[21 November 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For all the good it has provided, for the unlimited access to information and ability to instantaneously link the entire planet together, the Internet also has its negatives. Oh, they’re not so bad…unless, of course, you’re a parent or partner dealing with pop ups, predators, or porn, but there is one area where the web has worn out its welcome. As a soapbox for the specious, the blogsphere has become the domain of trolls, tyrants, and the totally obsessed. Name a band, song, book, or motion picture, and there is someone who worships it like manna from media heaven—and they aren’t afraid to rant and fixate on it to little cultural avail.
Take Red Dawn, for example. Back in 1984, it was seen as a basic b-movie, a notch below the scripts Chuck Norris was rejecting as too trite. It featured a commendable cast, a premise ripped right out of the pages of America’s Cold War propaganda machine, and enough adolescent angst meets bloodshed to make a bit of a box office splash. Now fast forward three decades and, in its mad dash to remake everything that once meant something to someone, somewhere, Hollywood has resurrected this insipid Invasion U.S.A. style property. Clearly, the influence of fanboys frothing at the mouth about how ‘great’ the original was played some part in the decision. Too bad their enthusiasm couldn’t carry over to the update itself.
Let’s face it, John Milius may not be an auteur, but he “gets” action. From the Dirty Harry films (which he had a part in scripting) to Conan the Barbarian, he was the perfect choice to put the original Red Dawn through its paces. He’s all about machismo and military camaraderie. Dan Bradley? Not so much. This cinematic novice, who cut his teeth as stunt coordinator and second assistant director on such projects as Spider-man 2 and 3, Quantum of Solace, and Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol, gets called up to make his Big League debut… and bungles a relatively simple assignment. All he has to do is guide a new bunch of high schoolers through their “war at home” paces. He struggles instead of succeeding.
The story centers on a Spokane, Washington. As growing tensions between the US and North Korea are hinted at during the prologue, we catch up with the kids who will eventually become our gun-toting pseudo-real American heroes. They include the bitter and perennially pissed off Marine on leave, Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), his selfish star quarterback brother, Matt (Josh Peck), the baller’s pals Daryl (Connor Cruise) and Robert (Josh Hutcherson) and babes Toni (Adrianne Palicki) and Erica (ISabel Lucas). One day, they are celebrating a loss to a local football rival, the next they are dealing with a full on attack by the enemy. At first, they are afraid and run to hide in the local wilderness. Then they decide to fight back, guerilla style.
While he’s serviceable when it comes to putting stunts on celluloid (there is still a bit too much of that noxious shaky cam crap) Bradley badly miffs his chance to make Red Dawn anything other than ordinary. As lame light entertainment, it fails to fully register. Instead, the dynamic between the characters is awash in cliche (older bro can’t stand younger bro inability to be a team player, he can’t stand his older sibling’s sour, “our mom’s dead” demeanor) while the purpose of the attack is less than plausible. In essence, Red Dawn has North Korea attacking because… well, because the original choice of China was nixed as being antithetical to the film’s future as an international box office player. No, seriously.
This movie was started back in 2008. In 2010, when MGM went bankrupt, a script leak lead to a call for some serious creative changes. Massive reshoots and post-production digital tweaking later, and we’ve got a weird Asian alliance which sees Russia stepping in to play a part as well. Considering that, if they wanted to, North Korea could nuke us out of existence, it makes no real sovereign sense. Back in 1984, the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were stretched to showcase how two superpowers might deal with the desire to overthrow the other. Here, we get foes as Photoshop corrections, their prime motivation to make sure the residents of Spokane pass through poorly guarded checkpoints before heading over to Subway for a $5 foot long.
As for the acting, well, the guys seem to get it. Even Drake’s dumpy TV brother packs heat like a pro. But in a multicultural, mixed race world of 2012, five Caucasian and Tom Cruise’s adopted son do not an accurate reflection of the society make. Hemsworth is on hand so that everyone gets the necessary weapons and hand-to-hand training, while the girls make faces that would be appropriate on a Cover Girl combat edition shoot. Bradley puts them through their paces, even trying to elicit emotion responses from the various moments of innocence dying young. But then he offers nothing else. This version of Red Dawn is so basic, so primal, that, instead of speaking to a post-modern movie audience, it merely grunts.
Given that the original tapped directly into a child’s eager-to-engage war games mindset, you’d think Red Dawn 2.0 would have the same effect. Unfortunately, we no longer raise generations of would-be warriors. Wouldn’t the better movie revolve around the 21st century teenager, taught to visualize peace and watch their carbon footprint, having to suddenly learn the survival ropes to defend his or her homeland? Within our current communal context where no one knows their neighbor and anyone of color is seen as suspicious, why break out the tired Communism card? Was a Muslim Jihad too “controversial?” Besides, many believe the next great war will be nuclear. Why not simply settle on surviving post A-bomb and be done with it.
Instead, Red Dawn hopes to draw in the unsuspecting geek whose been waiting his entire arrested adult life to see his favorite pay cable TV repeater revamped for 2012. Instead of inspiring happiness, however, this update will only lead to drowsiness. The action is acceptable. The rest of the movie remains lost in a vacuum of unfulfilled (and unnecessary) nostalgia.