Despite Jack Abramoff's Jan. 3 guilty plea to mail fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy charges, there's one egregious crime that the lobbyist may walk away from: Red Scorpion. The brainchild of the guy TIME called ''The Man Who Bought Washington'' and his brother Robert, the 1989 action flick stars Dolph Lundgren as a Soviet soldier who annihilates his Communist masters after bonding with a tribe of freedom-craving Africans. It was a craven attempt to capitalize on the success of the Rambo films, and the first-time producers somehow raised $16 million and recruited rookie screenwriter Arne Olsen (Cop and a Half) to develop their concept. ''I wanted it to be a classy action pic,'' says Olsen. ''But they brought in [director Joseph Zito], and he ended up rewriting it extensively.''
The film grossed a measly $4 million in North America and was totally forgettable except to those who survived the hellish five-month shoot in Namibia, then controlled by South Africa's apartheid government. When reached for comment, M. Emmet Walsh's manager recoiled at the very mention of Red Scorpion (Walsh played a gonzo American journalist). ''He doesn't want to talk about it,'' she said. ''It was the most horrible experience.'' Carmen Argenziano, who costarred as a sinister Cuban, was more forthcoming: ''When we got there, I think we realized, 'What the heck are we doing and how the heck do we get out of here?''' In fact, Argenziano half-jokingly wonders if ''[Zito] became aware of whatever was happening, and he decided to sabotage the f---ing production.'' (Zito did not return numerous calls and e-mails for comment.)
The ''whatever was happening'' might refer to that $16 million budget. In 1995, Abramoff's conservative International Freedom Foundation (IFF) was reported to have been at least partially funded by the South African military leading some to wonder whether they helped bankroll the movie. (Abramoff declined to comment, but has denied the apartheid government backed the IFF.) ''What went on with this movie was a forerunner of what subsequently happened with Abramoff,'' says attorney Peter Leon, who represented some of the film's investors and employees who claimed to be unpaid. ''His behavior [was] completely at odds with his apparent moral codes.'' Sadly, the IFF revelation came a year too late to prevent the Abramoffs' straight-to-video sequel, Red Scorpion 2, which lacked Dolph but did boast Nazis who threaten America with the spear that pierced Jesus during the Crucifixion. It's by far the best film ever made of that genre.