Oh boy, are we in for it. A second recession here, a bit of cyberterrorism there, and we'll be weak enough for North Korea to invade Spokane, Washington. Or so the new remake of Red Dawn would have it. Then again, maybe it's only those who go to see Red Dawn who are in for it. John Milius' 1984 original may not have been a paragon of clear-headed foreign policy, but it did have a certain thematic rigor. Dan Bradley's remake predictably sidesteps—and, in one case, mocks—its source material's most interesting moments, favoring dull-witted and conventional action-flick sensation.
In the two years Red Dawn has sat on the shelf (due to MGM's bankruptcy woes), two of its stars have gotten hotter: Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers) and Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games). Hemsworth plays Jed Eckert, a Spokane-bred Marine recently returned from Iraq. Having barely checked in with brother Matt (Josh Peck) and their father Tom (Brett Cullen), Jed steps up to lead the local Resistance against North Korean occupiers, training scrawny boys (like Hutcherson's Robert) to become militarized men while finding his relationship with Matt sorely strained.
Since Jed accomplishes his task with the relative ease of a montage—followed by numerous successful raids that give new meaning to "Lucky Strike"—Red Dawn swiftly loses dramatic tension. To be fair, the picture kicks off with one helluva invasion sequence that delivers scary, visceral thrills, but one would have to go a long way to suspend disbelief at the premise's numerous implausibilities, which swiftly pile up.
North Korea's puzzling might owes to a last-minute CGI scrub: the invaders were Chinese, before someone realized there's a lot of moolah to be made in the Chinese market. And so we get exactly the slick Red Dawn remake you'd expect for today's cinema. The first scene is emblematic: where Milius literally opened his film with a history lesson (in a high-school classroom), Bradley opens on a high-school football game (go Wolverines!).
Bradley and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore incorporate the "V for Victory" hand sign, and broadcasts from "Radio Free America," but the more interesting notion that Americans used to being occupiers have now become homeland-defending insurgents (hiding out in a mine—read cave) remains either comfortably subtextual or deliberately muddled ("Now we're the bad guys," Jed instructs. "We create chaos").
The women folk (including Adrianne Palicki as Jed's love interest) remain demonstrably less tough-minded than the foregrounded men. Milius gave his Robert a more interesting and unsettling arc from bumbling child to scary war machine, but the new Red Dawn would rather turn the original's deer-blood-drinking scene into a glib joke than deal seriously with the notion of initiation into an ancient, masculine warrior cult.
Of course, Red Dawn was always jingoistic, macho b.s. destined to add up to the NRA's favorite movie, and it's still that. But now it's nearly as desensitizing as the first-person shooter one of the teens says he misses. "Dude," his friend replies, "we're living Call of Duty—and it sucks!"
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]