Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat — I don’t care whatsoever that they remade Red Dawn. As a lad of the 1980s and a life-long John Milius fan, the film will always be something I revisit with beer and male friends every few years, but it isn’t exactly a good movie. Part of its enduring cult charm is that it is so sincerely ridiculous, in all the best Reagan-era and Miliusian ways. But what makes the film such a touchstone for its fanbase is exactly what now makes it a dated and mostly inaccessible curio from the hoary past for younger filmgoers. If some macho madman, some latter-day Milius, wants to tackle a version of Red Dawn for today’s young males, why not? Have at it. The time feels right. But if both films, flaws and all, are reflective of their respective time periods, then Dawn 2.0 would indicate that 2012 is pretty damn lifeless compared to 1984. The Red Dawn remake isn’t a bad movie. It’s just — a movie. It does the things a movie needs to do, does them competently, and manages to cobble together a few legit moments, but wholly lacks any feeling of verve or specialness. Ironically, I’d say it isn’t quite bad enough to be any good.
For those unfamiliar with the original film, Red Dawn concerns the military invasion and occupation of the United States by a foreign enemy, with the story centering on the guerrilla rebellion of a group of small town teens calling themselves the Wolverines (named after their high school’s mascot). The original film’s villains were the Soviet Union and their Cuban allies. Now the big bad is North Korea. Chris Hemsworth takes over for Patrick Swayze as the oldest member of the Wolverines, Jed Eckert — here, a marine back home temporarily when the North Koreans attack. Jed and his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck) take to the woods with a few other young stragglers, and using Jed’s Iraq experience, begin a surprisingly successful and violent retaliation against the Korean occupiers.
Where the film succeeds is its production competency. The casting is solid. Hemsworth, with his mountain man stoicism, and Peck, with his weird sub-Brando soft intensity, make excellent counterpoints to each other. And it is hard to go wrong with Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a supporting role. Director Dan Bradley, making his feature debut, wisely plays to his strengths as an A-list second-unit director and stunt coordinator. The action doesn’t have much of a ‘wow factor,’ but it is uniformly top-notch. The shoot-outs are cool, the explosions plentiful, and the body count high. To the film’s credit, despite the comparatively watered-down and gutless attitude studios have these days compared to the 1980s, the film doesn’t try to pussy out of the base appeal of its concept — teens using weapons to murder the fuck out of a bunch of foreigners. The original Red Dawn was the first film to earn a PG-13 rating, and its excessive violence caused a minor stir, briefly being condemned as the most violent movie ever made (until the following year when Commando and First Blood Part II showed us how it’s really done). In our post-Columbine world, I have to give everyone involved props for not shying away from teens and guns, because what the hell would the point even be then? That is something commendable. And I mean it. This movie kept its balls intact. Bottom line, I wasn’t bored with the film. The problem is that I wasn’t pushed in the direction of any other emotion either.
Remakes should be judged on their own terms. Nothing makes that more apparent than debating the quality of a remake with someone who hasn’t seen the original. Every negative “well, in the original” argument immediately sounds stupid and falls flat. That said, I can’t un-see the original Red Dawn, so my perspective on the failings of the remake can only be separated from Milius’ film so far before I simply won’t have anything to say. Judged on its own terms the new film is adequate but ordinary — deserving of a rental if you’re the kind of action fan who likes to gobble up every notable release in a year. And for those completely unfamiliar with the original, the remake may still coast by on the appeal of its concept alone. So there you go. But I’m interested in exploring why Red Dawn isn’t special, when for the most part it delivers a very similar product to the one that Milius delivered back in 1984.
The first problem is one that nobody on the production can be blamed for: the changing of the times. For the vast majority of American movie history, we had great and scary foreign enemies to play our cinema villains. First the Nazis, and then the Commies. But the Soviet Union is gone, and we live in a radically different movie world. Now we have boring terrorists. That clearly wasn’t going to cut it for Red Dawn. Despite what the lunatic fringe in this country likes to harp on about, terrorists pose a laughably insignificant threat to our country as a whole (which is in no way meant to dismiss the tragedy of individual American deaths at the hands of terrorists over the years). The threats to America in the 21st-century are economic ones. Red Dawn 2.0 was originally written and shot with China as the villain. That feels apt. But, fittingly, the threat that China poses to America economically proved all too real, because Red Dawn eventually blinked, and producers dumped some more money into the film to change China to North Korea – well after the fact – so as not to hurt the film’s box office chances in China. That’s almost poetic. North Korea, of course, is a pretty poor substitute. In the new film, one of the Wolverines even says, after learning that the invading enemy is North Korea, “But that makes no sense!” I agree.
