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Everybody’s so marching.

Red Dawn looked like a pointless waste of time. I mean, it’s not like anyone should have expected any better after being burned by last year’s Conan the Barbarian or this year’s Total Recall. If the remake of Red Dawn hadn’t been shot a few years ago (2009 I think?) and shelved during MGM’s financial problems, I doubt we’d be seeing it now. Then again, Hollywood execs are slow to get the message and maybe they still think remaking violent, silly, and action-heavy 80’s movies into chaste, toothless, and narratively DOA turds is still where the dolla bills be at.

Now all that said, Red Dawn isn’t actually a bad movie. It’s got the same pedigree, incidentally, and some of the same problems but it manages to be a real movie. It actually updates the original in some ways, the action is mostly good, the cheese and Commie-paranoia still present, and so on. The secret weapon is Chris Hemsworth, of course, and this movie was made way before the guy even got Marvel famous.

So even though I went into this thinking I was knowingly self-flagellating, I came out surprised. Twenty minutes into the movie I had to come to terms with the fact that I was not bored, not irritated, and not having a bad time. If you can handle that premise, please read this review as I try to make a case for why Red Dawn is actually all right, even ballsy in some ways, though still not quite what a remake could or should be.

It is also kinda racist, I think. Maybe not perniciously, but you really have to wonder. It also makes me question whether nor being “kinda racist” makes a movie bad. One thing’s for sure, don’t get used to seeing nonwhite faces in Red Dawn. But I guess that the 2012 version even having non-white faces is an improvement over the original.

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Put some Hemsworth in mah pie, put some Hemsworth in mah coffee.

If I can be indulged some comparisons, let me first describe some of the core ways that the 2012 movie differs from its 1984 parent.

The basics are all the same: two brothers, along with some friends, retreat into the wilderness when their town is invaded by a foreign country. They then go on to wage a guerrilla war with mixed results. In the 1984 version, the aggressors are Russia and Cuba who have united (because Communism) to mount the invasion. Of course this could never have happened and many still disparage the movie for being so unrealistic and blatantly “Red Scare Propaganda”. I’m not sure to what extent the scenario was a joke, but it’s immaterial for the 2012 remake. There was some controversy as, originally, the invaders were China. Because of some outcry about this, which many blame for the delayed release, the invaders were changed to a more palatable enemy: North Korea. Of course, this is all the same degree of nonsense as the ’84 version. But it affords some interesting opportunities.

Though viewers in ’84 might have remembered Vietnam well enough to draw parallels to what the Wolverines (the guerrillas name themselves after the local sports team) do, it seems a bit thinner a connection than the one that exists between the 2012 movie and the asymmetrical warfare in the Middle East. Rather than shying away from this connection, Red Dawn goes after it full bore. It’s almost as if the people who wrote it were aware of the parallel! It’s a bit cheesy to acknowledge this by having Hemsworth crudely make the parallel in-movie, but then this movie is not light on the cheddar.

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Public gunfights, bombings, and hiding among civilians are all tactics employed in the movie. They are also tactics used by fighters in occupied countries everywhere, including the Middle East.

Although there’s some hand-waving at the idea that the stuff in the Middle East is a war of aggression (Hemsworth says over there “we were the good guys, maintaining order”), it isn’t enough to overturn the subtext here. The movie feels like it wants people watching to understand that the tactics of Iraqi and Afghani fighters are necessarily similar, and from there it isn’t a big jump to consider the motivations. Just as in the ’84 version, Red Dawn takes a little time to have speeches and conversations about how this is these kids’ home and they have to defend it. In one particularly nice bit, Hemsworth tries to rally the people he’s stuck with and explains that it being their home makes it “easier” and it all “makes a little more sense”. This bit is nice not because of the wording but because it acknowledges the insanity and unpleasantness of warfare, especially the kind they are going to conduct, while also making us understand on an explicit level the reasoning behind picking up a gun. I couldn’t help but think of all the places in the world where it’s a handsome brown face with the determined jaw, as its owner tries to inspire courage in other kids who are tired of being occupied.

For all that, Red Dawn lands as interesting. I mean, most people are smart enough to make these connections without having to see a movie, but the movie puts it so clearly that you’d have trouble ignoring it. This makes the ideas more accessible to people who tend to ignore this sort of thing. Whether the movie was intended to do this or not, it does this, and that alone makes it more interesting than the other “big” remakes I mentioned.

