Red Dawn (United States, 2012)

November 21, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Red Dawn Poster

John Milius' 1984 action/adventure film, Red Dawn, has long faded from the memories of all but a small group of intense devotees. It is perhaps best remembered, to the extent that it's remembered at all, as the answer to a number of trivia questions. It was the first film to be released with a PG-13 rating. It brought together Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey three years before Dirty Dancing. And it represented the acting debut of Charlie Sheen. Red Dawn wasn't a very good movie but it capitalized on the atmosphere of fear that accompanied the Reagan Cold War era, spinning a credible yarn of how North America could fall prey to a combined Cuban/Soviet invasion. The central story, a comic book yarn perhaps inspired by World War 2 stories about the French resistance, was less interesting than the political/military backstory but it worked as forgettable, disposable entertainment. Why someone thought this was a good candidate for a remake is anyone's guess, especially considering that the Cold War is two decades in the rearview mirror and fading fast.

With the Soviets no longer a viable adversary, the new screenplay decides to make the North Koreans the chief bad guys. Presumably this is because a more credible threat, the Chinese, are too important to be demonized in a project such as this. Attempts are made in a prologue to explain the ridiculous situation by which the North Koreans invade the United States, but it never makes much sense. Today, Americans are worried about Middle Eastern terrorists, Iran, and China. North Korea is far down the list of enemies. But that's the trouble with finding a good adversary in today's world. The United States is vulnerable to a number of things, but invasion isn't a big concern.

For roughly the first 2/3rds, the 2012 Red Dawn follows the general template established by its predecessor. The final 20 minutes deviates substantially, probably in an attempt to rectify structural issues obvious in the 1984 version. Unfortunately, the changes don't work and make the movie seem more like the pilot episode of a weekly television series than a self-contained motion picture. John Milius at least provided some form of closure, even if it was half-assed. The same cannot be said here - Red Dawn concludes on an upbeat note but is open-ended.

The action takes place in and around Spokane, Washington. On a Saturday morning, marine Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) and his cocky younger brother, Matt (Josh Peck), awaken to the sights and sounds of thousands of paratroopers dropping from the sky. Immediately recognizing this to be an invasion, the brothers head for a mountain cabin, accompanied by some other local kids: Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Toni (Adrianne Palicki), Daryl (Connor Cruise), and Danny (Edwin Hodge). Out in the wilderness, they become "The Wolverines" (named after the local high school football team), and execute guerilla attacks on the occupation forces led by a North Korean captain (Will Yun Lee). After a few successes, the invaders begin to regard The Wolverines less as nuisances and more as a legitimate threat and take actions to eliminate them.

The best segments of the film occur early, as the setting is established with a dose of Friday Night Lights normalcy followed by an invasion that recalls Independence Day. There's something viscerally effective about the sight of all those planes and parachutes clogging the early morning sky in Suburbia, U.S.A. From that point, however, it's all downhill. Constricted by the running time, there's no time for development of any kind. Cue the pyrotechnics.

Red Dawn suffers from a number of serious problems. The first, and most obvious, is that this is mini-series material compressed into a 95-minute movie. It's like seeing a few brushstrokes of a very large canvas. Of course, the intention is not to tell a serious story of geopolitical upheaval and disaster, but the film's popcorn elements are underwhelming, especially considering that first-time director Dan Bradley frequently misplaces his tripod whenever there's an action sequence. Yes, Bradley adopts the depressingly commonplace approach of shaking the camera so badly during fights and chases that it's impossible to figure out what's happening.

Not much in the way of character development occurs. Chris Hemsworth plays the strong, silent type in much the same way Patrick Swayze did 28 years ago. As a marine on leave from Iraq, he knows war and has a good grasp of how a small troop of insurgents can create problems for a much stronger military machine. Josh Peck overdoes Matt's whiny selfishness to the point where the character is unendurable. He's about as dislikeable as Twilight's Bella and for much the same reason: for him, it's all about "me." Adrianne Palicki's character (a re-working of the one played by Jennifer Grey) might have been more interesting if she had more to do than pursue a long-simmering crush on Jed. Everyone else stays in the background - a sure indication that most of them are about to be red-shirted.

In 1984, Red Dawn felt relevant. Yes, it was cheesy, but kids could relate to the story. The "better dead than red" years were past, as were the "duck and cover" drills, but there was still a strong sense that the world was on a precipice and a Soviet attack could be imminent. The world is a much different place in 2012 and Red Dawn's underlying scenario feels like it was ripped from a video game rather than the headlines. The movie is inconsequential, forgettable, and seemingly destined to get lost in the blizzard of late November releases pouring into U.S. theaters.

Red Dawn (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2012-11-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1