Aguy walks into a bar. The guy's a commie commando, a hulking Russian killing machine named Nikolai. The bar's in Africa and it's full of commie soldiers and the kind of loose women who consort with commie soldiers.
Nikolai stands in the doorway of the bar. He swigs from a pint of vodka. He burps. The burp is so loud that all conversation stops.
Nikolai -- who is played by Dolph Lundgren in this movie, which is called "Red Scorpion" -- stumbles around the bar. He sings in Russian. He knocks a guy off a bar stool. He head-butts another guy. He punches the bartender. He grabs a submachine gun out of a cop's hand and sprays the room with bullets.
"Are you out of your mind?" the head cop asks him when he stops shooting.
"No, just out of bullets," he replies. Then he lets out another thunderous burp.
Amazing! Not since Charlie Chaplin belched after eating his shoe in "The Gold Rush" has the lowly burp been used to such artistic effect. It's one of those rare moments of cinematic magic that leave you awed, wondering: Who is the genius behind this? Fellini? Spielberg? Stallone?
No, no and no. The correct answer is: Jack Abramoff.
That's right, the Jack Abramoff.
Before Abramoff was a powerful Washington lobbyist and Republican fundraiser, before he was indicted on fraud charges, before he became the target of a Justice Department investigation of his alleged rip-off of casino-rich Indian tribes, before he was summoned to a Senate hearing where he took the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify, Jack Abramoff was a Hollywood producer, a master of neo-"Rambo" cinema.
In 1989, Abramoff produced and co-authored "Red Scorpion," the Dolph Lundgren Cold War classic. In 1994, he produced "Red Scorpion 2" and, in the process, invented a whole new cinematic genre -- the sequel that has absolutely nothing to do with the original.
But Abramoff was not merely a producer. He was also a moral visionary: Between his first film, which was filled with violence, and his second film, which was also filled with violence, Abramoff founded an organization to crusade against sex and violence in film -- the Committee for Traditional Jewish Values in Entertainment.
But Abramoff's brilliant career was interrupted by a force even greater than his genius: history.
In 1995, the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took control of both the Senate and the House for the first time since 1954. And Abramoff, who had served as chairman of the College Republican National Committee in the early 1980s, returned to Washington to serve the Republican revolution as a K Street lobbyist.
He made millions. In fact, Abramoff's lobbying firm and his partner Michael Scanlon's PR firm took in more than $80 million just from their Indian casino clients. Meanwhile, Abramoff raised millions for Republican pols and conservative groups.
But then it all collapsed. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs investigated Abramoff and released e-mails in which he called his Indian clients "morons" and "monkeys" and bragged about "taking their [expletive] money."
Then, this past August, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on wire fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with the purchase of a fleet of Florida gambling boats from a guy who was later killed in a gangland-style rub-out. Abramoff pleaded not guilty and is now awaiting trial.
Last week, Abramoff's ex-partner Scanlon pleaded guilty to conspiring with Abramoff to bribe a congressman and other public officials in the Indian casino case.
But forget all that. Put it out of your mind. If we judged artists based on their morality, we'd have to dismiss Pablo Picasso, Roman Polanski, even Fatty Arbuckle.
So let's set aside the scandals and focus instead on Jack Abramoff, auteur. Let's ponder the critical question: Where does the Abramoff oeuvre fit in the history of cinematic art?
Obviously, it would be immensely valuable to ask Abramoff himself about his aesthetic philosophy and his unique artistic vision. But, alas, the auteur declined requests for an interview about his oeuvre. So we'll just have to rent the movies, pop some corn and hold the first -- and perhaps last -- Jack Abramoff Film Festival.
The Los Angeles Times dismissed "Red Scorpion" as "a numskull live-action comic book," and New York Times columnist Frank Rich called it "seriously God-awful." Personally, I thought it was a wild roller-coaster ride, a gripping, heart-stopping, white-knuckle thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. (Well, not really, but I've always wanted to write a sentence like the ones quoted in movie ads.) But I do believe that future scholars of cinema will see "Red Scorpion" as one of Dolph Lundgren's six or seven best movies.
Lundgren plays Lt. Nikolai, a buff, blond Russian commando sent to Africa to kill a guerrilla leader who's fighting Cuban commies. Lundgren rarely speaks and his stone face betrays no emotion. But his chest, which is frequently bare, emotes like crazy, sweating profusely when he is angry, which is pretty much always. And of course his burps are also eloquent.
