Film Review – Red Dawn

Red Dawn Movie PosterThe Russians are coming! The Russi… The Chin… The North Koreans are coming!

Every once in a while, hyperbole reaches such a fever pitch with paranoia for the “other” that it’s personified in pure spectacle. Here we have a remake of writer/director John Milius’s 1984 action film, Red Dawn. The original is the story of teenagers in a small Midwestern town fighting a rebellion against the Russian and Cuban army that has invaded a portion of the United States. In 1984, Cold War paranoia was appearing in all forms of media, from Schwarzenegger movies (Red Heat) to comedians (Yakov Smirnoff) to novels (Tom Clancy), and Milius’s film was the personification of the paranoia. The Russians had invaded the USA.

What Milius’s film used to burn its structurally unsound narrative of national pride and xenophobia on a generation was its stark, nihilistic approach to teenagers and violence. The movie starts with high school kids in class as we see through the window behind them, men parachuting onto the school grounds, armed. It goes from there and follows a group of kids who escape and mount a campaign against the invading force. The movie has no consistent pace, and almost no exposition. Scenes simply happen, with little to no connectivity to what came before. But, what does happen on screen is teenagers killing and—more effectively—dying. Milius presents the violence as sensationalistic reward for all those paranoid nationalists who’d just as soon claim, “I told ya’ so!” But, it also presents the violence played out on the teenagers as the tragedy that befalls some good kids fighting for a greater cause. It happens abruptly and with no time for thought on the details. In this way, the film is perhaps the most effective; it is a war film, but fought by children, not adults.

With the remake, director Dan Bradley has taken Milius’s fragmented and dispassionate tale of war on American soil and has threaded a story progression into it. In the original, events were rarely if ever explained or preordained; they happened and then that was it. Here, Bradley and writers Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore have weaved in character arcs, along with a more standard three-act structure than what was presented in 1984. While this may make the film a bit more watchable to a larger audience, it in turn suffers from losing the cold impact the original is designed to give.

Red Dawn 1

With times being different and the Cold War a thing of the past, the filmmakers sought a more modern approach to the anti-captialist, anti-freedom villains at forefront of this American invasion. Originally, the invading force was to be China, but with the country being a possibly viable market for the film, it was decided after the film had been made to change the invaders to North Korea. By re-editing the expository opening to portray North Korea as the bad guys, and digitally altering a whole lot of Chinese imagery that was present before, the film hopes to be more socially relevant amongst current events. Instead, it comes off as contrived and unrealistic, and even culminates in a self-referential joke that mirrors exactly what the audience should be asking themselves: “How can North Korea be invading the United States?”

Red Dawn 2

Unlike the original, the plausibility of the scenario presented here requires a much greater suspension of disbelief from its audience. The fact that the film even takes a jab at its own premise indicates its own awareness of the precocious position its mere existence is in. In an attempt to counteract this, we have character development, story progression, and a lot bigger, flashier action sequences. Oh, and we have Chris Hemsworth, who shot this movie before he was cast in Thor, bustling with a stoic, scruffy aptitude to do his best Patrick Swayze—whose role he’s playing—as the older, more experienced leader of the young, motley group. In the role of the younger brother, originally played by Charlie Sheen, is Josh Peck, who somehow manages to speak every line as if his jaw’s been broken and sewn shut, all while doped up on painkillers and muscle relaxants, which leaves him constantly with the appearance of wondering where is, and what’s going on—so he might as well shoot some things. Residents of Washington State will get a kick out of the Spokane setting, even though it was filmed mostly in Michigan, and a brief cameo from local news channel KOMO 4’s anchor, Dan Lewis.

The action is handled fairly well, despite its overtly flashy veneer. Dan Bradley started his career as a stuntman and coordinator, as well as a second unit director on such action films as Quantum of Solace and The Bourne films, which lends to the sometimes overly shaky close-up shots during some of the action sequences, as both QoS and the Bourne films are riddled with these types of photography errors. Bradley is more subdued here and gives the audience wider shots, paired with reaction cuts that create a sense of geography (and thus, danger and urgency) for what’s being seen. What we end up coming away with is pop-action-quasi-politics, lost in its own paranoia, and filled with models from an Abercrombie & Fitch ad who die much less often and with far less impact than compared to what the movie’s predecessor accomplished.

Final Grade: C+


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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