A film review by Craig J. Koban December 6, 2012

RED DAWN jj
½   

2012, PG-13, 96 mins.


Jed: Chris Hemsworth / Robert: Josh Hutcherson / Matt: Josh Peck / Erica: Isabel Lucas / Daryl: Connor Cruise / Toni: Adrianne Palicki / Tom: Brett Cullen

Directed by Dan Bradley / Written by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore, based on the 1984 film “Red Dawn” written by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius.

The original 1984 RED DAWN – directed with a real machismo intensity by John Milius – worked well as a pro-American and decidedly anti-Communist male adolescent fantasy that fed into every young patriotic boy’s burning desire to rid the world of dirty and amoral Ruskies.  It contained a great what-if premise that spoke to the anxieties and fears of its time: What if Russia – with assistance from Cuba and Nicaragua – managed to neutralize and infiltrate heavily populated U.S. towns?  Even though the film was a gun-touting and rip-roaring action vehicle, it nonetheless had an atmosphere of credibility to it.  At the very zenith of the Cold War, the fear that many Americans probably had of Russian invasion was palpable, which gave RED DAWN an easy aura of unsettling menace. 

The undoing of the RED DAWN remake is that, well, the Cold War is over and the former Soviet Union is no longer the tangible threat that it once was.  By substituting in North Koreans for Russians (which, in turn, were substituted in for the Chinese, more on that later), RED DAWN-redux lacks the topical relevance of its predecessor and, as a negative result, never comes off as frighteningly relatable as Milius’ film did to early 80’s audiences.  There is something to critically be said about a country like North Korea – which is ten times smaller population-wise to the U.S. – having the military might, know-how, and resources available to stage a successful invasion on American soil, but I found myself asking less questions about the logic behind this film and instead pondered whether North Korea holds up as well as Russia in terms of a fearsome antagonist.  With the Cold War over and Russia no longer an issue, a new RED DAWN picture would have to work overtime to attain the level of anxiety-plagued and social-political relevance of the original.  

Sadly, it doesn’t   

Verisimilitude – or lack thereof – aside, the new RED DAWN does work with some efficiency as a goofy, low-rent, and enjoyably disposable rah-rah comic book auctioneer that pits teens from small-town Americana versus a horde of North Korea’s most despicable attackers.  Like the original, we are quickly introduced to a series of young adolescents during the comings-and-goings of their high school life (this time in and around Spokane, Washington) before all hell breaks loose.  We meet Matt (Josh Peck), an up-and-coming football star with a trophy/cheerleader girlfriend (Isabel Lucas).   Matt’s older brother, Jed (THOR himself, Chris Hemsworth) is a marine that has just returned home from active duty, but his relationship with his younger sibling has been soured for years.  Just as tensions between the two brothers reach a fever pitch, a mysterious power outage ravages the city…and then North Korean paratroopers begin dropping from the sky. 

 

 

The military man in Jed sees this as an invasion, so he gathers up his brother and some other local kids, Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Toni (Adrianne Palicki), Daryl (Connor Cruise), and Danny (Edwin Hodge) to head to a remote family cabin in the woods.  They all decide to lay low, that is until their location is discovered and most of their loved ones are brutally assassinated by Korean thugs.  Jed then decides to take a stand and fight, imploring those with him to join in on a guerrilla-style war against the larger, more heavily equipped, and technologically superior enemy.  Jed’s training – and recent military history – has taught him that numbers don’t matter when you engage in successful shock-and-awe tactics to take a larger enemy off-guard when they least expect it.  He then decides to train his new friends, acquire what weapons they can, and adopt the moniker of “Wolverines” (named after the high school football team) as a symbol of a new resistance.  After a series of successful raids, the Wolverines set their sights on a special EMP-resistant radio telephone – in enemy hands – that would enable the U.S. to contact allies and fight back. 

This new retooled RED DAWN was directed by stuntman-turned-director Dan Bradley, who displays a nice affinity for showing the initial scenes of normalcy that occupies Spokane before the Koreans invade.  The opening sections of the Koreans landing packs a strong visceral wallop – seeing all of those planes and paratroopers in the sky is undeniably thrilling and tense – and he certainly handles later sequences of the Wolverines launching their attacks against their occupying enemies with an pulsating intensity (even though he seems, at times, to commit the unpardonable action filmmaking sin of moving the camera erratically to the point of inducing migraines).   On a level of delivering the status quo of obligatory action-intrigue, the new RED DAWN delivers. 

The performances this go around are perhaps a bit more thanklessly refined and authentic than what then-newcomers Patrick Swazye, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, and C. Thomas Howell offered in Milius’ iteration.  Chris Hemsworth exudes movie star charisma and bravado in just about every movie he’s in, and here he makes for a very credible leader of the pack.  Josh Hutcherson – an underrated young performer (see THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT and BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA) – seems equally up to the challenge of making the most preposterous moments of the film feel genuine.  The fetching Adrianna Palicki - most certainly easy on the eyes - displays a tough-minded and determined exterior in the face of war.  Josh Peck seems to have a darker edge than what Sheen and Howell had in the original, although his character comes off as abnoxiously self-interested and loathsomely irksome too often to become a truly worthy figure of our rooting interest. 

As for the bad guys, they are not really developed at all, something that the original film managed to find time for.  It could be noted that the villains were to be Chinese, but were later digitally altered to become North Koreans in post-production, seeing as the producers and studio apparently did not want to alienate a robust Chinese filmgoing populace.  RED DAWN was shot nearly three years ago, was shelved during MGM’s financially unstable years, and has finally been kind of unceremoniously released now.  It does not matter, because the long hiatus of the film has not led to further script embellishment of the Koreans as a realistic threat or as anything more than cardboard cutout, cookie-cutter villains.  How they actually manage to invade a super power like the U.S. so easily and without opposition is also never really or satisfactorily explained in the film. 

RED DAWN made me feel sort of giddily nostalgic for the original; it’s a work that neither enhances nor degrades Milius’ film, but it nonetheless fails to really separate itself fully from the ‘84 effort (something that all good remakes should aspire towards).  The first RED DAWN superficially felt like a raging pro-war picture, but underneath it all it managed to touch on decidedly anti-war themes by film’s end.  The new RED DAWN is a bit more hypocritical: It has scenes of Hemsworth’s Jed pontificating to his brothers and sisters in arms about how ugly and blood-soaked their unsavory mission will be, but then goes out of its way to show scene after scene of jubilant, fist-pumping slaughter that invites viewers to cheer at every Korean being vengefully decimated.  Hell, even the ending of the film seems to preach a staunch flag-waving, let’s-go-get-‘em-and-kill-‘em-all agenda.   At least Milius’ film was a bit shrewder, in retrospect, with regards to its political sermonizing.   The new RED DAWN registers as an almost-guilty pleasure action flick without much of a brain in its head; emphasis on “almost.”

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