‘Red Dawn’ Review
I've seen plenty of airbrushed actors in my time, but I don't know if I've ever watched an airbrushed movie before the new version of 'Red Dawn.' This remake of John Milius' conservative '80 classic strips away almost all of the material's political dimensions, turning a gonzo paranoid fantasy into just another slick action movie. The original was crazy and silly, but at least it was deeply felt. The new one scrubs and smudges the quirks away, along with anything interesting or edgy. It's pretty but plastic.
When this 'Red Dawn' was shot back in 2009, its foreign invaders were supposed to come from China. But when the film's distributors realized demonizing the world's second largest economy wasn't in their financial interests, they recast their villains as North Koreans, the owners of the world's 119th largest economy. In other highly ironic words, North Korea is too fiscally weak in reality to do anything about being cast as the all-powerful evil in fiction.
The switcheroo meant digitally painting over any Chinese logos or symbols, redubbing dialogue into Korean and, apparently, completely erasing any semblance of a motivation for the bad guys. We're given an explanation how North Korea accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of conquering the United States -- a combination of a magical EMP MacGuffin, and some financial and military support from the Russians, possibly in retaliation for the first 'Red Dawn' movie -- but not why a country with so many problems would go to the trouble to invade and then occupy an enormous country instead of just destroying it.
That's probably because they wouldn't. And when no other explanation for their behavior presented itself, the decision must have been made to minimize the North Koreans as much as possible. Their de facto commanding officer in Spokane, Washington, where the film is set, is Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee), but he has no objective, no agenda, and almost no dialogue. What little he does say is usually spoken while he's facing away from the camera, the better to obscure the dubbing. For all we learn about them, the Koreans might as well be aliens from another planet.
With our technology destroyed and our Armed Forces inexplicably missing in action, our nation's safety falls to a bunch of teenagers from Spokane who, at the first sign of Korean paratroopers, pile into a truck and head into the wilderness. There, they train in the art of guerilla warfare under Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), a local hero turned Marine home from the war in Iraq. Additional soldiers -- nicknamed the Wolverines after the local high school football team -- include Jed's younger, impulsive brother Matt (Josh Peck), a squeamish nerd named Robert (Josh Hutcherson) and a woman with no defining characteristics whatsoever beyond her attraction to Jed (Adrianne Palicki).
In Iraq, Jed tells his trainees, the US soliders were the good guys, maintaining law and order. Here, they'll be the bad guys, creating chaos. The Wolverines blow up buildings, harass Korean security checkpoints, and generally remain the thumb in our invaders' eyes. Comparing themselves to bad guys is kind of interesting since 'Red Dawn,' then and now, has always been about creating a new myth where America can once again play the role of the morally pure underdog in order to forget our "problematic" wars and occupations in Vietnam and the Middle East.
But that's about as close to a political comment as 'Red Dawn' gets. At times, it is very easy to forget that this movie is about one real country invading another -- and I think that's exactly the way director Dan Bradley (or whoever ultimately cut this thing together) wants you to feel. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, through a competent series of insurgent action beats. The film's climax, the Wolverines' siege of the Spokane police station in order to acquire the Korean's magical EMP MacGuffin, is shot and cut for clarity and excitement. There are a lot of good young actors in here as well, from Hemsworth to Hutcherson to Palicki, and they're surprisingly invested in the material. The fact that they're taking this schlock seriously goes a long way towards justifying its existence (we'll overlook the fact that if Hemsworth and Peck are brothers, then so are Will Yun Lee and I).
Given the lengthy delay between 'Red Dawn's' production and distribution, given the fact that its villains were shamelessly and absurdly changed, it's something of an achievement that 'Red Dawn' is as not-terrible as it is (I hesitate to describe it as good). Still, it's very strange and very unfulfilling to watch such a pointedly polemical story told from such an ideologically empty perspective. This is what Hollywood remake culture gets you, I guess: new versions of old movies you liked, spit-polished to a high-sheen and stripped of the things you liked about them.
'Red Dawn' hits theaters November 21.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’