The main point here is that it’s an interesting time for a movie like Red Dawn. It would seem like it wants to advance the RAH RAH ‘MERICA mentality but it actually gets by with a minimum of this. There’s the one big flag thing at the end, but that’s pretty much obligatory and not any more inherently jingoistic than you’d find in a fucking Spider-man movie.

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The North Koreans have pretty much zero character beyond just their uniforms, foreign faces, and the ubiquitous red stars. 

Another place the movie goes a bit wide of the ’84 original is in its core emotional story. See, the ’84 version doesn’t have the same kind of focus on a “journey” and it owes no allegiance to Campbell. 2012, apparently, requires that all movies have an arc where the main character grows and changes by the end. To its credit, Red Dawn does a mostly good job with this. Josh Peck and Chris Hemsworth are both talented actors and they sell their relationship early and often, contributing an earnest intimacy to the story. It also sets up a couple of nice moments, from the surprising way they kill Hemsworth’s character, to how it affects Peck’s “assuming the mantle” and becoming the leader his brother tried to be. He even repeats Hemsworth’s big rallying speech, only this time with a crowd of would-be militia for an audience. The story here is that Peck is playing a guy who’s whole life has been easy except for the death of his mother, which drove his brother away for a six-year stint with the marines. On the eve of the invasion, Peck is a cocky football captain who showboats when he should lead. You can bet that by the end of the movie, he’s a leader.

Now this is executed well, when it is, on the shoulders of the actors. This movie is in a big hurry and skims to a point where the Wolverines are a lethal fighting force via montage. It feels like it takes place over the course of a few days, not the months (year?) that the ’84 version did. So, while the familiar characterization is in good hands it often comes off as perfunctory given that the movie seems unable to devote much time to anything else. All the other characters are fairly shorted, even Josh Hutcherson (who also wasn’t famous when this was made).

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If the day does not require an A.K. then it is a good day.

I also would have liked to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan more. Tanner, the character originally played by Powers Boothe, was a much bigger deal in the original. Here, he shows up with some annoyingly “rah rah” fellow marines to ellicit the help of the Wolverines. This comes right after they’ve been bombed out of their secret base (there’s a beautiful shot of them emerging in a smokey, fiery ruin of the beautiful East-coast woodland they’d enjoyed previously), so it comes when they’re at a “low point”. The hope Tanner offers lets them get past the slump and ride to a climax.

Granted, the climax is pretty good (in an action sense). Hemsworth defends himself in a knife fight by ripping the back of a task chair off and using it as a shield. I have not seen the like before.

Still. More JDM is wanted.

In many ways, the way the story works and the way it keeps more characters alive than not gives it the feel of a TV pilot. The first thing my brother said when it was over was “it should be a show now” which is not something you’d say after seeing the first one. See, 2012 Red Dawn is mostly fairly righteous. Yes it’s a WAR and WAR IS HELL, but it’s still a rightful war and being a teenager with an automatic weapon still has the appeal it did in the 80’s (maybe even more so, which they directly acknowledge with a terrible Call of Duty joke). In 1984, war was something America was still tired of so the “harsh realities” were a 1000x more harsh.

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Shapiro is worth it.

So what does all this leave us with? Red Dawn isn’t a boring or outright bad movie. It looks good in comparison to its company, that’s for sure, and that might make it seem better than it really is. That said, I’m also giving it some points for at least trying to be a legitimate remake. There is the attempt to update the premise, even if the title fits poorly (as the “Communist Threat” has declined, so too has the word “red” as a term of foreboding). The incidental benefit is an accessible, to-the-face parallel between the Wolverines and “insurgents” in countries America is currently occupying at a time when people are starting to really get tired of the shenanigans. The downside is that the movie won’t commit to this commentary or much else beside a tidy brother-bond story. A good remake has to do more than staple the Hero’s Journey to something that was more like a real war movie.

Still, the main idea here is that “what if”. What would you do if you had a choice between living under the yoke of an occupying force or going out to fight back? That choice has the same power it did in the 80’s, the same power it has always had. The glorification of the realities of war came to an end with the advent of televised news, but the glorification of the causes, motives, and premises of war has sustained itself, even blossomed.
Let me stop there, before I start meta-reviewing what this movie signifies in American culture, let alone Canadian.Screen-Shot-2012-08-13-at-2.19.12-PM-300x166This is Robert. He’s running away because the only people who survive in this movie are white people. African, Hispanic, Asian… all are brushed aside so that American patriotic identity can remain whitebred as white bread. Or something.

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