Red Dawn (2012)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/20/12 15:37:09

"Jingo Balls"
1 stars (Sucks)

Every once in a while, a scene will turn up in a movie that is so egregiously awful that it kills the entire enterprise dead right there and then to such a degree that the rest of the film could be absolute perfection and it still wouldn't matter because of the lingering taint of that one massive misstep. Such a scene pops up about forty minutes of so into ""Red Dawn," the long-delayed remake of the 1984 Cold War classic and while I would be lying if I were to say that I was genuinely enjoying the film up to that point, the moment in question did shift my attitude towards it from a sort of bemused boredom to outright contempt and loathing. At this point in the story, America has been invaded by--well, we will get into that in a bit--and Spokane, Washington, where our story is set, has been under the yoke of foreign occupation for several weeks. At this point, a group of--well, we will get into that in a bit as well--launch one in a series of guerilla-style attacks against their oppressors and in the ensuing skirmish, one of our heroes takes cover in what turns out to be a Subway and while there, he liberates the place of its wares in order to feed his fellow rebels hiding out in the hills. Immediately afterwords, we see our heroes consuming their recently liberated goods and from the sound of it, the most lavishly appointed three-star French restaurant apparently has nothing on the likes of one of their utility-grade meatball subs.

This all sounds reasonably straightforward enough in the telling and some might even take the scene as a sort of homage to the famous moment in the original in which we a shown the horror that is a McDonald's franchise under the yoke of Soviet oppression. Not so fast because the Subway displayed here is as idealized as can be--everything is clean and bright, the well-stocked counter is fairly groaning under the weight of the plethora of fresh meats, cheeses and glistening produce and one can practically smell the delicious aroma of freshly baked breads. The only trouble with this scenario, as you may have guessed, is that this scene is supposed to take place weeks into a brutal invasion that has supposedly cut the town off and yet I am willing to bet that the Subway on display is infinitely nicer than the one in your neighborhood. At first, I assumed that this meant that the Subway people cut a deal with the invading force that allowed them to continue to get their presumably precious shipments and become the dominant food purveyor in the area. However, even I cannot fathom the owner of a fast-food chain who would be so willing to sell out his customers and county simply to increase their profit margin--not counting the castle-dwelling d-bag running Papa John's, of course.

No, the only plausible explanation for this scene is that Subway presumably paid the producers a ton of money to give their product a great big plug via the miracle of product placement. Now product placement is hardly a new thing and I don't want to make it seem as though I am shocked. . .shocked. . .to discover that film producers sometimes make deals like this in order to help offset rising production costs--if you doubt me, try watching one of the later James Bond movies sometime and take note of every brand name that is either mentioned in the dialogue or given prominent visual placement sometime and see for yourself. That said, the trick to successful product placement is to do it in such a way that viewers don't recognize it as such--plenty of money was exchanged in order to get Reese's Pieces into "E.T.," for example, but they were deployed in the context of the story with such natural ease that they felt like an essential component while still managing to sell countless millions of dollars of candy in the process. Here, the effort to make Subway look good was apparently more important to the filmmakers than the need to tell a convincing story and so we instead get this nonsense that does nothing but completely destroy the plausibility of a movie that hardly needed to have its inherently implausible nature underlined further. The rest of the movie is a complete mess, to be sure, but this particular bit is so shameless and shamelessly awful that it is a little startling in the utter contempt that it displays towards its audience.

Anyway, "Red Dawn" begins, ironically enough, on a typical Friday night in Spokane in which we are introduced in the briefest manner possible to a collection of ridiculously attractive young people and their single distinctive character traits. One (Chris Hemsworth) is a few years older than the rest and has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. One (Josh Peck) is his resentful younger brother, a hothead whose need to do things his way costs his high school football team a key victory. One (Isabel Lucas) is the hothead's pretty blonde girlfriend. One (Adrienne Palicki) has a crush on the older brother going back to when their families used to camp out together when they were younger. One (Josh Hutcherson) whines a lot and is all about the social media and stuff. (At least that is what I think--his is the thinnest character of the lot). One (Connor Cruise) is the mayor's son. Before any others can be introduced, the lights mysteriously go out and everyone heads home and the next morning, everyone wakes up to discover that are in the middle of a full-scale invasion--land, air and presumably sea--of the military forces of North Korea and all, save for the pretty blonde, head for the hills to take refuge in a handily stocked cabin in the woods. (Helpful tip: If you are invited into any situation that involves Chris Hemsworth and a cabin in the woods, you should probably gracefully decline if you value your life in the slightest.)

