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The original Red Dawn, released in 1984, is an amusing time capsule. With stars Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey and a premise that basically summarized Reagan-era Cold War paranoia, the film is so topical that the notion of a remake was absurd right off the bat. What comes next, a re-imagining of Dr. Strangelove?
After several years of delays (thanks to MGM’s financial woes and a post-production decision to switch the film’s villainous army from Chinese to North Korean), the new version of Red Dawn has finally arrived and does nothing to dispel that initial skepticism. The politics are ham-fisted, the characters bland and the action incomprehensibly chaotic. There is not a single way this film improves on the original, and it doesn’t even carry the unintentional comedic value of being so spectacularly dated.
If there’s one thing Red Dawn can be credited for, it’s expediency; the central group of characters is introduced at a breakneck speed in the film’s first 10 minutes. Our main protagonists are brothers Jed and Matt Eckert (Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck, respectively), sons of a police officer in Spokane, Wash. Jed is a Marine, spending some time at home after doing a tour in Iraq, while Matt is the brash quarterback of the local high school football team. The opening football game goes to great efforts to tell us that Matt is not a team player, and often selfishly tries to accomplish everything alone. Dialogue comes at a premium in Red Dawn, so we can go ahead and assume that Matt will eventually learn to be a real leader.
For the lights are barely off at the football field before Spokane comes under attack by the North Korean army, with parachuting infantry filling the sky and panic in the streets. No sooner has the invasion started than it is already won – tanks, humvees and helicopters appear out of thin air, and the U.S. army apparently decides that Spokane isn’t much worth fighting over.
Jed and Matt, along with a number of Matt’s high school classmates, flee to the family cabin in the woods outside town. There, Jed quickly trains this ragtag group of kids into a tight-knit resistance group, and before we’re even half an hour into the film, the Wolverines (named after their football team mascot) are waging all-out guerilla warfare on their occupiers.
The leap of faith necessary to accept this premise would stretch over a canyon. It’s never clear how the Wolverines obtain their copious weaponry, much less when they actually found the time to learn to use it all properly. They move in and out of occupied Spokane with ease. Also, while the North Koreans are apparently able to invent an electro-magnetic weapon that can wipe out the entire American military, printing some “WANTED” posters is apparently beyond them. And speaking of that EMP, it’s never satisfactorily explained how the invaders avoided shutting down their own equipment, although a lot of brouhaha is made over a black box that looks like a laptop case circa 1998.
All that, though, could be excusable; it’s not like the original film made a whole lot of sense, either. But Red Dawn falls into generic action-thriller hell, neither taking its premise lightly or seriously enough. There’s enough loaded imagery in the occupation scenes to bring Baghdad and the Green Zone to mind, but the film is too interested in bland high-school romances and clunky one-liners to make any sort of resonant commentary on the Iraq War. Conversely, just enough jokes land that you pray the movie will descend into complete, satirical self-parody, but then Hemsworth delivers another leaden, patriotic speech, the bullets start flying, and the moment has passed.
Director Dan Bradley, formerly a respected second unit director and stunt coordinator on films like the Spider-Man and Bourne franchises, is surprisingly inept even in that regard. Trying to ape the hand-held chaos of the Bourne films, Red Dawn just becomes confusing and incomprehensible when it should be most engaging. In particularly frantic fights, it can be impossible to figure out who’s who or where any one character is in relation to another, resulting in just a lot of pointless noise and violence.
And even then, Red Dawn keeps everything safely in the PG-13 range. The original film was something of a boundary-pusher in the depiction of violence on screen – in fact, it was the very first movie to receive the PG-13 rating. Had the studio decided to ratchet up the shock and awe on this remake to satisfy the desensitized sensibilities of 2012, perhaps it could’ve had some of the visceral impact of the 1984 version. As it is, we’ve just seen this kind of thing too many times before.
The above barely even touches on the wooden script, the abrupt ending or the painfully one-note performance by Josh Peck (of Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh, once upon a time), but the picture is clear: movies like Red Dawn represent everything that is wrong with Hollywood’s remake obsession.