There’s a scene in the original Red Dawn, after the squad of guerilla teenagers discovers that they’ve been betrayed by one of their own, when they stand him in the snow for execution. The leader, Jed (Patrick Swayze), cannot bring himself to pull the trigger, but then, one of the others, without missing a beat, raises his rifle and blows his friend completely away. John Milius’ 1984 Cold War-paranoia-action-movie Red Dawn, which starred a bunch of Brat Pack mainstays as the Wolverines, a renegade fighting force battling Soviet invaders, was never a great film. In fact, it has become a punch line if hardly the gripping cautionary tale its director surely meant it to be. Much of the derision is targeted at Milius’ war being pretend, hypothetical. (Wasn’t Orwell’s 1984 just a hypothetical future?) To the director, however, the Cold War was very real, and its potential destructive power was nothing to joke about. Wherever you stand, Red Dawn undoubtedly understood the cost of war, that it takes not only our land and our loved ones, but also our humanity, which is perhaps the greatest casualty of all.
For all its failings, 1984’s Red Dawn was at least the work of someone with a vision and a point-of-view. 2012’s Red Dawn is, in contrast, a complete hack-job: The Hunger Games with commies. The new “warriors” look like J. Crew catalogue models holding assault rifles. There’s a thick layer of risible ridiculousness coating every frame of this entire 90-minute piece of soulless claptrap. To update its story for a new generation, the invading army now belongs to the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (don’t let the name fool you). Why the North Koreans? It was supposed to be the Chinese until the studio decided they didn’t want to anger a massive market demographic, so they swapped nations in post by dubbing-over the Chinese with Korean and replacing all the emblems and flags. How the hell could North Korea ever invade Middle America? That’s a better question. I’ll tell you: they’ve developed an electro-magnetic-pulse machine that obliterated the American power grid. It’s the film’s flux capacitor, basically. Other than those changes, the basic premise is the same. Enemy soldiers parachute into small town U.S.A. and turn it into an occupied combat zone. A group of local teenagers escape to the woods where they form a small militia to fight-off their oppressors.
That’s where the similarities end, however. The first Red Dawn was essentially a Western, set along the forests and mountains of the Rockies and their foothills. The heroes rode horses and adapted to changing weather. The terrain allowed them to attack surreptitiously from their own backyards. Red Dawn 2.0 takes place in the upper northwest near Seattle. The kids find solace in the woods, but the film has no consideration for nature’s generous-dangerous navigability. Seattle’s temperate climate explains the seasonal stasis, but not our befuddled sense of time elapse. It looks as if the whole movie was shot in about two months at summer camp. Since most of the fighting takes place in urban areas, this version is supposed to suggest a more modern war. If so, why not set it in New York City or Chicago or Washington D.C.? That would be a complete change-up from the original’s backwoods mountaineering and would also offer an ironic and timely twist on the occupier/insurgent paradigm in Baghdad today. Milius had learned from greats like Leone and Ford to appreciate the power of the wide-shot and the still frame. Director Dan Bradley has gathered from his generation’s “masters”—Tony Scott and Michael Bay—that suffocating compositions, never settling on actor’s faces, and shaking the camera epileptically is the only way to create suspense.
Milius went to great efforts to make his movie feel important, despite its borderline absurd conceit. The violence was bloody. There was subversion in images of American civilians in concentrations camps and in front of firing squads—or American guerillas fighting off foreigners in a tribute to the natives who once so bravely battled pioneers and explorers for that very same land. The squad of youths had a Lord of the Flies dynamic: Patrick Swayze was the morally conflicted leader, Jennifer Grey was the stealthy bait, and C. Thomas Howell was the vengeful monster. Even the enemies were complex, with the Cuban commander sweating his newfound role as an occupying tyrant. I can’t tell you squat about any of the characters in the new Red Dawn, besides that Chris Hemsworth plays an on-leave Marine who leads the group and argues with his quarterback little bro (Josh Pence) about some perfunctory betrayal. The characters in this remake needn’t worry about losing their humanity. They never had it to begin with.