Saturday, December 01, 2012

Red Dawn / *½ (PG-13)

Jed Eckert: Chris Hemsworth
Matt Eckert: Josh Peck
Robert Kitner: Josh Hutcherson
Toni Walsh: Adrianne Palicki
Erica Martin: Isabel Lucas
Daryl Jenkins: Conner Cruise
Tom Eckert: Brett Cullen
Captain Cho: Will Yun Lee
Tanner: Jeffrey Dean Morgan

FilmDistrict presents a film directed by Dan Bradley. Written by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore. Based on the 1984 screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence, and for language).

I was a teenager when the original “Red Dawn” was released in 1984. It was a big deal. “Red Dawn” was the first movie ever released with a PG-13 rating. Glasnost was not yet visible on the horizon of The Cold War. The early 80’s brought a great movement against nuclear war with many movies about the devastating effects it would have on life as we know it. It was a novel idea to think that we might actually participate in conventional warfare. And, not only was I a peer of those teenagers that were depicted fighting against a Russian invasion of mainland America, I was also “an American, Damnit!” and we just weren’t going to stand for it!

The movie was a great success with my friends and me. It was a perfect envisioning of the fantasy combat we had imagined ourselves engaging in to save our country. It was a deeply satisfying experience… at the time. Years later, I revisited the film. I found it was barely watchable. It was awful, so full of false patriotic posturing, bad acting, and worse writing. It stands as a great example of how our memory of a thing can be much better than the actual thing.

Now, comes the remake, after more than twenty-five years have passed. The Cold War is a memory of another generation in that area of the textbook that will never be reached by the end of the school year.  The world has changed, and yet it’s possible the story of an onshore invasion of this country could be lent relevance yet again. Alas the filmmaker’s memories of the original are really just about hometown kids wielding guns against an enemy which doesn’t matter as much as the fighting spirit of American high school football players. There is no global relevance to be found. No statement to be made about America’s place in the world or its diminished world image. The dialogue isn’t as clichéd and hackneyed, but there’s absolutely no substance beneath the thin surface of this story that mimics the gestures of the original and fails to see any point.

The action is better. Directed by former stunt coordinator Dan Bradley as his feature debut, it seems as if nobody told him that important plot details can be contained in the dialogue of the script in scenes that aren’t filled with action. I believe he threw those scenes out. It’s a director’s prerogative, I suppose. It keeps that ghastly running time down, so there’s no risk of being compared to some shlub of a director, like Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg. But let me tell you what he did keep in.

After an impressive opening credits sequence where we discover through a series of carefully edited news reports that make it look as if real politicians and world leaders are confirming the events that are about to be depicted as plausible, we settle into an evening of Friday night lights in Spokane, Washington, as if the high school football scene were just as intense there as it is in Texas. We meet a bunch of kids that will obviously be our heroes. One is a U.S. Marine on leave from Iraq. His dad looks like the police chief, but I don’t think he is. His brother is the quarterback of the football team, whose selfish play costs the team a chance at the playoffs. There are a couple of kids from the tech department; they’ll come in handy later and might even provide some comic relief with their inability to behave like men at first, but they’ll prove themselves. There’s the girlfriend of the quarterback, “she’s a fighter.” And, there’s the incredibly good looking chick who supposedly was too much of a goofball for the older brother to notice when he was in high school, but now she’s the most attractive and put together babe in town. Good thing she’s still crushing on the hero.

Now, I make fun of these clichés, but they are not what are wrong with this movie. During the party after the game the lights go out. Everyone heads home and the next morning they wake up to North Koreans parachuting into town and planes crashing into the neighbors’ house. I’m not sure what supposedly shot the plane down since they make a point that the American counter attack was totally neutralized by a device that seems kind of like a massive EMP, but not quite. Its purpose and effects are a little foggy, most likely for the convenience of the plot. In fact, very little of what the North Koreans are doing is explained at all. They seem to separate the Americans into three different groups—prisoners, who they cart around town for in school buses for no apparent reason; collaborators, who conveniently wear SS style uniforms for everyone to know who not to trust; and apparently free citizens, who go about working their jobs as if nothing has happened in businesses that shouldn’t have any sort of power or communication devices because of the EMP thingy.

There are many other details about the North Koreans that make absolutely no sense. Worse, for some reason the screenwriters find a way to keep the Russians involved, again without any sort of logical explanation as to why our now allies would turn on us. The only thing that saves “Red Dawn” from being an utter travesty is the action, which is terse, not completely edited beyond comprehension, although there is some of that. It does a better job than the original of keeping the momentum up in the third act. I don’t imagine that it will seem any worse of a movie 25 years from now, as the original does. It doesn’t, however, leave much room to fall.

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