Dan Bradley's directorial debut resurrects xenophobic fears that all Asians are scary Communists hell-bent on world domination (and the notion that they all look the same) in his lame duck remake to John Milius' 80s original.
A victim of MGM filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Bradley's reworking of the Brat Pack-era action flick Red Dawn has been sitting unreleased for more than two years, during which time it has also undergone an extensive overhaul. When China's State-run media published on-set photos of the film, depicting a Chinese invasion of the USA, Red Dawn was branded a hostile attack on China, intent on spreading distrust of the world's richest nation among the American public. Instead of ignoring these ridiculous accusations, the film's producers leapt into action, and proceeded to digitally alter the film, as well as recut some sequences, to change the nationality of the film's antagonists into North Koreans.
The fact that the makers of Red Dawn were willing to do this, and able to do so with comparatively little effort, only underscores how meaningless the film is right off the bat. The film opens with a detailed montage highlighting the events that brought about the global economic collapse, how blame was apportioned to Wall Street, only to then show how North Korea, under the new leadership of young wildcard Kim Jong-un, becomes a global threat intent on world supremacy. Backed by the Russians, North Korean forces stage a huge invasion of the USA, taking the American people completely by surprise, and driving a plucky group of Washington State high-schoolers into the hills, led by returned Iraqi War veteran Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth).
It's just plain ridiculous. Having the North Koreans as the enemy is one thing, but simply swapping out their flags and overdubbing the cast in Korean is pretty insulting to all concerned. The film now contains barely a single line of dialogue from the enemy that isn't heard over a reaction shot, establishing montage or coming from a character whose mouth is otherwise obscured. Enemy characters are played by both Korean and Chinese actors, suggesting they can pass for either nationality, but this doesn't bother me as much as the suggestion that the two races are pretty much interchangeable. In the producers' panic to remove all traces of China from the film, they only inject further lapses in logic. Were North Korea ever to mount an attack on a foreign power, the idea that their support would come from Russia rather than China is simply nonsensical. Either as a financial backer, diplomatic go-between or full-on ally, China would definitely be in the mix somehow. Red Dawn barely acknowledges the country even exists.
But we must get past all this and focus on what Red Dawn actually sets out to achieve as a crowd-pleasing action thriller. While this is the first time Dan Bradley has helmed a project on his own, he has already accumulated a mass of experience as both a stunt coordinator and second unit director on more than 100 top-flight action films. Most notably, Bradley worked on all three Bourne sequels, as well as Quantum of Solace and Crank, so it should come as no surprise that he employs the use of shaky-cam photography and lightning fast editing to nauseating effect throughout Red Dawn. The plot is almost identical this time out to that of John Milius' 1984 original, with Josh Peck in the lead role of high school quarterback Matt Eckert, whose mother has passed away, father is the local sheriff and whose older brother, Jed, has just returned from war.
When power to the whole area is mysteriously knocked out and the sky is filled with fighter planes and parachuting enemy insurgents, Jed, Matt and a handful of their buddies head for the hills in order to escape incarceration by the invading DPRK troops. When their attempts to negotiate with the invading forces are met only with further bloodshed, Jed insists that the newly dubbed "Wolverines" (after the school football team) learn survival and combat skills, before mounting a counter attack of their own.
The entire premise of Red Dawn is utterly preposterous and even back in the 80s, Milius' film was one of the Brat Pack's weaker entries. That said, popular heartthrobs like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and C. Thomas Howell, together with Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey, made for a far more attractive and sympathetic gang than Bradley has assembled here. Peck exudes precious little charisma as our hotheaded, anti-authoritarian young hero, while an incredibly youthful Josh Hutcherson struggles to bring anything of interest to his role of resourceful nerd, Robert. Isabel Lucas is first presented as a beautiful yet no-nonsense love interest for Peck, but quickly fades into the background once the fighting starts. Adrianne Palicki does far better as Toni, but mostly because she is gifted the only real character arc, as she explores a potential romance with the gang's clear-headed leader, Jed. Hemsworth and Palicki alone manage to instill their characters with anything approaching humanity, nuance or likability, but they don't have much screen time to work with, what with all those Chinese - I mean North Koreans - to kill.
Yes, I said kill. If Red Dawn is interested in doing anything at all, it is in convincing young Americans that they have a country worth fighting for - or at least worth killing a few Asians over. Almost as soon as the first round is fired, the film quickly forgets the argument it was initially trying to present. The United States is in a terrible state of economic decline, and it's all the fault of their own elite - the one percent, if you will. In fact, what the North Koreans appear to be offering by way of an alternative is a fight against corruption and a chance to rebuild the country. Sure, it would likely resemble a communist republic rather than a true democracy, but they claim it would be better. What Red Dawn is saying, therefore, is that it's okay for the good ole US of A to be screwed over, so long as it's by other Americans, and not some goddamn pinkos. Essentially, the Republican Party rather than the Democrats.
But that's about all I'm going to say about that. Red Dawn, after all, doesn't have the brains to make an interesting case for either side, nor the characters to earn anyone an emotional vote. It all comes down to protecting one's home from foreign invaders, and using big guns in order to get the job done right. The film's politics wouldn't even matter so much if it delivered as a high octane action film, but the script's entire narrative hook - that one small-town depicts what is happening throughout the country - insists on the action remaining relatively small scale. Jeffrey Dean Morgan pops up with a renegade marine unit late on to add more firepower and excuse the higher body count, but by then the damage has been done.
Red Dawn is mind-numbingly dull, and whenever it opens its mouth and attempts to say something prescient or insightful about the current state of the world, it just exposes its own blinkered ignorance. Today's teens, at whom this film is unequivocally aimed, deserve something better; if not real answers, then at least genuine thrills or a role model worthy of admiration. While the Chinese were worried Bradley's original cut put their country in a negative light, they have nothing to fear about this final version. The only people likely to be offended by Red Dawn is its own target audience.
Review originally published during Fantastic Fest in September 2012. Red Dawn opens wide in theaters across North America on Wednesday, November 21.