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Originally published Monday, November 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Jack Abramoff, cinematic genius? He shoulda stayed in Hollywood

A guy walks into a bar. The guy's a commie commando, a hulking Russian killing machine named Nikolai. Nikolai swigs from a pint of vodka...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A guy walks into a bar. The guy's a commie commando, a hulking Russian killing machine named Nikolai.

Nikolai swigs from a pint of vodka. Nikolai — played by Dolph Lundgren in this movie, called "Red Scorpion" — stumbles around. 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 a 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, the correct answer is: Jack Abramoff.

Before Abramoff was a powerful Washington lobbyist and Republican fund raiser, 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.

In 1989, Abramoff produced and co-authored "Red Scorpion," the Dolph Lundgren Cold War classic. In 1994, he produced "Red Scorpion 2" a sequel that had absolutely nothing to do with the original.

But Abramoff was not merely a producer. He was 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 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.

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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 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 a personal 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 believe that future scholars of cinema will see "Red Scorpion" as one of Dolph Lundgren's six or seven best movies.

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.

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.

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."

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