'Red Dawn': Remake misfires badly
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Thomas Jefferson said that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. In Hollywood, where a little new blood would go a long way, this week sees the release of a beleaguered remake of an '80s B-movie classic fated to slide through the modern multiplex. Released in 1984, John Milius' "Red Dawn" hit the spirit of the age in two directions with the kind of lucky timing that makes pop movies into classics. First, it depicted a ground invasion of the United States by Soviet forces with straight-faced war-flick matter-of-fact storytelling. And second, it caught a wave of charming actors working through young Hollywood at the time to play its rebel teenagers, tackling occupying forces with faces like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Grey.
Made in 2009, and then set on a shelf since 2010 as part of the financial woes of original distributor MGM, this remake, directed by stunt veteran Dan Bradley, feels a little too quick and crisp and cool. You know when one of your favorite rock songs gets rewritten and sped up and cleaned up to sell, say, orange juice or dietary supplements? That's what the new "Red Dawn" feels like: a surface-level photocopy with all of the problems of the first film and none of the accidental, seen-in-the-rearview power.
After an opening channel-surfing montage establishing economic crisis, political tension, dogs and cats living together -- and political fun facts reminding us that North Korea has the fourth-largest army in the world -- we segue to football night on the outskirts of Washington state, as maverick quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) fails to follow orders and blows a big game, with older brother (and Marine) Jed (Chris Hemsworth) looking on disapprovingly, with even the consolation drinks being upset by a massive power failure. Fortunately, the question of who's going to the state championship is then rendered irrelevant by the arrival of North Korean paratroopers, falling from the sky to seize the people of Spokane. It should be noted that the original script of this remake had China as the aggressor nation, with this changed to North Korea with an eye to possibly smoothing ruffled Chinese feelings or ensuring Chinese ticket sales. On a note of geopolitical realism, which this film does not aspire to any more than a race car wants to be a bookmobile, it should also be noted that the Chinese don't have to invade America: Considering how we owe them $ 1.15 trillion, all they really have to do is tell us they need their money sooner as opposed to later to bring us knees-ward.
The original "Red Dawn" is hard to take seriously, (I saw it when I was 14, the perfect Regan-era teen male power fantasy) but it's also hard to shake. Its political lunacy and implausibility was offset by a two-fisted, weird hybrid of both Western and war movie that worked, set among the scrub and canyons of the American West. This remake doesn't quite attain that kind of state. Its construction and shooting and pacing feel cramped and small, with the sibling relationship at the center playing like "Friday Night Lights" with AK-47s and the action scenes so quickly cut and visually incoherent they almost convey nothing. It is not an endorsement to note that when "Red Dawn" finished what little MacGuffin-driven plot it had, it ended so abruptly -- and so anticlimactically -- that I half-expected a title card exhorting me to watch future episodes of "Red Dawn" every Tuesday at 8 on the CW.
Even if it hadn't been shelved and reshaped between its making and release, "Red Dawn" would already feel stale and flawed. I found myself wishing some filmmaker could get the money and the chance to make an original action-drama about the real anxieties of our time instead of just recycling the 28-year-old concerns of another age in the name of name recognition and, yes, product placement among the propaganda posters. (Say what you will about our new North Korean overlords, but they respect a good sandwich, apparently.
Early on, I was rolling my eyes at the strained familiarity of "Red Dawn"; by the time it started wedging Subway references into the mouths of its teenage freedom fighters between firefights, I may have been rooting for the invaders a little. The 1984 original isn't an inviolable classic, but it's also an honest product of its age that knows how to wave the flag and shoot an action scene, raising both the hairs at the back of your neck and your pulse. Founding father Patrick Henry, who knew a little bit about fighting soldiers on American soil, shouted, "Give me liberty or give me death," but the new "Red Dawn" just mumbles that it will take liberties, and bores you to death.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.