The idea of remaking John Milius’s nutzoid 1984 action picture Red Dawn is a silly one, not because the original is some kind of sacrosanct masterpiece (oh, boy, is it not), but because it was such a perfect cinematic object for the neuroses of the Reagan era.
Basically, it cross-breed the two essential genres of its time: the teen movie and the neo-militarist right-wing fantasy; The Breakfast Club meets Invasion USA. The result was a masturbatory epic about an assortment of high schoolers fighting back Commie invaders. (The latter were represented not just by the Soviet military juggernaut, but also their Cuban and Nicaraguan allies, who presumably took a break from looking for food in their economically ravaged nations to help invade the most powerful empire in world history.) It was terrible, but it had a kind of meatheaded integrity — like a war movie made by cavemen who hadn’t yet discovered guile, or irony.
Love it or hate it, Milius’s original Red Dawn looks like an Akira Kurosawa masterpiece next to this latest iteration, directed by Dan Bradley. The plot outline remains largely the same, only the invaders this time are North Koreans who have somehow managed to knock out America’s grid and cripple our defense systems, thus leaving them free to take over Spokane, Washington, and start herding people into camps. Our heroes, a gaggle of young ‘uns led by rule-breaking high school quarterback Matt (Josh Peck) and his Marine brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth, whose turn as Thor is rapidly starting to seem like the acting high point of his career), quickly flee the invaders and begin to mount a ragged resistance struggle, dubbing themselves the Wolverines, after their school mascot. They’re a reasonably diverse group, including a couple of nerds as well as a cheerleader, but soon enough they’re all fighting and handling their machine guns with the efficiency of crack guerrilla fighters. But we still don’t know anything about them. The film’s opening scenes do give us some vapid stuff about rowdy, cocky Matt being too uncontrollable during a football game while his more responsible brother looks on forlornly. But I could swear that was also the beginning of Battleship, and it was half-baked and lame then, too.
So perhaps it’ll come as little surprise that the Wolverines’ resistance this time around plays out for the most part as an endless series of shoot-outs and car chases that seem to have been conceived mainly to play up director Bradley’s roots in stunt coordination and direction. One also can’t help but think at times that the film, somewhat ashamed to be remaking such a strange and dated piece of neurotic political freak-out theater, is trying to hurl nonstop action set pieces at us in an effort to make us forget its origins and just be numbed into submission. Gone is the elaborate, heartfelt paranoia of the original, replaced here with a dull need to pile cars and people and explosions on top of one another. Ultimately, it ceases to matter who’s doing the invading or the resisting, because this Red Dawn isn’t so political as it is just nakedly corporate. At heart, it might as well be another alien invasion picture, only this time the CGI aliens have been replaced by Asian people.
A shame, too, because Bradley, given his decades-long background in stunts, clearly has some action chops: Those cars flying through the air and smashing on top of things and exploding or whatever seem to have real weight to them, lending these sequences a certain authenticity. But as that old commie-hunter Barry Goldwater might have said, authenticity in the pursuit of nonsense is no virtue. Watching a bunch of frantic chase scenes featuring characters you don’t care about ends up feeling like a lot of noise and little else. The original Red Dawn may have been hateful and stupid, but at least it wasn’t soulless.