"Red Dawn" Remake Surges In Second, Third Acts

“Red Dawn” is a stupid movie. You might be wondering, “Are you referring to the 1984 original or the 2012 remake?” The answer? Both. Both are exceptionally dumb films. But in their stupidity lies their appeal, and in the case of this new version, its appeal might creep up on you. These are very specific films for a very specific kind of audience – one that wants to hoot and holler about what’s onscreen rather than hem and haw about what isn’t. You probably know if you’re predisposed to enjoy this kind of picture. Trust your instincts. Things blow up good, bad guys are shot in the face, and the dialogue is a veritable buffet of corny one-liners. Most importantly, the new “Red Dawn” does exactly what every remake tries (and usually fails) to do. It improves upon the original.

That version – which starred Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen – was all setup and no payoff. Its premise was an intriguing one, but it stalled out by the hour mark and devolved into some of the most monotonous war scenes ever put to film. On top of its cinematic shortcomings, it was widely dismissed as right-wing, fear-mongering propaganda. The idea that the Russian military would or could invade small-town America was borderline absurd in 1984. In the years since the Cold War ended, the backlash against such an outlandish, violent movie (the first film to ever receive a PG-13 rating) about gun-toting teens shooting Russian commies has only grown. And the production values were so low that even if it wasn’t meant as blatant propaganda, it certainly looked the part.

In that respect, the new one gets things right. It doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve and it could just as easily be interpreted as going so far to the right that it comes all way around to the other side – the heroes of the piece are occasionally referred to as “bad guys” and “terrorists”. In fact, the line between between the two sides is nearly blurred to a point that demands serious contemplation (which isn’t to say we ever stop rooting for the Americans). In the realm of stupid movies, “Red Dawn” is not lacking for intelligence. This time around, the Wolverines (named after their high school mascot) are battling North Koreans in a war over American soil. They’re led by a twenty-something Marine, Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), and his younger brother, Robert (Josh Peck). Rounding out the cast are Josh Hutcherson, Adrianna Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Connor Cruise, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who steals all of his scenes as the grizzled Lieutenant Colonel, Andy Tanner.

The first half hour is an unmitigated disaster. In an effort to set up the characters, the writers throw every banal teen movie cliché in a blender – and the results are horrifying. The film comes dangerously close to losing its audience right off the bat and the first action sequence isn’t much better. When the North Koreans invade, we’re presented with a chase sequence in full shaky cam mode, and it’s impossible to tell what’s going on from moment to moment. Luckily, first-time director (and long-time stunt coordinator) Dan Bradley eventually finds his footing and the movie improves from there. We slowly begin to empathize with these kids and their circumstances. The more they have to fight for, the weightier the action is. And the shaky cam becomes less prevalent throughout the film.

The trite dialogue of the first act eventually morphs into something more palatable, and there are genuine laughs to be had – one of which involves some truly goofy product placement. The increasing levity of the screenplay saves the day from self-seriousness and “Red Dawn” becomes a much more enjoyable experience for it. Unlike the original, which was all downhill from the starting line, this iteration works hard for its audience, never phoning it in, even when you expect it to. Its finale is similarly acrobatic. It’s a bit rushed, but it’s also satisfying in a way I didn’t expect it to be – like something out of a better film. In fact, much of this remake is better than it has any right to be. It has a spark to it that this year’s awful “Total Recall” re-do lacked, and its nods to its source material are subtle and well-placed.

As you might know, “Red Dawn” (2012) has had a long journey from page to screen. It was shot three years ago and has remained on the shelf ever since because of MGM’s financial issues. It also faced massive global criticism for featuring the Chinese as its villains, so the filmmakers were pressured into digitally altering the enemy in post-production. But in that time, Hemsworth and Hutcherson became stars thanks to “The Avengers” and “The Hunger Games,” respectively, so the film has as good a chance as ever to be an unlikely success story. It should earn its place with action fans and devotees of the original will find little to complain about (aside from a definite lack of campiness). It’s a picture of slight charms and minor successes, but they’re definitely there for the right audience to discover.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 21, 2012
Studio: FilmDistrict
Director: Dan Bradley
Screenwriter: Carl Ellsworth, Jeremy Passmore, Vincent Newman, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Connor Cruise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense war violence and action, and for language)