Given that virtually every profitable film from the 1980s has been (or will be) remade, it was only a matter of time before someone set their sights on the wacky-but-popular 1984 “speculative war movie” known as Red Dawn. Directed by the testosterone-lovin’ John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Flight of the Intruder, Farewell to the King, and many other films that deal almost exclusively with men and their weapons), Red Dawn was already considered goofy escapist fare even when we were neck-deep in the “red scare” of the 1980s, and to say it doesn’t “hold up” today would be an outlandish understatement. Aside from all the violence, the original Red Dawn looks a lot like a comedy nowadays. (Note of trivia: Red Dawn was the very first PG-13 film, yet it also held the record for “most violent movie” for several years.)
The premise of Red Dawn (both the original flick and the sweaty new remake) feels more like sci-fi than it does a war movie: America has been invaded by thousands of enemy forces who somehow evade our defense systems and set up shop in sleepy little towns as a team of angry teenagers head for the hills and learn how to FIGHT BACK! (Raaar, go America!) It’s speculative fiction, at the very least, and both films offer a juicy little “what if?” hook: what if your neighborhood was suddenly overwhelmed by foreigners with guns? The first movie proposed that our angry-yet-heroic young people would answer the call and fight back.
The remake proposes, well, the exact same thing: North Koreans have invaded Spokane, Washington, and since there’s no outside assistance to speak of, the town must be rescued by seven people ranging in age from 15 to … I have no idea, let’s say 28.
To those who’ve seen the original: Chris Hemsworth plays the wise old Patrick Swayze guy; Josh Peck is irresponsible Charlie Sheen who must learn responsibility, dammit; and Josh Hutcherson is the C. Thomas Howell who starts out as a wuss but grows to enjoy the violence as the battles continue. The rest of the crew is a generic mass of scared faces and attractive cheekbones, and Red Dawn (the new one) is at its clunkiest when it’s asking us to care about characters they didn’t even bother introducing us to in the first place. There’s also a subplot about a beloved girlfriend that goes nowhere because said girlfriend is portrayed as a virtual scarecrow for the entire film, She has maybe four lines.
(Note of relative importance: the Red Dawn remake was shot well over two years ago, and has suffered delays for both legal reasons (MGM went bankrupt) and for structural problems (they chose to change the villains from Chinese to North Korean) — and while long delays, reshoots, and post-production hardships do not always show up in the final version of a film, one could certainly argue that they sure as hell do in this movie.)
Regardless of what the original intent of Red Dawn (2012) was, this remake finally hits the screen feeling like little more than a “carbon copy” retread, one that exists solely to put young actors inside of an old product in the hope that such a simplistic combination will yield financial rewards. If you’re not going to do something new, even a little something, then why bother? Judged on its own merits, Red Dawn (2012) offers a few strong performances (Chris Hemsworth is simply good at action flicks, period), three or four legitimately exciting action sequences, and the relative novelty of (once again) watching evil foreigners invade American shores. On the down-side, the movie is edited in an egregiously scattershot fashion, with bulky montages standing in for plot development and basic characterization, the screenplay is half-borrowed / half-stupid, and the overtly distracting “shaky cam” style of cinematography, is both annoying and, well, sort of “so two years ago!”
Fans of the original Red Dawn, especially those who don’t take it very seriously, may enjoy the new version as a fast-paced and pretty darn action-packed war movie. Whether or not the “deeper themes” will still resonate with a younger audience like it did back in 1984, when we were just sure that Russia was going to nuke us, it’s hard to say. Both versions of Red Dawn are pretty damn silly, but credit where it’s due: the new one is quicker, slicker, and a whole lot shorter.
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