You might have thought it a foolish idea to make a contemporary version of John Milius’ campy 1984 movie about a bunch of kids who forge a resistance movement against a Russian takeover of the U.S. On the evidence of Dan Bradley’s “Red Dawn,” you’d have been right.
The world has changed over the past twenty-eight years, of course, and the thought of Soviet tanks and missiles no longer has quite the same fearful effect. So Bradley and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore preface their treatment with a montage of fake news reports detailing how international affairs have become increasingly chaotic and dangerous. None of it makes much sense, but it provides the basis for that fearful day when Spokane, Washington suddenly finds itself being taken over by paratroopers and other forces carrying the flag of North Korea—something else that doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, while most of the population is cowed into submission, a ragtag group of teens led by the police chief’s two sons, Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), an ex-Marine, and his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck), repair to a mountain cabin to form a resistance group they name after their high school football team, the Wolverines.
Before long our band of plucky fighters—which include callow Robert (Josh Hutcherson), the collaborationist mayor’s son Daryl (Connor Cruise) and Tori (Adrianne Palicki), who becomes Jed’s love interest—are killing North Korean occupiers, blowing up buildings, and taking aim at quislings, becoming local heroes who get help from courageous residents. There’s a subplot involving Matt’s eagerness to free his girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas), who was taken prisoner in the original assault, from her captors—which puts the whole crew in jeopardy—and a soap operatic thread involving Matt’s simmering anger toward Jed, who he believes abandoned him by joining the Corps right after their mother’s death, as well as a tragic moment involving their father (Brett Cullen).
But all that is just padding to the action sequences, which are relatively small-scaled due to the obviously meager budget but are given a kick by Mitchell Amundsen’s handheld camerawork and Richard Pearson’s hyperactive editing. In the last reel the plot deteriorates when an outside resistance fighter (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shows up to enlist the group in an assault on the North Korean headquarters to steal what becomes the plot’s MacGuffin—a suitcase containing some sort of radio code for the device that’s inhibiting the electrical grid and thereby preventing effective action against the invaders (or something like that). That leads to a shootout in hallways and control rooms that involves self-sacrifice and, at long last, a direct confrontation with Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee), the North Korean commander who’s long been bedeviled by the Wolverines.
“Red Dawn” isn’t much different from the numerous television shows that have been made on similar subjects, whether the idea involved invaders (either earthlings or aliens) or post-apocalyptic fascist locals—things like “V,” “Jericho” or the current “Revolution.” The acting is rudimentary, the dialogue flat, the dramatic situations banal and jingoistic. There is one interesting moment when Jed tells his fighters that their motivation is stronger than that of the occupiers, because they’re defending their homeland while the North Koreans are outsiders with no real stake in the place—a curious sentiment from a fellow supposedly just back from Iraq (and one which you have to wonder whether gung-ho viewers, who will certainly appreciate the script’s allusions to video games, will ruminate on). But basically this is straight-up action fare that never asks any questions beyond where the next round of ammunition is coming from, based on a premise even sillier today than it was a quarter-century ago.
The behind-the-scenes backdrop to “Red Dawn” is an interesting moviemaking footnote: the picture was actually shot three years ago, and then the invaders were depicted as Chinese. The bankruptcy of the original distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, put the picture on the shelf, and the makers decided to render it more marketable in today’s global environment by converting the Chinese to North Koreans—which required some reshooting but mostly dubbing dialogue and digitally altering such things as flags and uniforms. (The Russian advisors who are briefly glimpsed have been left untouched.) That background story, with its motivation not to antagonize the potential Chinese market, would actually make a better movie than the one that’s being released. But no such luck.