Red Dawn (2012)
If you’re going to do preposterous as a movie director, you may as well go all out. And therein lies the only real positive of Dan Bradley’s 2012 version of Red Dawn, a reboot of the 1984 commie-scare flick, now aimed at a new generation that cares as much about communism as Kim Jong-un cares for a trip to a qualified hair stylist.
The original was directed by John Milius, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and the creative force behind memorable lines in everything from the Dirty Harry movies to Apocalypse Now. This update is the debut directorial effort from Bradley, whose previous experience lies purely in setting up stunts for Hollywood blockbusters. And boy, does it show.
The new Red Dawn opens with a barrage of contemporary news channel headlines about economic and political upheaval, presumably intended to bridge the gap back to the Cold War and convince us that little has changed. Unfortunately for the newbie director, communism collapsed more than twenty years ago and hasn’t amounted to much of a military threat against American soil since.
Even China, for all its size and military personnel, has remained a relatively quiet global rival, though out of all the countries that could serve as an updated “Evil Empire”, China makes the most sense. All of which makes it somewhat surprising to see North Korean paratroopers dropping into Spokane, Washington as the movie sets off on its descent into farce.
Setting aside the insanity of the plot just for a minute—which is easier said than done (or watched)—it’s important to point out that these particular paratroopers are targeting suburbanites, chief among them being brothers Jed (Chris Hemsworth) and Matt Eckert (Josh Peck). Jed has, luckily, just returned home from military service in Iraq, and sets about ordering Matt around in the condescending way that only a big brother can. This sibling rivalry is perhaps the only effort towards character development in the entire film, so hold onto it for grim life.
The brothers hop into a pickup truck and go barreling around town looking for an escape route, dodging North Korea’s finest (which seems to be that country’s entire population, judging by the sheer bizarre scale of the invasion). Along the way, they pick up some of Matt’s high school buddies, including Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), and Toni (Adrianne Palicki). After the brothers check in with their dad, who also happens to be a Spokane police sergeant who has to remain in town to do his duty, the teens head to the hills for cover. Because, as we all know, North Korean military aircraft lack the ability to fly above a height of 5,000 feet.
Up in the hills, several of the group begin to get cold feet and float the idea of going home. A kid named Pete (Steve Lenz) is particularly vocal about it, but is quickly shouted down by the increasingly domineering Jed. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before the military might of the world’s newest superpower locates the teen renegades, aided and abetted by the easily swayed Pete, who’s become an overnight turncoat. Hiding out in the surrounding forest, the remaining runaways are faced with Sergeant Eckert being held at gunpoint by the enemy’s leader Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee). Making a heroic last stand, the father tells his boys, “Go to war! Stop this piece of shit or die trying!” Less catchy than the iconic “Avenge me!” line of the original, but a turning point in the movie all the same.
Suitably motivated to take the fight to their newfound nemesis Cho, the brothers Eckert and what’s left of their crew form the Wolverines (named after their high school football team), a militia outfit that quickly gets to grips with the finer points of guerilla warfare. And if that sounds crazy, remember that they’re fighting an army from more than 6,000 miles away that just waltzed presumably millions of troops past the world’s most advanced military.
After various skirmishes, including an ill-judged sortie to rescue Matt’s girlfriend Erica, which brings another brotherly smack-down from Jed, the Wolverines connect with three U.S. Marines led by Tanner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Former Marines, actually, as they now fight under the flag of the Free American Army, prompting the first explanation (nearly an hour into the movie) of just how the entire North Korean army came to get past American military defenses.
Admittedly, Russian special forces have been name-checked before this point, but not in a capacity that explains a full-scale ground invasion. Finally addressing this substantial gorilla in the room, it turns out that the explanation we’ve all been waiting for is “a magic weapon.” An electromagnetic pulse, to be precise, which we’ve all seen used on a smaller scale in other movies, never realizing it could topple the U.S. military and homeland forces in one fell swoop. More fool us.
As the film builds to its climax, there’s an equally magical suitcase that the (now elite) Wolverines unit must obtain, which is EMP-proof and will allow communication with outside forces to coordinate a counterattack. In the ensuing caper, Jed predictably encounters and kills Captain Cho (avenged indeed, Papa Eckert), only to eventually be dispatched himself by the enemy, though not before reconciling with his brother Matt and passing the torch. The remaining Marines escape and the Wolverines stay behind to continue fighting the good fight. Though I would think heading to North Korea, which is presumably completely empty at this point, would have been a smarter move.
If it seems like I’ve offered no description of the characters’ depth and desires up to this point, it’s simply because they have none. Chris Hemsworth succeeds only in bringing even more of a wooden “quality” to the role of Jed than he managed in the Thor movies, which, come to think of it, is actually quite a feat. Former Nickelodeon star Josh Peck has some emotional moments as his brother, but nothing that elevates his role above the trite. In many senses, it’s Eckert Senior who delivers the most compelling performance, achieved by dying dramatically before things get utterly ridiculous.
While the original Red Dawn was based on an equally questionable premise, it at least occurred at the right time and featured the appropriate antagonists as invaders. In 1984, the Soviet Union was a genuine threat to the U.S. and had been for decades, whereas modern-day North Korea is a rogue state which still struggles to launch missiles past its own borders.
It seems when the film was originally shot (way back in 2009), the enemy was China, a far more suitable choice. But in an amusing turn of events, the film’s backers got worried about offending Chinese moviegoers and made the switch to North Korea, which involved overdubbing dialogue and using CGI to replace all the Chinese flags with North Korean flags. Which just goes to show where American movies make most of their money these days.
But that’s just the beginning of where this remake pales in comparison to its predecessor, which itself had plenty of flaws. John Milius’s original take seemed to be aiming for an all-around examination of how and why nations wage war. Baked into the overblown premise were leaders on both sides who frequently questioned their roles in the horrific events. Set against the backdrop of the post-Vietnam era and the reality-distorting propaganda of the Cold War, that film starts to make some sense. Even though a similar war fatigue could have been translated to this update, Bradley is either unwilling or unable to make the connection.
Red Dawn (2012) lurches from one reasonable action scene to another, desperately clinging to the sibling rivalry (and tragedy) for some kind of humanizing element. It fails spectacularly, leaving us with only the utterly preposterous military scenario to ponder as the film stumbles to its heroically clichéd climax.
As a route to appreciate its predecessor, this movie is a success. By all other measures, it fails more than a heavily armed North Korean platoon leader at U.S. passport control, claiming that he’s just here on vacation.