. His latest mission is to assassinate a pesky African rebel leader. He gets close to his target but fails to kill him. Then his own superiors want him dead, so Nikolai switches sides and helps the rebels fight back against the Communist oppressors. Along the way he befriends an African bushman who teaches him the ways of his people and dubs him Red Scorpion.

If you're familiar with Dolph Lundgren you'll know what to expect here. Dolph has never been mistaken for a talented actor - he simply had "the look" and while not as good as Van Damme, Seagal or Norris when it came to hand-to-hand combat, could handle himself in a fight. In RED SCORPION he spends most of his time shirtless, showing off his impressive physique. But at the same time Dolph does get the chance to act a bit - the interaction between Nikolai and his bushman mentor (who don't speak the same language) allows him to break his icy demeanor and have some fun for once.

The final showdown brings the action in spades, with enough gunfire, explosions, attack helicopters, rocket launchers etc to keep the discerning fan happy. Director Joseph Zito got his start in slasher films (THE PROWLER, FRIDAY THE 13TH THE FINAL CHAPTER) but prior to RED SCORPION had cut his action teeth with a pair of Chuck Norris vehicles (INVASION USA, MISSING IN ACTION) so knew his way around this kind of material.

The supporting cast reunites BLADE RUNNER alumni M Emmet Walsh and Brion James, but let's face it, this is Dolph's show. While not the best movie he's been in (ROCKY IV, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, THE EXPENDABLES are all better), RED SCORPION is perhaps big Dolph's finest hour as a headline act.

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