It’s a Friday night in Spokane, Washington. The Wolverines, led by quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck), are playing their hearts out in an important playoff game. They don’t come out on top, but the team holds its own. Matt has his lovely girlfriend Erica Martin (Isabel Lucas) to cheer him up. To double the fun, his brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth) is back from Iraq for the first time in six years, so the brothers have a lot of catching-up to do.
Unfortunately, when the power goes out, it’s not a simple downed electrical line. North Korea and its allies have invaded the Unites States, dropping into the Pacific Northwest via cargo plane en masse and taking town after town over by force. Thanks to some help from their father, Jed, Matt, Toni (Adrianne Palicki), and some other teenagers/young 20somethings from Spokane escape into the hills. There, Jed and Matt turn the rag-tag group into a fearsome force of guerrilla warriors who dub themselves The Wolverines and undertake a war against the invading Koreans, despite the terrible odds against them.
The fact that Red Dawn even made it into the cinemas is a small miracle. MGM was in dire financial straights when the movie was completed in 2009, and since then its fortunes haven’t greatly improved. What has improved is the status of some of the cast members. In particular, since this movie was shot (scheduled for release in November 2010 and delayed until November 2012 when Filmdistrict bought the rights in the US), Chris Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have become international stars (and their names have been used to promote this movie heavily). The other big change is in the movie’s story itself. The original, more plausible villains were the Chinese – they have both the technology and the money to invade, even if they lack a navy of any sufficient strength. In the new version, the enemies are the North Koreans and some hinted-at Russians. This will changed in post-production, bizarrely.
This doesn’t really affect the movie in any significant way. An invading foreign power backed by America’s traditional Cold War nemesis, a multi-pronged invasion through the air, the coasts at war, teenagers in guerrilla combat… it’s the same story as the original Red Dawn, except the Chinese are no longer our allies, they’re simply not mentioned. The tactical training comes from Jed himself (this time he’s a Marine on leave) rather than from a downed US airman. The script from Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore has been updated to modern slang and drops in some mentions of video games, but loses most of the classic lines from the original by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius. They toss in some nods to current-ish events on the Korean Peninsula, as well as some fictional events to set up the rise of the North Korean military as a force to be reckoned with. It doesn’t quite work, given the only thing most know about North Korea is they’re too starving to really put up a fight without Chinese backing, but it’s a nice attempt to make use of the world’s fourth-largest military as a viable enemy.
The movie works a little better on the acting front. Chris Hemsworth is solid no matter what role he’s given, and that’s no exception here. Ditto Josh Peck as little brother Matt. The cast of assorted players, much like the cast from the 1984 film, is a nice collection of talented youngsters (the previously mentioned Josh Hutcherson) and nobodies who may go on to become somebodies (Connor Cruise, that’s you). The movie doesn’t give them a lot to do aside from engage in firefights and look morose, but they don’t ruin the flick, either. There’s a sense that the cast would be great in a different movie, but nobody’s phoning it in.
Red Dawn is a hard movie to wreck with a performance, since it’s just an action movie. However, it’s a strong action movie. There are some very good set pieces, some clever ambush scenes, and when the kids start gunning down enemies, the movie gets good. There’s some real cleverness there in the staging of the scenes and their execution, and the movie is different enough from the original than it’s harder to predict what might happen. Director Dan Bradley, a veteran stuntman and second-unit director, hasn’t directed any films other than this one, but he’s good enough for action work, even if I do hate the shaky-cam he leans on heavily. He rarely detracts from the action, even if he doesn’t always enhance it (certain action set pieces aside).
Red Dawn isn’t a great remake, but it’s not a terrible remake either. Plenty of great 80s movies have been ruined in the reboot process, but Red Dawn isn’t one of them. It’s pretty mindless and mostly inoffensive, a throwback to the trashier days of Golan-Globus/Cannon and the lesser works of the straight-to-video action genre. If you’re a fan of that sort of thing, you’ll be entertained enough by this film, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.