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Red Dawn (2012)
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by Brett Gallman

"If only Kim Jong-il had held on a little longer..."
2 stars

Bemoaning the rash of remakes is sometimes easy to do, but updating “Red Dawn” is actually a sound prospect.

2012 (or even 2009, when the film was originally shot) is pretty different from 1984, when John Milius unleashed a rugged, hardcore war movie that preyed on Red paranoia while reassigning residual Vietnam guilt by imagining American kids as a surrogate Vietcong. Unlike many films immediately sprung from the loins of Vietnam, it didn’t confront American complicity as much as it denied it and retreated into a jingoistic fantasy.

Revisiting such a text and exploring its implications seems rather valid now that we’re removed from the Cold War and embroiled in our own brand of terror-fuelled paranoia. Not only has the threat shifted, but war itself has changed along with our perception of it. Americans have seen two protracted, unpopular conflicts define the past decade, so the stage is effectively set for a modern “Red Dawn” to recontextualize the original.

Unfortunately it does none of this; instead, it weirdly retreats even further by transforming a tough, feral movie into a rousing, empty-headed crowd pleaser that’s high on spectacle but otherwise low on inspiration. In this version, the faces have simply changed: instead of Russians invading, it’s now the North Koreans (whose presence has been digitally pasted over the original Chinese army after the studio balked at offending that particular portion of the Asian market), and they once again encounter resistance from a ragtag group of high school students who act as insurgency.

Led by Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), a Marine who happens to be on leave when the North Koreans parachute in, the group take their name from their local high school mascot and proceed to wreak the same sort of havoc as their Brat Pack predecessors. Marching largely to a similar (but mercifully quicker) beat as the original, it retraces steps while also diverting onto its own path that finds Jed’s younger brother (Josh Peck), a hothead on the football film (and thus, it follows, on the battlefield) looking to rescue his cheerleader girlfriend (Isabel Lucas).

While the film generally carries a similar rah-rah, jingoistic spirit, it truly parts ways with the original in tone. Oddly enough, this “Red Dawn” proceeds much like an uninitiated viewer might expect the original film to play out. Due to its “Brat Pack fends off Commie invasion” concept, it’s easy to assume that Milius’s film is some campy Cold War relic, but it’s really anything but that. Guided by its director's brooding, almost searing vision, “Red Dawn” is pretty serious, bizarre, and even eerie stuff at times--it’s much more “Lord of the Flies” than it is a Rambo sequel with the Brat Pack, even if the flag-waving goal is largely the same. It’s sometimes a truly uncomfortable film, especially due to its politics and its whacked out skewing of pubescent angst against the backdrop of war.

On the other hand, Bradley’s “Red Dawn” barely warrants an ambivalent shrug. At one point, Jed points out that he’s become the “bad guys” he’s been forced to quell while on duty in Iraq, but that’s as far as the film goes in considering its setup. Such thoughtfulness is soon drowned out by a procession of explosions, gunfights, and ill-fitting levity that indeed does turn “Red Dawn” into a spiritual successor to those Rambo sequels after all.

The approach is arguably warranted; after all, the concept is even more preposterous than it was in 1984 thanks to subbing in North Korea, so reinterpreting it as a slam-bang action movie makes a little sense, so much so that it’s easier to swallow just how easily a bunch of kids suddenly turn into world-class insurgents during the blink of a training montage (speaking of 80s staples).

This is where “Red Dawn” truly fails on its own merits, though. Forget its shortcomings as a remake--it’s just not a very good action movie, primarily because it adheres to the modern chaos theory that dictates audiences should feel like they’ve been tossed into a blender that’s been kicked down a flight of stairs. Though it’s not the worst offender in this arena, it’s bad enough to sink whatever appeal this thing might have, especially since it doesn’t have much to offer outside of its obligatory sequences of destruction and peril.

Calling these scenes “perilous” might even be generous since “Red Dawn” barely bothers to introduce most of its characters, thus letting you off the hook for giving a damn about them anyway. Had the film actually been released back when it was shot, we’d all be rightfully raving about Chris Hemsworth’s potential as a rising star here, but, now, it’s difficult not to see it as a waste of talent.

Despite deploying his charisma as best he can, he’s unable to rescue the rest of the cast, which is saddled with a thudding blandness. Peck mopes his way through the film, while Hutcherson takes on the C. Thomas Howell role, or at least a truncated version of it; there’s a sense that maybe he’s not cut out for this and he’ll need to grow into manhood, but this subplot barely registers. Likewise, Hemsworth and Adrianne Palicki have a pent-up romance that’s given all of two scenes to gestate, while the rest of the characters just serve as background noise and the obligatory body count.

The body count isn’t even all that enormous, though, since this is “Red Dawn” after it’s been castrated and watered down into easily digestible popcorn fare. You might recall that C. Thomas Howell was forced to drink the blood of a recently slain deer in the original; treated as a screwy tradition marking his character’s rite of passage into manhood, it was pure Milius: unpleasant, awkward but totally, completely earnest in its insistence that these kids were in the shit.

Here, the scene is replayed as a gag, which says all you need to know about this new “Red Dawn,” a film that prefers to trade in "Call of Duty" references and Jeffrey Dean Morgan dropping in with a couple of dopey, wisecracking sidekicks, one of whom enjoys tossing around the word “motard.” Apparently, that’s Marine slang for an overly ambitious grunt, but it might as well describe someone who thought it’d be a good idea to remake “Red Dawn” and cut its balls off.

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originally posted: 11/15/12 14:57:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2012 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2012 series, click here.

User Comments

4/26/13 Marlon Wallace the "bad guys" comment showed nuance by screenwriters, but they go nowhere with it. 2 stars
4/12/13 cr a ok remake with goof acting and action. nothing to be jumping for Joy for. 2 stars
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  21-Nov-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-Mar-2013



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