The world has heard much about the many facets of Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Washington lobbyist currently assisting federal prosecutors in a widening bribery probe.
There’s his Beverly Hills upbringing, his founding of a string of right-wing political groups beginning in college, his apotheosis as an uber-lobbyist funneling cash and favors to GOP members of Congress, and his coda as an admitted felon and Justice Department songbird.
Less well-known is his brief, if baroque, career as a Hollywood producer. Two movies bear Abramoff’s name as a producer, but only one was genuinely his product: “Red Scorpion,” a 1989 vehicle for the Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren, who plays a Soviet commando ordered to assassinate an anti-communist rebel in a land resembling Angola, which was then mired in civil war. Lundgren’s character discovers that the revolutionaries are really good guys, which provokes him to wreak vengeance on the Soviet officers who so cynically led him astray.
Plainly, the scenario is a fantasia on such right-wing themes as Commie deceit and the saintliness of anti-communist guerrillas. Lundgren’s target is an avuncular rebel meant to idealize the real-life Jonas Savimbi, a noxious character whose prolongation of the Angolan war cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Indeed, the movie was born in Abramoff’s dalliance with Third World rebel groups. In 1985, he organized a powwow in Angola for anti-communist guerrillas from around the world on behalf of Lewis Lehrman, a right-wing millionaire. Afterward, however, Lehrman broke with Abramoff, reportedly over financial irregularities.
Abramoff resurfaced in 1986 as founder of the International Freedom Foundation. IFF’s function was to spread negative propaganda about the African National Congress, the opposition group that would eventually take over South Africa’s government in the post-apartheid era, and its leader, Nelson Mandela. Many years later, the South Africans would reveal that IFF had been a front almost entirely funded by the apartheid-era regime.
Around the time he founded IFF, Abramoff also launched “Red Scorpion” as co-writer and producer, with an initial budget of about $12.5 million. The financial backers have never been fully disclosed, although it’s known that Warner Bros. put up some money for distribution rights and the South African government provided military vehicles for the sets and troops as extras.
The production was cursed from the start. Filming was originally scheduled for Swaziland, an independent kingdom on the South African border. But the Swaziland government, alarmed that the production was hauling enough South African ordnance into the country to stage a coup, revoked its permit.
The crew decamped to Namibia, a nominally independent state then ruled by South Africa in defiance of a U.N. mandate. Warner Bros., already taking political heat over the film, asserted that the Namibia location violated a contract clause barring involvement with South Africa, and canceled the deal.
The relocation busted the production budget, but there were other problems. Carmen Argenziano, a veteran American character actor who played a sadistic Cuban colonel in the film, recalls the experience as “Cimino-esque,” evoking images of disorganization and profligate spending. Before shooting concluded, the movie was taken over by its completion-bond company, Performance Guarantees, which was on the hook for cost overruns that eventually totaled more than $2.3 million (This was a big number for an independent production in those days.)
The bonding company, in turn, peddled the distribution rights to a third party, which eventually made some money from theatrical showings and video. But the original investors took a bath, given that the movie cost $16 million and reaped all of $4.2 million at the box office.
This money produced a 100-minute spectacle of platoons of soldiers and lots of trucks getting blowed up real good. Lundgren, once touted as a rival to action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, got consistently outacted by local bushmen and, in one memorable scene, by an excitable warthog.
Many innocents got sucked into the debacle. Suppliers and workers on location complained of getting stiffed on their bills. In Lundgren’s native Sweden, anti-apartheid activists spoke of placing his name on a U.N. blacklist of performers who trafficked with South Africa. Performance Guarantees sued its reinsurer at Lloyd’s of London to make good on its loss and later tried to recover by bankrolling “Red Scorpion 2,” an entirely unrelated picture and the second feature bearing Abramoff’s name. (He had almost nothing to do with it, though.) “RS 2" bombed even worse than its predecessor. The bonding company soon went out of business.
If Abramoff ever harbored dreams of getting rich from “Red Scorpion,” they were dashed. “Certainly the impression I got was that Jack didn’t make a nickel,” says Jeff Pandin, an associate of Abramoff’s at IFF and later its director. Because the “Red Scorpion” office shared IFF’s address, he says, many people with unpaid bills came knocking at IFF’s door.
Among the entities that wound up as “involuntary” financial backers of “Red Scorpion,” Pandin suggests, was the South African military, which had expected to be reimbursed for its manpower and materiel. Instead it was left holding the bag. Pandin told me that the project’s bad odor fouled Abramoff’s standing with IFF’s principal client. “The movie had a lot to do with his no longer being chairman of the foundation
after 1987,” he says. “The impression in the office was that there were lots of people in South Africa who were unhappy with Jack because they hadn’t been paid.”
In the end, Abramoff’s Hollywood adventure was merely prologue to his big score. The next thing anyone knew of him, he was a lobbyist passing out millions in cash and perks to members of Congress. The rest is history.
You can reach Michael Hiltzik at firstname.lastname@example.org and view his weblog at latimes.com/goldenstateblog.