In the spirit of honesty, I’m a little bit ashamed about what I’m about to write, but here it goes. I like “Red Dawn”. And just to be clear, we’re talking about the unnecessary remake, not the 1984 John Milius original. As a fast-paced, low-brain-cell action flick, it turns out that “Red Dawn” is a lot of fun. As a movie with all of the trappings and trimmings of such a thing, it isn’t quite so successful. There isn’t much in the way of set up, or any of the elements that go into a traditional narrative. Here are a handful of people—I hesitate to call them characters. Most of them have names. Hey look, some ambiguous evil bad guys are parachuting out of the sky. Go!
That’s it. From this point “Red Dawn” is a non-stop forward press of gunfights and ambushes, with mildly rousing speeches sprinkled in every so often. Normally in a movie like this the pace gets interrupted when someone attempts to hit pause and have a touching exchange between characters, or, you know, insert some semblance of story into the film. In most cases that’s where they come apart. “Red Dawn” also attempts this sort of maneuver, but one, the tender bro-ments are so silly that they end up really funny; two, even the actors appear to know how hackneyed these moments are, which makes them even funnier; and three, none of these breaks last long, and a well-timed explosion or hail of bullets disrupts them before they become groan worthy.
To clarify an earlier statement, I’m not ashamed that I like “Red Dawn”. If I got all choked up every time I enjoyed a movie with gaping, glaring flaws, I’d be hard pressed to admit that I like anything. My taste is questionable; this is a fact of life I’m at peace with. However, I have such a deep, passionate love for the original, which had a larger impact on my young life than I should probably admit in a public forum, that I feel like I’m betraying a key piece of who I am.
“Red Dawn Redux” doesn’t bring anything new to the table. In fact, the movie doesn’t do much different at all. The plot is the same, a vague communist threat invades America, and the names are the same (though Chris Hemsworth is no Patrick Swayze, Josh Peck is no Charlie Sheen, and Josh Hutcherson is no C. Thomas Howell—there’s not nearly enough hate to keep him warm at all). North Korea is a piss-poor stand in for the looming specter of Cold War era Russia, and Calumet, Colorado is swapped out for Spokane, Washington. Those are the only major changes.
After sitting on the shelf since 2010—like “Cabin in the Woods”, the film was a casualty of MGM’s financial woes—“Red Dawn” is finally in theaters. It’s been so long since this has been in the can that when I first read about it, the lead was, in my mind, “some Australian dude,” instead of “God of Thunder.” This was well before Hemsworth was even cast as Thor.
I’m of the opinion that the original is a masterpiece of the anti-communist paranoia that saturated the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as a dose of youthful rebellion fantasy fulfillment. The film struck an especially poignant chord growing up in a military town—no less than three important Navy bases sat within single digit miles of my childhood home—at the tail end of the Cold War. Most of my free time was spent running through the woods, fending off imaginary hordes of Ruskies, yelling “Wolverines” at the top of my lungs, and generally saving the day. To a point. A morose child, I was also fairly certain I would die any day in an all-out nuclear holocaust.
That’s one of the reasons that “Red Dawn 1984” struck, and continues to strike such a chord with my generation. We grew up expecting global thermonuclear war (thanks, “War Games”). Another is that the protagonists were just kids. They weren’t highly trained badasses with specialized combat skills; they were just like us, pissing their pants, not sure what to do except that they needed to do something. They were the junior version of an everyman action hero, forced into action by the press of circumstances beyond their control. This story of “Red Dawn” empowers the very little guy (I was seven in 1984).
Chris Hemsworth’s Jed is a US Marine in the update, so that element goes out the window immediately. And while Russia was the epitome of a global threat—vague enough to most of us to be unknown, thus that much scarier, but concrete enough through movies and TV to feel very real—North Korea doesn’t create the same level of fear and concern. You may remember “Red Dawn” raised a bit of a stink when the villains were digitally changed from China to North Korea. See, China has the manpower, resources, and power that you’d believe they could actually pull off invading mainland America. But the studio heads got together and decided that China is too big a movie-going population to lose, and they were replaced.
So instead of a monolithic power, we’re left with an invader that the film portrays as a spoiled, petulant child, equating their invasion with a temper tantrum. If any time at all was spent on this scenario, it might impact the movie, but the who is of so little consequence that it’s barely mentioned. They could have left it out completely and you’d care just as much. The villains are of little to no importance.
At the end of the day, the whole point of “Red Dawn” is to blow up a lot buildings, shoot off a lot of bullets, and prove, once and for all, that jocks, sluts, nerds, and every other high school social caste can come together as one to battle a highly trained invading army. For a brief second you think that “Red Dawn” might try to make a point about the nature of war, imperialism, and global hegemony. In one of Jed’s many stirring speeches he touches on the fact that that the Wolverines are the insurgents now, much like the ones he faced in the Marines. Nothing comes of it, and the movie goes back to what it does best, lively action with no ideas involved.