Friday, December 7, 2012

Movie Review: Red Dawn

Entertaining remake improves on original.

Today is the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor, so it seemed appropriate to review a movie about another surprise attack on the United States.

Red Dawn is, of course, a remake of the 1984 movie about Soviet forces invading America and occupying large parts of the country. The story of a gang of teenagers taking to the hills and fighting back captured the patriotism and unapologetic anti-communism of the Reagan era.

Fast forward to 2012, when Occupiers wear Che Guevara t-shirts and the nation has just re-elected a president who, if not a communist himself, had communists as the major influences in his life. To release a remake of Red Dawn in this environment is box office roulette. The mainstream media has been predictably harsh. In what’s getting to be a habit, Roger Ebert prostituted his artistic judgment to his political views. His review followed the same technique as his rant against last year's Atlas Shrugged, Part I: he savaged the movie on narrow technical grounds that don’t make sense if you actually watch the thing. Overall, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave Red Dawn ‘12 an 11% rating, compared to 53% for Red Dawn ‘84.

This is too bad, because Red Dawn is the rare remake that's actually better than the original.

The small budget feel of the 1984 film, combined with the cast of peripheral Brat Packers (including Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, and Charlie Sheen) made it seem like a John Hughes coming-of-age comedy about a camping trip instead of the war epic it was supposed to be. There were two scenes that I especially didn’t like. In the first, one gang member, Robert (C. Thomas Howell), having shot his first deer, must drink its blood by way of initiation. In the second, the gang discovers that the enemy has implanted a tracking device in the mayor's son, Daryl (Darren Dalton). I thought both of these scenes should have played out differently. More seriously, the script was flawed dramatically: in a consequence-free plot, the small band of pubescent partisans had almost nothing to do with the larger war of resistance raging in the America beyond the kids' campsite.

In contrast, a plot-line in the 2012 version about capturing a critical piece of enemy technology put the kids in the game. The enemy this time was North Korea instead of Russia, and the movie captured the harsh reality of occupation. Improved battle choreography, better special effects, and more scenes of urban fighting added realism and grit. The cast delivered some intense performances. In particular, Thor’s Chris Hemsworth was thoroughly convincing as Jed Eckert, the combat-tested marine on leave. I wasn’t thinking Marvel Comics at all. Kudos also go to Adrianne Palicki for screen presence. The woman is hot and she knows it.

Oh, and those two scenes I didn't like in the original: they’ve been rewritten.

The one disappointment was the leader of the occupation, Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee). His 1984 counterpart, Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal) was one of the most vivid characters in the film, and one of the few who showed real character development. 2012’s Captain Cho, by contrast, was a cardboard villain.

Still, the existence of villains is one thing that hasn’t changed since the 80’s. It’s still a dangerous world, and sometimes it’s necessary for men and woman with guns to stop the bad guys. Red Dawn is an entertaining reminder.

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about resistance, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on

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