"But wait," you are probably thinking at this point, "North Korea? How in the hell is North Korea supposed to plausibly stage an invasion of the U.S.A. when they can't even successfully launch a single missile?" Well, to be fair, the Russian invasion in the first movie was itself only a little more believable and that one had Alexander Haig as a technical advisor to plot out how such a thing could possibly occur. That said, the idea of North Korea invading us seems to stretch the already elastic boundaries of credibility one is likely to afford a film of this type but there is a perfectly valid explanation to show how it can be done and it roughly breaks down like this. 1. Since the Russians are no longer quite the enemy to us that they once were, redo the film using the Chinese as the bad guys. 2. During the roughly three-year delay between producing and releasing the film, belatedly realize that China is one of the biggest markets in the world and a movie depicting them in such an unsavory light might not be the best way to bring them into theaters for this or other American productions that now count on foreign box-office dollars to make their profits. 3. Change the bad guys to North Korea, a country whose contributions to Hollywood's bottom line is minimal at best. This is achieved not with massive reshoots but by redubbing some lines and digitally altering things like flags from one nationality to the next.None of the actors playing the Chinese/Korean soldiers requires digital replacement or recasting because hey, they all look alike, right? 4. Add a new prologue to the proceedings that desperately tries to make the case that North Korea is our most powerful and terrifying enemy, a group of people whose capacity for brute aggression and outright monstrousness outstrips the combined depravations of Hitler, Stalin and most of Taylor Swift's ex-boyfriends.

Now, back to the story. After being betrayed by the mayor and a jerk colleague who simply cannot wait to pledge allegiance to the enemy and begin rounding up his former friends and loved ones, our heroes are forced to hide in the hills Luckily, as you will recall, one of them is a soldier and with the help of an inspiring training montage and the acquisition of some handy weapons ("Isn't that C-4?"), the gang becomes an elite team of insurgents known as The Wolverines (after their football team) and begin running surprise attacks that rattle the invaders while inspiring the populace and not even the threat of reprisals are enough to stop them. Oh sure, there is a little conflict along the way--the hothead blows one operation by going off on his own in an attempt to rescue the blonde and gets a couple of his fellow Wolverines killed in the process (luckily, they are billed fairly low in the credits so they hardly count in the long run)--but for the most part, their success rate puts them on par with the Viet Cong, the A-Team and the Inglourious Basterds.

Eventually, they come across a real soldier (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who informs them that the North Korean in charge has in his possession a suitcase-like device that allows them to jam power and communications (a device apparently on loan from Russian, by the way) and if they can get their hands on it and bring it to our own military minds, they might be able to use it against them and turn the tide in the battle for good. This is, of course, an example of what Hitchcock used to refer to as "the MacGuffin"--something in a film that all the characters want and which serves as a catalyst for the action. The difference between the two is that in a Hitchcock movie, the MacGuffin could be introduced and then summarily ignored once the story took hold while here, it turns in the best performance.

Produced and released during the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions in the 1980's, the original “Red Dawn” is often dismissed today (as it was back then) as nothing than ridiculously lurid right-wing propaganda–a modern-day version of such 50's-era potboilers as “Invasion U.S.A.” or “Red Nightmare” (a legendary short subject from the 1950's, narrated by Jack Webb, that purported to show us the horrors of living under a Soviet regime)–and has been lampooned on such shows as “The Simpsons” and “South Park.” While there are some giggle-worthy moments of excess scattered throughout the film (such as a shot of a bumper sticker that reads “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers” that is followed by a shot of exactly that), the interesting thing about watching the film today is how seriously writer-director John Milius (who previously directed such films as “Big Wednesday” and “Conan the Barbarian” and contributed to the screenplays of “Dirty Harry,” “Jaws” and “Apocalypse Now”) approaches his seemingly risible premise. Although he has a persona in Hollywood of being a mad crackpot (John Goodman’s character in “The Big Lebowski” is said to be based on him)–one that he has cultivated through outrageous statements in the media and his alleged demand that the payment for his screenwriting services includes a brand-new shotgun–he is a serious student of military history throughout the century and he has learned that combat in any form is not a light and frivolous thing.

