In October 2009, way before I became a Movie Buzzer, I spent a weekend in Detroit. No offense if you call Detroit home, but the city doesn’t have the best reputation these days. So when I arrived at my hotel and noticed the surrounding streets had sandbag barricades, machine gun turrets, spotlights, and military trucks I was half-convinced that it all was part of an extreme anti-crime initiative. Of course, once I noticed film crew personnel and giant posters extolling Chinese propaganda I realized Detroit was being used as a film set for the remake of Red Dawn, the campy-but-classic 1984 John Milius movie which imagined a Russian invasion of the United States and a group of freedom-fighting teens dubbed the Wolverines.
It’s been nearly three years since that weekend and Red Dawn has had a long, strange trip on the way to the multiplex (and despite the advanced screening I attended, it isn’t due for release until November). Not only did Red Dawn have to survive the bankruptcy of MGM, but the film’s primary villains have been changed from the Chinese to North Koreans in post-production. I’ve already written about that absurdity here, but now that I’ve finally seen the movie how does it hold up?
Let me preface this by saying I walked in with low expectations. I try not to do that when reviewing a movie, but based on all the pre-release problems this movie went through I didn’t think the filmmakers had a chance to salvage a good movie. Plus, the original is a classic, and like most film junkies I’m already predisposed to dislike remakes.
I was presently surprised. Not only is Red Dawn a great action movie, but in some ways it surpasses the 1984 original.
The delay has been kind to Red Dawn. Not only has star Chris Hemsworth become a big name because of Thor, but the film’s opening montage — which elaborates on the circumstances leading to the North Korean invasion — has tied in the recent death of Kim Jong-il to the storyline. Still, even though the film makes sure to point out that the North Koreans had “help,” it’s still a bit hard to swallow that a North Korean invasion of the U.S. would have anywhere close to this success (even with their secret weapon, which becomes a major plot point). But if you can get over that silliness, the movie is a genuinely great action film.
Hemsworth makes a great replacement for Patrick Swayze as Jed Eckert. In this film Jed is an Iraq veteran who joined the Marines after his mother died and has returned home after a multi-year absence. His younger brother, Matt (Josh Peck) is the quarterback of the local high school football team (the Wolverines, naturally) and though he seems to have a pretty good life hanging out with his gorgeous girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas) — one of those movie high school hotties that inexplicably has a super-expensive car and somehow isn’t stuck up — he has some abandonment issues resulting from Jed up and leaving all those years ago. But the brothers are forced to put aside their differences after the North Korean invasion, and they team with a small group of Matt’s classmates and Jed’s childhood friend Toni (Adrianne Palicki) and run off to the woods. Soon the group decides to become a band of freedom fighters against the North Korean occupiers, aiming most of their efforts at local leader Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee, who lucky for MGM actually is of Korean descent).
Don’t let the PG-13 rating throw you off — Red Dawn is violent and not all the Wolverines make it out alive. Red Dawn is the directorial debut of Dan Bradley, although Bradley has decades of experience as a second-unit director and stunt coordinator (he even had a brief appearance as Jason in Friday the 13th Part VI), and his wealth of experience has helped me make an action movie without severed limbs and disembowelment that is still violently effective. I do have to take him to task for his reliance on “shaky cam” during the action sequences, particularly during the first one when Jed and Matt are fleeing the invading forces in a pick-up truck. It’s practically impossible to figure out what the heck is going on.
Nevertheless, it could have been easy for Bradley and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia, Red Eye) and Jeremy Passmore to take the easy route through the film’s story and rehash the original, but the filmmakers make a lot of tough choices that pay off, including the startling final 10 minutes. For example, once the Wolverines’ sabotage tactics become established, Jeffery Dean Morgan enters the film as Col. Andy Tanner, an ex-Marine turned freedom fighter, seeking their help. Morgan’s character doesn’t come around until an hour into the film and is a breath of fresh air. Lesser filmmakers would’ve have introduced him much earlier just to get more out of him, but they’ve made the right choice by holding him back. I also give the writers a lot of credit for adding humorous scenes which actually are quite funny — many action films fail at their attempts at humor, but Red Dawn has a number of very funny moments.
There are, of course, several problems with the post-production issues. The movie is short — I clocked it at just over 90 minutes, which is about twenty minutes shorter than the original. That leads me to believe there were some significant cuts to fit the new narrative — especially a storyline surrounding an imposing Russian Spetsnaz (an actor who I can’t find on the IMDb cast list), who is introduced as a scary baddie but disappears with no explanation during the movie’s climatic battle scene. I hope the movie performs well in theaters and some of these cut scenes — whether digitally altered or not — make it to the Blu-ray. The filmmakers also made a commendable attempt at dubbing the Chinese dialogue into Korean, which, while better than the dubbing of 1970s kung fu films, is still pretty obvious (still, it actually made me wish the filmmakers dubbed Peck’s cigarette-scratchy voice too because it’s so grating). While the CG effects that turned the Chinese insignias to North Korean are relatively unnoticeable, nothing could have been done to make the Chinese actors actually look Korean (yes MGM, there is a visual difference. It’s not like you could cast pale, red-haired Irish actors as Italians, could you?)
But by the end it’s one of the best “America… Fuck yeah!” movies released in years. I bet one of the main reasons it was screened so early is to help combat some of the bad buzz it has gotten in the past three years, and, if that’s so, it’s going to work. Some critics will likely call it jingoistic, but is there really anything wrong with that? Some of the best action films are unapologetically flag-waving, so it’s nice to see a throwback to that sort of John Wayne/Sylvester Stallone approach. Yippie-ki-yay!
Rating: Everything I thought it wouldn’t be and then some. See it when it comes out! (8/10)