[21 November 2012]
After a few years of ‘80s remake mania, a new version of Red Dawn isn’t just an apotheosis of pointlessness. It’s both more and less than the ultimate nostalgic cash-in. In its current form, after years of release delays, it’s an accidental experiment, a movie that deconstructs the very notion of a nostalgic cash-in.
The 1984 film imagined a Cold War gone hot and aggressive, with Soviets and their allies invading the United States and then facing rebellion from a ragtag group of teenagers. The Dawn remake began by simply swapping out the Russians for the Chinese, but then made another race-switch in post-production, when positioning the Chinese as our enemies began to seem less than expedient—not because it’s a ridiculous notion, but because China has become a boom market for boom-heavy US action films. The enemies arriving on US movie screens for Thanksgiving weekend are at least somewhat transformed: their flags are digitally adjusted even if the actors’ Asian features remain visible, and their backstory is now changed, by bad expositional ADR, to North Korea—until, presumably, North Korea begins importing more US movies, at which point these bad guys will be turned back into Russians.
These shifts perfectly illustrate the quaintness of redoing Red Dawn. The title is a brand to which the remake must adhere, except the brand is also outdated, so it must be tweaked. The result is a generic version of a 1984 time-capsule relatively few people care much about anyway, now untethered from any meaningful context. Nothing much replaces any sense of anxiety over actual geopolitical events; the North Korean invasion is just another rah-rah football-game-style proving ground.
This removal of context proves particularly fatal to the 2012 Red Dawn, because it’s not even close to a good generic action picture. Even its opening minutes, which need only to introduce a team of likable and/or scrappy young heroes, feel slapdash and rushed. Rather than offering a cross-section of small-town Washington state residents, Red Dawn affords the barest minimum of characterization for returning Marine Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) and his hotheaded teenage brother Matt (Josh Peck). Their relationships, with each other and other characters, are so unthinkingly all-American that even the supposed rebel Matt is cast here as a star high school quarterback.
The mayhem that puts Jed and Matt to the test begins with similar carelessness: planes loom and North Korean troops parachute from the sky, firing on citizens with blasts of unconvincing special effects. When the dust settles, Jed, Matt, Toni (Adrianne Palecki), Robert (Josh Hutcherson), and assorted others whose high school/college/townie status remains unclear, assemble to plot their next move. Eventually, they decide to fight back, led by Jed and identifying (as in the earlier film) as the Wolverines, after Matt’s football team. War isn’t just a national emergency. It’s also a hardcore pep rally.
The most potentially interesting aspect of a new Red Dawn is the mechanics of that DIY insurgency on US soil, how a bunch of kids train themselves as a makeshift platoon of warriors and assassins. But the movie glosses over these details with a training montage and speechifying from Hemsworth. The montage doesn’t begin to excite, or build to propulsive action sequences. This is too bad, for the director, Dan Bradley, is a stunt coordinator and second-unit director whose resume includes work with James Bond, Jason Bourne, Spider-Man, even Indiana Jones. Yet many of the sequences he devises for this movie are indiscriminate messes.
During an early car chase, for example, Bradley places a handheld camera in the flatbed of a truck with two characters, where it shakes and rumbles along with them as the car zooms and screeches. Then he cuts to the action outside of the truck, which is filmed with the exact same shaking camera, erasing any meaningful distinction between experiences. Such lack of visual precision or invention is mirrored in the movie’s one-note conflict between the two brothers: disciplined and self-sacrificing Jed squares off against fiery Matt, who wants to mount an improbable rescue of his captured girlfriend.
The brothers’ uninvolving conflict does stand out against the non-entities that comprise the rest of the Wolverines, some of whom have so little to do that they’re nearly impossible to tell apart. I even spent a fair chunk of the movie thinking that two of them were supposed to be foreign exchange students without a firm grasp of English, until I realized the screenplay (or this cut of the film) simply hadn’t given them any lines. In its way, then, Red Dawn is something of a communist enterprise: the charisma of a few must be sacrificed for the greater blandness.