Not a Swayze in sight: “Red Dawn”

November 22, 2012

The original 1984 Red Dawn was co-written and directed by John Milius (he of Conan the Barbarian fame), and as such it has clearly-presented worldview: “The Reds are gonna invade any day now, so all you slack-ass, pantywaist teenagers better cowboy the fuck up and get ready to shoot some Commies in the face, because I sure as shit can’t kill all of them for you.” If you keep in mind that Milius was supposedly the inspiration for John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski, then you know that this worldview makes perfect sense to him. By contrast, if the remake of Red Dawn has a worldview it’s, “Hey, we should remake that movie from the ‘80s that was on TV in the hotel where we were railed on coke and trying to get that one hooker to wake up. Because thinking up new movies is way hard.”

The first thing you have to understand about the new Red Dawn is that the bad guys are not the Chinese. I cannot emphasize that enough. Sure, they were the Chinese when they started filming this movie, but then some genius did the math and realized that pissing off one billion potential consumers in the largest emerging market in the world wasn’t great business. So they changed the bad guys to the North Koreans late in the game. This is most evident in the film’s opening montage of fake news reports about North Korea’s growing belligerence in the hopes of making them seem scary to the audience. It works about as well as similar efforts in The Day the World Ended did to make giant grasshoppers terrifying. No, actually a plague of ginornmous grasshoppers is probably more plausible.

Those warlike Chinese…

Anyway, some bullshit happens in Spokane that’s supposed to introduce us to the characters, which is kind of a joke, because, I mean, really? Do we care about Matt (Josh Peck), the high school quarterback, and his sibling issues with his older brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth), who’s home from Iraq? No. Not really.

Well, soon enough the power gets knocked out and then the Chinese North Koreans invade, and Jed and Matt and some other people make their way into the woods to regroup and come up with a battle plan. Their impromptu militia includes the chick from Friday Night Lights (Adrianne Palicki), the shrimpy kid from The Hunger Games (Josh Hutcherson), and a bunch of expendable people. Well, they get their hands on some guns, and Jed trains them up on weapons and tactics. Pretty soon, they have a cool name for their club—the Wolverines—and they’re ready to fight back.

Our liberators! (I wonder if Korean is a hard language to learn)

And fight back they do, pretty much wasting big chunks of the invading army right out of the gate—hey, why not? They’ve had, like, five days of training. But the group is riven by the conflict between hothead Matt, who wants to rescue his improbably-blonde girlfriend (Isabel Lucas), and the more pragmatic (and, it should be said, battle-hardened Jed). This leads to at least one catastrophe and casualties. But, hey, he got his gf back, so it’s all worth it.

You’d sacrifice your friends to bust her out of jail, right?

Soon enough, they hook up with a trio of Marines who give them the skinny: The Chinese North Koreans used an EMP to take out our power grid and launch their invasion (where the millions of soldiers they’d need in excess of North Korea’s population came from is never explained). Most of America’s blue states have fallen (natch), but there are portions of the US that are under American control. Oh, and the Chinese North Koreans have some kind of magic box that can transmit through the EMP blackout they caused. The last third of the movie is about the Wolverines’ daring raid on the Chinese North Korean headquarters to steal a magic box and win the war. Just like it works in real life.

For most of its running time, Red Dawn was merely stupid, but by the midway point it became genuinely offensive. The Wolverines’ guerrilla campaign is pure Hollywood Robin Hood fantasy, with the kids making supremely-effective, lightning fast raids that kill only the bad guys, and rouse the population. This hokum worked in the original, when Vietnam was a solid decade-plus in the rearview mirror. Now, however, we’ve been fighting insurgencies for more than ten years in two different countries, and we know what that type of battle looks like. It’s an ugly, soul-annihilating business for everyone involved—fighters and civilians alike. We know this. We’ve been seeing it on the news for most of the lifespan of the kids in this movie. For the filmmakers to ignore this fact—and trust us to do the same—is downright insulting. Additionally, the movie would seemingly like us to ignore what we’ve learned about asymetric warfare in the past decade. In this movie’s world, even the Iraq-war vet doesn’t seem to know about IEDs or EFPs.


Also: The North Koreans army is totally incapable of seeing on top of rooftops.

Moreover, it betrays the film’s cavernous creative bankruptcy. 1984’s Red Dawn was ludicrous, but it was a product of its time, and a torqued up explosion of our national anxieties in the waning days of the Cold War. This film is a product of nothing. Thirty years on, anyone watching it will get no insight into the way pop culture could reflect life in the early 2000s. Compare that with, say the remake of Fright Night, which neatly worked in a prescient portrait of our increasing rootlessness—and the way the economic crash exacerbated that rootlessness—to update that story. See, it can be done, but these filmmakers chose not to do it.

So what else we got?

* Man, the kid who plays Matt is an atrocious actor. He has the most inexpressive face in movies. When he learns his reckless play to spring his girlfriend got one of their people killed, he, uh, well, he squints a little more. When he delivers the (supposedly) rousing final speech, he doesn’t even bother to squint.

Josh Peck: Now available in “stoned” as well as “Extra-Squinty”

* Also, Matt and Jed look nothing alike. I mean, there is no way they sprang from the same gene-pool. A badger and a VCR look more alike.

* These guys all have no problem jumping from perilous heights, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a mobility-impairing injury is as good as a bullet to the brain. Worse, actually, since now your buddies have to carry your sorry ass. Guess the military never taught Jed that one.

* So…the best footage they could get of the ferocious Chinese North Korean war machine is…some 40 year-old MiGs. Really, guys?

* Speaking of, what exactly was the Chinese North Korean plan supposed to be? Invade the US and hope South Korea surrenders? That seems somewhat circuitous to me.

Behold the mastermind of our downfall!

* Best line, from Jed: “Over there, we were the good guys. Keeping order…” Um…erm…ah…that’s a toughy…

* The original was way grittier. The kids were more feral, and actually executed turncoats and prisoners. At least Milius had the stones to show war’s corrosive effect on the soul.

* Man, these people have a lot of ammo. The hell did all that come from? I mean, ammo drums for a SAW aren’t the kind of things you just find laying around.

* Now, I can’t claim to be a tactical genius, but is the best way to take a town to paratroop a bunch of guys in and have them shoot at random cars? I just think there’s gotta be a better way.

* So, the one time we see the Chinese North Koreans retaliating against civilians, they’re about to publicly shoot a woman who has aided the Wolverines. The Chinese North Korean officer raises his gun, and…the Wolverines light them all up. Um…you think that lady’s gonna be sympathetic to you when she realizes that you waited until the last freaking moment to save her life?

* This movie looks like it was edited by a drunk octopus. The battle scenes are incomprehensible (who is where doing what?), and chunks of this movie seem to be left on the cutting-room floor. At one point, Matt tells Jed that the group is beginning to question their mission. Really? Because a second ago, they were all pretty stoked to kill some Chin..Nor…East Asians.

Anyway, that’s Red Dawn. It blows. Wolverines kinda suck.


  1. This movie should have stayed on the shelf. I guess having a few people in it who have very recently been in big blockbusters made Hollywood decide to bring it to theaters. I imagine men in suits with big dollar signs for eyes.

  2. Yeah, it’s really kind of depressing how little effort Hollywood is putting into coming up with new ideas.

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