- - Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The production of “Red Dawn” (2012) was famously troubled. A remake of the 1984 hit of the same name about American high school students waging guerrilla war in defense of the homeland against communist invaders, the new “Red Dawn” is also, in a sense, a remake of itself.

Announced in 2008, the new version was shot in 2009 from a script premised on an invasion of America’s West Coast by Chinese forces come to collect on America’s defaulted bilateral debt. But when MGM, the studio that produced the film, hit financial difficulties, the completed project was shelved. It did not find a distributor until 2011, and is only now reaching audiences.

In the intervening years, the filmmakers decided in a fit of craven commercialism that it would be costly to alienate the Chinese market, and digitally altered the film’s villains from Chinese to North Korean. Rather than the flag of the CCP, the invading hordes fly the colors of the DPRK.

Small problem: America didn’t survive decades of Cold War and the brink of nuclear annihilation only to get taken down 20 years later by second-string commies from North Korea.


The 1984 “Red Dawn’s” vision of World War III was divisive. The left thought it insane — the New York Times review called director John Milius’ original “technically proficient, emotionally infantile, politically nuts.” But a younger generation of Reagan-era conservatives seized on it as a rallying cry, a cautionary tale underscoring the twin dangers of communism and gun control. One could doubt the plausibility of the premise, but at least its coalition of invading communist powers was formidable and frightening.

In caving to the desires of a foreign market, the new “Red Dawn” has traded the far-fetched-but-fearsome scenario of its original shooting script for one that makes no sense whatsoever.

China’s army is the largest on Earth, by total troops (an estimated three million); it has a sophisticated and growing cyberwarfare division; its missile capabilities are growing by leaps and bounds; and there is a cadre within the Chinese military leadership that is profoundly, radically anti-American.

North Korea, meanwhile, has a population of just over 24 million, many of whom exist in a constant state of malnutrition. Their missile launches have the embarrassing tendency to fall apart on launch; they can barely keep the lights on in their capital city; and they have no ability to project their power beyond South Korea.

This is an enemy we’re supposed to fear as a threat to the continental U.S. homeland?

Credibility is hardly “Red Dawn’s” only problem. Aesthetically, the film is a mess.

Shot in the uber-shaky cam style popularized by director Paul Greengrass (two “Bourne” sequels) and others in the latter half of the previous decade, when the film was produced, “Red Dawn” trades coherent action sequences for jumbled quick cuts that simulate frenetic action. Whether our high school students are playing football, running from North Korean paratroopers, or gathering up canned goods in an abandoned cabin, the camera jolts and jogs, leaving the audience dizzy and annoyed.

Of course, visual coherence might be wasted on a film so lacking in character and plot development. The big bro/little bro duo of Jed and Matt Eckert (Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck, respectively) receive the most fleshing out, but even with them we get little more than a basic sense of sibling rivalry. Jed joined the Marines after their mother died; Matt considers this a betrayal, or abandonment, or something.

The rest of the ragtag group of “Wolverines,” the name the rebels take for themselves, are essentially just faces to fill out the screen. Toni (Adrienne Palicki) has a crush on Jed; Erica (Isabel Lucas) is Matt’s love interest in need of rescue; and Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), Danny (Edwin Hodge) and Julie (Alyssa Hodge) are all just kind of there, a multicultural band of brothers (and one sister) who serve as victims to be picked off by the North Korean invaders.

The Wolverines are trained in the arts of war-fighting by veteran Jed and, in a series of vignettes that plays like a parody of 1980s training montages, learn how to become expert guerrillas. They wreak some general, aimless havoc before receiving in the third act a MacGuffin in the form of Col. Andy Tanner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a special forces operator searching for the Wolverines.

Tanner is on a mission to find some device that has something to do with communications that will somehow end the war. He and the Wolverines will steal it or die trying, naturally.

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