We may have found it, folks; the closest thing to a male version of Twilight that Hollywood can muster. Pretty-faced actors looking older than they are running around in the Pacific Northwest woods with too much hair product and abilities they shouldn’t realistically have, facing down absurd threats and the most preposterously exaggerated villains you can imagine. Just replace kissing with killing, and you get Red Dawn, the remake, which is actually more entertaining than the 1984 original… though that isn’t saying a lot. (Watch me get quoted out of context on that one)
Nostalgia goggles aside, the original is mostly notable for two things: the cast that would one day become all-star, featuring the likes of Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, and a single famous over-the-top moment from Harry Dean Stanton:
But most have forgotten the rest of the film. Case in point: who are the main bad guys in the original Red Dawn?
Russians? No. I said “main.” The premise is a Soviet invasion, but the main on-camera villains who are individually delineated are from Cuba, illegally crossing the Mexican border posing as immigrants; the right-wing agitation at the time was for fighting perceived communist influences in places like Nicaragua. It all led to deals like Iran-Contra, which we’re not sure people were all that happy about in the end. But politics aside, an invasion run by Cubans and Nicaraguans on the front lines was actually no less absurd then as a North Korean invading force backed by Russia would be now. Well, okay, maybe less; NK is more famous for malnutrition and an inability to launch missiles successfully. In both cases, the movies stack the deck pre-credits with a series of escalating global crises precisely and preposterously building to only one possible outcome.
But it’s a new world, and there are new points of reference. Jed is this time played by Chris Hemsworth, and he’s an actual Marine home from Iraq, which makes the training of a bunch of high-schoolers into guerillas slightly more believable (also more believable: some of these teens are dating. The original’s director, John Milius, had zero interest in romance). And when his homeland becomes the occupied country, with occupiers claiming they just want to help, he gives a speech about how in Iraq, he was one of the good guys keeping order and now he’s a bad guy, who must fight a guerilla war like the Iraqis. It’s a welcome note of ambiguity in a movie not targeting the type of audience who’ll think long about such things.
They’re surprisingly resilient, these North Koreans; also taller and more Chinese-looking than you’d expect. That’s because they were Chinese, until producers realized that annoying China was a bad idea financially. It’s a shame, because that would be an interesting “what if” scenario; China has the means to pose a legit threat. North Korea? Only with the aid of a magical EMP weapon that takes out submarines but leaves cars running just fine. It’s as if no-one ever saw The Day After, and its memorable scene of cars all dying at once after a distant air-burst.
So what makes the newer movie more fun? Mostly it’s that the action is done better, with a raid on occupied police headquarters from above being a key set piece far more interesting than the fighting of a tank in a field. It may not have a sight gag to match the prying of guns from cold, dead hands, but it does feature a major victory for capitalism when a Subway sandwich artist saves the day with supplies.
Not everything is better, however – an ending that seems oddly construed to leave way for a sequel is highly irritating in both its inconclusiveness and presumption (given the film’s fate on the shelf for so long and the other terrible reviews, it’s safe to say no sequel is happening), when the best thing about the original was its ending that both extolled necessary wars and pointed out their pointlessness. And while Jed’s dad still gets a great dramatic moment, would it really have been to much for the words “avenge” and “me” to appear therein? Even cheap applause is worth something in a cheesefest like this one. If it had actually been made in the ’80s, Chris Hemsworth might be one of the stars of the Expendables franchise today. Yeah, we’re assuming his being born earlier, and… ehh, never mind. I’m saying this is more of a Chuck Norris-type unintentional goof than a self-serious Milius diatribe.
If you need brainless action this weekend, you could do worse. But a second-run theater with scratches and pops on a used print, if they exist any more, might make it even more…uh…”good”?