After Nikolai shoots up that African bar, he gets thrown in jail with an anti-commie guerrilla. When a soldier enters the cell to execute the guerrilla, Nikolai beats him up and helps the guerrilla escape, killing about a zillion commies in the process.
Nikolai joins the guerrillas but they figure he's still a commie, so they throw him in jail. He escapes but he's caught by the Cubans, who torture him by sticking needles into his biceps while his stone face registers no pain but his chest weeps eloquently.
He escapes again, killing more commies; then he stumbles across the burning sands of an endless desert until he collapses on a dune so bleak and lifeless that not a single sprig of green grows on it.
When he wakes up the next morning, the desert is dotted with plants, which is either a mistake in script continuity or a subtle Bergmanesque symbol of rebirth and resurrection.
Nikolai is befriended by an ancient, wizened Bushman, who carves a mystical red scorpion on Lundgren's sweating chest. After that, Nikolai rejoins the battered guerrilla army, which is ready to surrender. But the blond Nordic giant with the sweaty chest rallies the dejected Africans and leads them to victory, killing gazillions of commies in the process.
As the credits roll, Little Richard sings "All Around the World" while the guerrillas harmonize with bursts of gunfire -- a nifty climax that no doubt sent audiences out of the theater whistling happily.
When "Red Scorpion" was released, it was picketed by anti-apartheid protesters angry that Abramoff had shot the movie in territory controlled by South Africa's white supremacist government, using soldiers and military equipment lent by the South Africans. The protesters would have been even angrier if they'd known that the International Freedom Foundation, a right-wing group founded by Abramoff, was secretly bankrolled by the South African army -- but that wasn't known until a South African colonel revealed it in 1995.
By then, Abramoff had produced "Red Scorpion 2" -- a "sequel" that bears absolutely no resemblance to the original. It has no Lundgren, no commies, no wizened Bushmen, none of the same actors and precious few emotive chests. It isn't even set in Africa. Instead, it all takes place in the good old U.S.A., where secret agent Nick Stone leads a team of government commandos into battle with a militia army run by a charismatic neo-Nazi who has stolen the "Spear of Destiny" -- the lance that Roman centurions used to pierce Christ's chest -- and plans to use it to conquer America.
In fact, the only connection between "RS" and "RS2" is that both films feature commandos who have tattoos of red scorpions. Also, both films feature zillions of violent deaths, many of them in giant explosive fireballs -- lethal fireballs being an Abramoff signature.
But "RS2" has one thing "RS" lacks -- a sex scene. A saucy Nazi slut seduces one of Nick's commandos. But just when things start getting hot and steamy, the amorous couple falls off the bed and out of sight. That may have disappointed the movie's hornier fans, but it probably pleased the Committee for Traditional Jewish Values in Entertainment, which no doubt opposes premarital sex with saucy Nazi sluts.
"RS2" lacked the geopolitical gravitas of "Red Scorpion," but let's give it some credit: It did raise public awareness about the importance of keeping spears used to stab Christ out of the hands of Nazis.
Promoting "RS2" in 1995, Malaysian actress Samantha Schubert, who had a bit part in the movie, told the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times that Abramoff was her manager and that he'd offered her the lead in his next movie.
"I'll be playing the role of queen of the planet in a science fiction movie called 'Cyberstrike,' " she said.
Alas, Abramoff never made "Cyberstrike." Instead he became a Washington lobbyist. But he never stopped writing, channeling his creativity into the e-mails that were later released by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Those now-infamous e-mails reveal Abramoff's hitherto undiscovered talent for writing brilliant lowlife dialogue. The best of the e-mails are reminiscent of the poetically raunchy dialogue in "Glengarry Glen Ross," David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about sleazy real estate salesmen:
"Can you smell money?!?!?!" Abramoff asked in one e-mail.
"You iz da man! Do you hear me?! You da man!!" he wrote in another. "How much $$ coming tomorrow? Did we get some more $$ in?"
"That [expletive] idiot put my name on an e-mail list!" he wrote in a third. "What a [expletive] moron! He may have blown our cover! Dammit. We are moving forward anyway and taking their [expletive] money."
Ironically, Abramoff's e-mails contain better dialogue than Abramoff's movies. The man's a natural. And he'd be the perfect screenwriter for a blockbuster about influence peddling in Washington, perhaps something autobiographical.
Hey, it could happen. Peter Mirijanian, a Washington PR man, says his friend Abramoff is actively pursuing several movie ideas: "He is in discussion and he is moving forward on a couple of projects."
There you have it, movie buffs -- a reason to go on living.