Red Dawn feels like more of an overly-fantastical propaganda action film than the serious war drama the original aspired to be.
The 2012 Red Dawn had many, many, pitfalls in front of it. First of all, the story this remake attempts to re-tell is one tied to a very specific era of history (The Cold War); secondly, the movie has been sitting on the shelf for more than year (thanks to MGM's bankruptcy), while the socio-political climate of the world has meanwhile continued to change. Finally, certain members of the cast have gone from being obscure up-and-coming talent to either bonafide stars or those who never made it to the big time, either way influencing our perception of what was meant to be an ensemble of relatively unfamiliar actors.
With such challenges facing it, does Red Dawn (2012) manage to avoid those many pitfalls and still deliver a satisfying action/drama experience? And is the film enjoyable for anyone besides those looking for a hefty dose of unabashed American patriotism?
Director Dan Bradley is an effective architect of action, but in many ways the new Red Dawn feels very dated and doesn't offer as much substance or dramatic depth as the original. For those who like their action fantasies to be glossy, polished, adrenalized run-n-gun sequences, you'll get what you're looking for from this film (plus that hefty dose of American spirit). For those who can't enjoy the hearty thrill of action without the cerebral accompaniment of logic, you'll likely find more headache than heart-swell.
The story has been re-located from Calumet, Colorado to Spokane, Washington, and this time the enemy is North Korea (working in cahoots with Russian ex-patriots), instead of the Soviet threat that was ever-present at the time of the 1984 original. In a risky move (more on that later), there is a major dramatic subplot tacked on, in which leading man Jed Eckert (Avengers' Chris Hemsworth taking over the famous Patrick Swayze role) is now an Iraq War veteran returned home to make amends with his estranged family, which includes reckless little brother, Matt (Josh Peck) and stalwart father, Tom (Lost's Brett Cullen).
The family drama quickly takes a backseat as the skies over Spokane get littered with invading North Korean soldiers, led by the cunning and ruthless Captain Lo (Will Yun Lee). The Eckert boys escape into the wilderness with some of their high school friends and acquaintances, and Jed begins to mold the kids into a hardcore insurgency group known as "The Wolverines" (their high school mascot). However, as Lo becomes more and more aware of the insurgents' success on the battlefield, he plots to lure the young rebels into more intricate traps, which could end up getting them all killed in action.
As stated, director Dan Bradley's background is in action stuntwork - he's worked on high-profile projects like the Bourne and Spider-Man sequels - and this clearly shows in the construction of Red Dawn's numerous action sequences. However, while the action is competent (at times thrilling), the narrative threads woven around that action aren't nearly as tight. Like the original film, we get a lot of action sequences in montage form; however, unlike the original film, the level of paramilitary skill being displayed by rank amateurs (and just one vet) seriously pushes the level of believability to the brink. Certain logistical issues (like how the Wolverines setup their strikes - or how they make their repeated escapes) are skipped over entirely, which will be a minor issue to those effectively swept-up in the action and patriotic pride, but will irk anyone attentive enough to notice the narrative corners that are being strategically cut.
The script by Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia, Red Eye) and newcomer Jeremy Passmore attempts to streamline the admittedly loose narrative of the original (in which the Wolverines were simply waging a war of attrition while shouldering the crushing weight of war and death). Meditations on warfare and the American fighting spirit are apparently too boring for today's audiences, so instead we're treated to a flimsy (albeit more pointed) story, in which The Wolverines are chasing after your standard movie MacGuffin in the form of a radio communication device carried by Captain Lo. The new version does manage to improve some of the narrative subplots - most notably the relationship between Jed and his brother Matt, which effectively serves as the story's emotional core.
We know now that there are a few stars in the group of young leads. Chris Hemsworth is the most high-profile breakout, thanks to his appearance in multiple blockbuster franchises (The Avengers, Snow White); Red Dawn was originally supposed to serve as his big Hollywood debut, but even this late in the game, it is still an effective showcase of his leading man presence. Actor Josh Peck (The Wackness) isn't nearly as established, but his role as Matt Eckert certainly hints at star potential. The story of Red Dawn 2012 is really Matt's coming-of-age story, and Peck handles the development of his character well, while also serving as an effective foil for Hemsworth. Together, the arc of their relationship is the more satisfying portion of the movie - even though it is cliched in many ways.
Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson is far more meek and reserved in his supporting role as Robert, the high school tech-geek, but he works well as one-half of a duo completed by Connor Cruise (as in Tom Cruise's adopted son), who isn't the strongest actor and benefits from Hutcherson's support. Adrianne Palicki (G.I. Joe 2) is also an effective foil/love interest for Hemsworth (and a convincing enough action star); conversely, Isabel Lucas (Transformers 2) fails to prove herself, while actors Edwin Hodge and Alyssa Diaz are pretty much marginalized as the less important members of the Wolverines squad.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen), Matt Gerald (Avatar) and Kenneth Choi (Captain America) cameo as three special forces operatives who team with The Wolverines (as opposed to just one solider, as depicted in the original), and they are a welcome (read: humorous) addition by the time they appear in the third act. Sadly, the villain in this film (Captain Lo) is not nearly as complex or developed as Ron O'Neal's (Superfly) Col. Ernesto Bella from the original. In general (no pun), the invading forces in Red Dawn 2012 are just faceless hordes of "bad guys" - and while that works in the context of this shallower interpretation of the story, fans of the original will definitely notice the change.
In the end, Red Dawn feels like more of an overly-fantastical propaganda action film than the serious war drama the original aspired to be. Its premise is woefully outdated, and despite an opening montage comprised of real news footage (which tries in vain to make the context of the film feel believable and relevant), the movie never overcomes a general sense that this is all happening far outside the realm of possibility. Still, action fans will be entertained enough and even the staunchest cynics may find a bit of patriotic pride leaking through at one point or another. Bottom line: you could do worse for a holiday season movie.
Red Dawnis now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense war violence and action, and for language.