Throughout “Red Dawn,” he takes care to share both the physical and emotional toll that war takes on his heroes and while they do score the occasional triumphs, this is not the kind of war film where the good guys hit everything in sight while the bad guys are unable to hit the broad side of a barn. Instead, it is their losses and betrayals that weigh more heavily as the story progresses right up to its surprisingly grim finale (if you ignore an epilogue that feels as if it were hastily added at the last minute to lighten the mood). I’m not going to sit here and claim that “Red Dawn” is on the level of “The Battle of Algiers” (although Milius, who has cited that film as a personal favorite, probably wouldn’t mind the comparison), but I suspect that many people encountering this film for the first time expecting a wacky campfest are likely to be surprised with how somber the majority of it truly is.

Needless to say, this iteration of "Red Dawn" shares none of the attributes of the original that I have cited above and in fact seems to go out of its way to try to be the loud, violent and mindless shoot-em-up that the previous version was often accused of being. If nothing else, this film makes a persuasive argument for the case that someone needs to get John Milius behind the camera again because if this is supposed to represent contemporary action filmmaking, someone with his touch is desperately needed more than ever. In his version, Milius managed to offer up well-choreographed battle sequences that were interspersed with quiet and reasonably convincing character moments and a visual style that frankly suggested what Frederick Remington might have conjured up if film had been his medium of choice. Here, first-time director Dan Bradley offers up a collection of elaborate stunts that may be momentarily impressive as individual efforts but which have no dramatic flow or emotional heft (perhaps not surprising since he used to work as a stuntman--I have seen the works of Hal Needham and trust me, Bradley is no Hal Needham.)

From a dramatic standpoint, the film also fails because the screenwriters have failed to do anything with the material to acknowledge that times have changed. When the original first came out, it had been more than a decade since the end of Vietnam and for young people of the time, war was something abstract and part of the point of the story dealt with the kids learning the meaning of war directly instead of via a textbook or History Channel documentary. Today, of course, war is everywhere and many members of the target audience will no doubt know someone who has fought in one of our myriad battles over the last few years and yet at no point does the film even mention them aside from one throwaway joke. From a sociological standpoint, the film is too dumb to really get that worked up over, though viewers in other countries one could name might feel differently. Instead, the characters spend their downtime reciting lines of boilerplate dialogue that could not be more boring and desultory if they tried. As for the young cast, some of them will no doubt go on to better things as did the original conglomeration of Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey and others (some already have--Hemsworth went from this film to "Thor" and "The Avengers," Hutcherson popped up in "The Hunger Games" and Palicki is still waiting for the equally long-delayed "G.I. Joe" sequel to be released) but none of them make any sort of impression but then again, not even the likes of Jennifer Lawrence could do much with what they are working with here.

"Red Dawn" is the worst kind of remake imaginable--one that does nothing but tarnish the reputation of the original while utterly failing to justify its own existence for even a moment. At no time do you get any sense that the people involved had any real grasp of what it was about the original that touched a nerve in so many people back in the day--at times, it seems doubtful that they ever actually watched any of it other than a couple of random clips on YouTube. Instead, the producers seems to have latched onto the idea of redoing the film simply because it was a recognizable title and nothing more. Indifferently produced and sloppily constructed (even if you didn't know going in that it underwent a lot of post-production tinkering, the shoddy construction of the enterprise clearly suggests that something clearly went awry at some point and was never properly fixed), my guess is that the only audience that might actually get a kick out of the whole endeavor is the one in North Korea--I can see them turning this into some kind of camp favorite if they ever got a hold of it. (It is far too incompetent for them to take any genuine offense, as many did with the original.) As for everyone else, it is a bummer of the highest order and by the time it limps to its incredibly half-assed conclusion, most people will have nothing on their mind other than where they should go to grab a sandwich when it finally ends. May I suggest Jersey Mike's--their sandwiches are delicious and as far as I know, they have never been in cahoots with any possible invaders.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.