Movie review: Seeing 'Red' again

This film image released by Film District shows Josh Peck , left, Josh Hutcherson, center, and Chris Hemsworth in a scene from "Red Dawn." (AP Photo/Film District)

“Red Dawn”


Film District

1 hour, 33 minutes

Whenever you go to see a remake, there’s always the question hanging out there, “was this really necessary?” You might say the same thing for the adaptation of a book or a play or a video game, but with those, the filmmakers can always use the translation into new media as the excuse.

But a remake of a film is a different animal. Movie making is, the studios will tell us, first and foremost a business. In that regard, remakes are great because they have built-in name recognition and a built-in fan-base. That had to be in the forefront of the mind of whoever greenlit this week’s “Red Dawn,” the re-telling of the tale of a group of plucky teens who have to fight off a communist horde that has the temerity to invade their sleepy little town, as well as the rest of the entire U.S. of A.

Remakes, in general, are subject to a lot of criticism. “Can’t they come up with a new story?” “What ever happened to creativity?” “They’re just doing it for the money.” That sort of thing. But really, when you think about it, most of the time they remake movies that were only marginally good in the first place, so where’s the harm? Was anyone really that offended that they remade John Carpenters “Assault on Precinct 13?” The studio made a little easy cash, and the world got an action movie pairing Ethan Hawke and Brian Dennehy, so everybody wins. It’s not like anyone is remaking “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane.” In that sense, you’d think “Red Dawn” would be the perfect film to remake. The original, released in 1984, isn’t great, but it’s got a following and featured early performances by a host of soon-to-be stars, including Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. It’s easy action, not a lot of substance, so what’s the difference? Right? Wrong.

“Red Dawn (‘84),” while admittedly not being a great classic, is a total film of its time. It is a tale born of the cold war and is really only relevant when you consider that a good portion of the country lived in fear that that war could turn hot at any moment. The story is basically this: one day, out of the blue, the Russians invade the continental United States, using a force made up of South American Communist troops, in conjunction with a massive Soviet Airborne contingent. Coordinating a few surgical strikes using tactical nukes with a huge ground incursion, the Commies take control in a matter of days.

Trapped behind the lines is a group of normal midwestern teens who, after hiding out for a matter of months, are forced to fight back to defend themselves, eventually transforming into a militant guerilla attack team named after the school mascot. “Wolverines!!!” It’s escapist, melodramatic fun that serves the purpose to reassure the populace that, even if the Russkies did invade, our basic American can-do spirit, combined with our massive numbers of hunting rifles, would win the day. People liked that idea, and the movie served its purpose.

The new film takes basically the same route, except this time it’s the North Koreans (a last minute edit from the Chinese after someone at the studio got cold feet about offending one of the world’s largest emerging markets). The problem is, the national mood has changed. No one thinks North Korea is going to invade us. In fact, the concept of just about anyone invading us at this point is laughable.

Why? Because it’s the U.S. that’s been doing the invading for the last twenty years or so, not the other way around. This brings up another issue. The original “Red Dawn” was unabashed, rah rah red, white and blue. This new version feels like it’s got a veneer of patriotism, with an undercurrent of bitter criticism. Chris Hemsworth, as Jed Eckert, an active duty Marine on leave, and leader of the Wolverines, describes the guerrilla M.O. thusly: “When I was over in Iraq, we were the good guys. We kept order; kept the peace. Over here, we’re going to be the bad guys. We’re going to create chaos. Because to these guys (the Korean invaders), this is just some place. To us, this is our home.”

Umm, OK. So was it the filmmakers’ intention to directly compare the heroes of this film with the terrorists we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? Watching the Wolverines detonate car bombs with I.E.Ds and blow up check-points outside the occupying army’s green zone, I got a little queasy. Would everyday Americans battle an occupying army in this way? Almost certainly, but as there’s no chance of us fighting an occupying army, it feels a little disingenuous to make a movie about the triumph of American spirit and values and then have the heros emulate the very people we’ve been asked to hate and fear half a world away.

And lest you think this new “Dawn” is a mature, nuanced film taking a very realistic look at war and the different facets of the people involved, let me set you straight. It’s not. The Koreans are black and white bad guys. There’s even less effort to humanize the villains in this film than in the original.

Maybe it’s not fair to keep comparing this movie with it’s predecessor. I kept wishing I could see the movie with fresh eyes, but it’s just not possible. After all, they called the movie “Red Dawn.” They named the characters Jed and Matt and Robert and Darryl. They keep many of the same sequences and plot devices, though stripped, for the most part, of the emotion or resonance from the original film.

The most egregious sin of this movie, however, is that it dares to set itself up for a sequel. The “Red Dawn” of ‘84 knew what it was. A war movie. And like in most war movies, the tale is wrapped up at the end after most of the principals are dead. Nowadays everything has to be a franchise. Do they really imagine people are going to go back for more of this ridiculousness? There are a few good action sequences, and the performances are adequate — probably as good as in the original film, though these new characters are given very little meat on which to chew. But the entire endeavor feels pointless and somehow inappropriate. This movie sat on the shelf at MGM for three years because of the studio’s financial issues, but I think it could have just as easily stayed where it was.

Grade: D+

“Red Dawn” is rated PG-13 for war violence and language. Interesting sidenote: The original “Red Dawn” was the very first PG-13 movie. The rating was enacted after audiences complained that “Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins” were too scary to warrant a PG rating, but studios were too smart to lose half their audiences giving movies about swashbucklers and funny little monsters the R.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.