Buuuut — Red Dawn is just a movie. No country on Earth, not even China, could actually invade and occupy the USA. And that’s not patriotism, just dull practicality. So I’m entirely fine with cutting the film slack in this area. But the deeper implications of why this feels stupid linger though. As silly as it seems now, in the 80s a lot of people still felt like Russian could stomp us all out. We were several years away from learning that they’d been bluffing us since the 60s, and that they had just completely imploded their nation’s bank account by foolishly invading Afghanistan. In 1984, Russia was still an Ivan Drago-esque super villain to the target audience for Red Dawn. No one is afraid of North Korea. I can accept them as the villains of the movie, but they might as well have been Mexico or aliens or evil house cats. They’re movie villains. The Soviets worked so well in movies because we really were scared of them. Milius’ Red Dawn was alternate-reality fantasy, but it had a seed of real collective dread. Dan Bradley’s Red Dawn does not. The original film was a wacko ‘what if’ story, but Milius put his full conviction behind it. I almost feel like the remake would have been better served if the bad guys were Middle Eastern terrorists. That at least would have played into and fed off of American collective paranoia, despite its implausibility. (North Korea is pretty goddamn implausible anyway.)
Middle of the road is the worst place to be. Maybe not for those aiming straight at the steely heart of the box office, but the original Red Dawn wasn’t a box office smash by any means. Like any film with a cult following, it has lingered because it had something different to show us. I don’t want to heap shit onto the remake, because as I already said, I very much respect that they didn’t try to soften all the edges. Teens murder people. Lots of people. They’re gun-toting badasses. They give dumb military speeches. They weep for their dead. But it is handled too conservatively and self-consciously. What I have always loved about John Milius is his complete lack of self-consciousness. He is unabashed. Just listen to his DVD commentary on The Wind and Lion, or the double-dip of glee that is the Conan the Barbarian DVD commentary. Dan Bradley is clearly self-aware. He tries to present things plausibly. He wants things to feel real. His Red Dawn is rarely melodramatic. But the entire concept of the film is melodramatic, so there is something to be said for continuing wantonly down that path. Go for broke. Knowing that the subject matter is prone to ridiculousness, Bradley tries to sell the film on the action, which is fine. But just fine. If he wanted to match the original he needed to try and sell the epic drama. Milius approached his film as though he were telling the most goddamn brilliant and dramatic and important story of human courage the world has even seen. When Milius’ teen heroes hoisted their guns in the air and screamed “Wolverines!” to the heavens, you knew Milius felt he had just nailed a Braveheart “Freedom!” moment. In the remake, when Josh Hutcherson repeats the moment it feels mostly like fan-service to the original film, because, objectively, it was totally silly in the original film. But sincerity has a way of piercing through laughability. Sincerity is timeless. So, though it sounds odd to say, I think this Red Dawn needed to dumb itself down and raw-dog us all with cheesy dramatics. Also, if it hoped to recapture the flavor the original had in 1984, it should have been rated R. Despite what soccer moms will surely think of all the gun-play, it is a very safe movie — a safe movie in dangerous times. And that’s hardly cool.
Ultimately, I don’t know that the premise of Red Dawn works in 2012. At first the movie hooks right into the heart of the NRA, a bullet-ridden wish fulfillment of the 2nd Amendment. The original Red Dawn harkened back to historic American fantasies about the Minutemen during the Revolutionary War, and John Milius’ transparent creative desire to explore the heroic nature of men pushed to their limits in warfare — and the romance of being the underdog in such warfare. The Minutemen are referenced here once again. But so are the insurgents in the Middle East. Now, mind you, I think it is very responsible for the filmmakers to draw this parallel between our film’s heroes and America’s current foes overseas, but I also wonder if doing this even further impedes the audience’s ability to tap emotionally (at least subconsciously) into the narrative. We’re already dealing with a villain no American has ever worried about. Now our embrace of the gun gets slyly guilt-tripped by pointing out that the United States is the occupying asshole elsewhere in the world. Responsible? Yes. Awesome? Not as much.
I have said very little about specific scenes in Red Dawn. That is because not much stuck with me, as far as individual moments. The ‘big moment’ with the Eckert brother’s dad (played here by Brett Cullen), lacks the bravado of the equivolent scene in the original film, in which the brothers talk with their father (played by Harry Dean Stanton) through the fence of a POW camp, and Stanton commands them to avenge his death — even though he isn’t dead yet. Now that is the kind of pressed-to-the-limit logic and emotional weight the remake needed. Without giving anything away, the remake’s version of this scene is far more “shocking,” yet far less resonant. Even though it tries, the remake feels less personable. And no one ever gets dirty in this film. They’re living in the woods, but everyone – especially our two female leads, Adrianne Palicki and Isabel Lucas – stays looking like they’re modeling for a magazine shoot. Let’s get some dirt smudged on those pretty faces and lose the haute couture form-fitting leather jackets, can we? This is war motherfuckers.
I’m extremely curious to see how this film performs. Maybe I’ll eat all these words and the film will become a classic to a new generation of mayhem-loving boys. But I think the times have changed away from the film Red Dawn now is. We already got what 2012 America wants out of a mainland invasion movie, and it was called The Avengers. And Hemsworth doesn’t get cheap-shotted by the Hulk here.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars