Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide issue of The Marshall Independent.
“Red Dawn” is Dan Bradley’s remake of John Milius’ 1984 original. So why remake a Cold War action flick after the Cold War is over, and how?
Why is easy. “Red Dawn” (1984) grossed $38 million, the 20th highest grossing film of that year, ahead of “The Terminator.” It made film history as the first U.S. released film rated PG-13, and a Guinness Book of Records nod as “most violent film.”
How is a problem. The Soviet Union is on the dust heap of history, and Russia doesn’t look in good enough shape to invade anybody.
The original set up the invasion of America with a disintegrating NATO, a communist coup in Mexico, and a famine in Russia. All too plausible, then and now.
Saboteurs from Cuba and Nicaragua sneak across the border, and paratroopers descend on Calumet, Colorado, via false flag commercial aircraft. A mixture of plausible and implausible. Our southern border is notoriously porous, but staging an invasion force in total secrecy strains credulity.
“Red Dawn” (2012) posits a nationalist coup in Russia which then invades the United States with a coalition of allies including North Korea, which is responsible for holding down Spokane, Washington.
The first draft had China invading the U.S., but the Chinese understandably objected. China is a huge market for action films no one can afford to offend. Note recent films that include Chinese characters and locations, such as “Skyfall” and “Looper.”
America is softened up with an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) weapon that fries the power grid and all communications systems. The lights go out one night, next morning the paratroopers descend.
This plot device was also used in the mini-series Amerika (1987) and is terrifyingly plausible.
U.S. Marine Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) is home on leave visiting his dad (Brett Cullen) the local sheriff, and his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck). Dad tells Jed to take his brother and whoever else they can find and head for his cabin in the hills.
After a period of chaos as the North Koreans clamp down and establish an occupation authority, Jed uses the knowledge of counter-insurgency he gained in Iraq to organize the Resistance.
This is where the remake is an improvement on the original. The resistance forms around a veteran with military skills who can train civilians. Attention is paid to training, tactics, and weaponry.
How do you get weapons equivalent to the enemy’s? You use what you have, kill some soldiers and take theirs.
It shows there’s a reason for military discipline, and a cost to ignoring it. Matt breaks cover during an operation to rescue his girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas) and gets a comrade killed.
The enemy is personified in Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee) as it was in the original by Russian Gen. Bratchenko (Vladek Sheybal), but there is no sympathetic Cuban Col. Ernesto Bella (Ron O’Neal) equivalent.
Two Hispanic characters are brought on as spear carriers, and you’d expect this to have a “we’re all Americans together” message. But then they’re given Anglo-Saxon names, Greg and Julie Goodyear (Julian Alcaraz and Alyssa Diaz) so the heck is the point?
The question of collaborators is brought up (“Had to happen,” Jed says) but the painful question of dealing with them is glossed over in the remake.
In the original the main character has to kill a traitor up close and personal. A comrade asks how they are different from their enemy if they do.
“Because we live here,” he replies, and shoots.
There’s none of that moral conflict in the remake.
The ending is kind of weak, without the resolution of the original.
But with all its weaknesses, it’s a pretty good action movie, based on a pretty good original.
Critical reaction was mixed about the original. One reviewer called it “John Milius’ absurd war fantasy that has the Red Army shooting civilians and raping women in Colorado.”
(The Red Army killing and raping civilians? Heavens, surely not!)
Twenty-eight years later the remake is doing respectable box office but critics are far more down on it, and I’m wondering what that says about us? “Red Dawn” has an unusually large disconnect between its popularity with audiences and critics.
Is it that an invasion by North Korea is unbelievable? Well, they do have the fourth largest army in the world, rigorously trained, brutal, and fanatic. Their equipment is antiquated, but the premise implies they’re equipped by someone else.
Or does “Red Dawn” make some critics uneasy with its portrait of an America which is not in fact invulnerable, not immune to the forces of history, and perhaps dangerously naive about the rest of the world?
Some scenes seem to make this point, but don’t hit you over the head with it. So go ahead and enjoy.