Dan Bradley’s “Red Dawn” remake is almost admirable. It’s a straight ahead propaganda film in the mold of John Ford’s “Why We Fight” and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” It has more of a narrative than either of those films, but it’s not the passive piece of entertainment that one would expect from a modern blockbuster. It’s a film with a clear agenda, to promote a rugged form of American individualism that deeply distrusts its own weak government almost as much as it loathes foreigners. These themes were present in the 1984 John Milius’ “Red Dawn”, but that film’s raging nationalism was in reaction to the Cold War, while Bradley’s film reflects the paranoia and resentment of the post-9/11 era. It’s a pretty disturbing picture.
The film opens with a montage that sets up “Dawn’s” fairly preposterous storyline: the Obama administration is beset by North Korean cyber-attacks and the threat of Russian ultranationalists. The heavy handed prologue gives way to an even more on the nose introduction to the film’s cast. Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) is a marine returning to his Spokane, Washington home from a long tour of duty in Iraq. He is trying to readjust to civilian life with his hotshot younger brother (Josh Peck) and caring police officer father (Brett Cullen) when North Koreans invade. With impossible speed, the Koreans seize control of the entire city, subjugate its population, and start brainwashing within the space of a few days. Hemsworth trains Peck and other local young people (including Josh Hutcherson and Adriane Palicki) to be a crack counter insurgence squad.
Now, on its face that isn’t a terrible premise. A bunch of teen protagonists allows you access to a range of heightened teenage emotions and helps to sell the absurdity of the premise. The long tradition of young civilian resistance during wartime gets referenced, and the heroes are established as plucky underdogs who face insurmountable odds. Despite the deck being stacked to that height, the film’s characters live and die with no meaning. Aside from Hemsworth’s self-possessed marine and Hutcherson’s battle shy geek, none of the new Wolverines have describable personalities. They react in predictable ways to betrayal and trauma but evidence no inner turmoil to having their entire way of life irretrievably lost. This problem is never more obvious than with “Drake & Josh” star Peck. Traditional wisdom would dictate the casting of an actor for the only character in the film to have an arc, but Bradley went another way and the film suffers for it greatly.
Bradley, a second unit director and stunt coordinator responsible for the stunning car crashes and brutal fights in the “Bourne” films and “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol”, doesn’t direct very good action in this film. The invasion sequence at the beginning of the film is plagued by muddled camera work and shaggy CGI. Bradley also edits most of the film like a breakneck chase, even when it’s wildly out of place. Character building shouldn’t move at the pace of gun fight. It keeps the audience on edge so long that the action becomes numbing. There are moments when Bradley’s signature frenzied style breaks through, like the final kill ‘em all montage, but most of the film plays as a bunch of interesting ideas in need of a stronger unifying vision.
No matter how strong the action, it still would have been in service of a repulsive agenda. “Red Dawn” seems to exalt American self-reliance but ultimately its real message is one of rampant xenophobia and active distrust of cowardly government. This is a film in which the Iraq War is described as one fought to maintain order. It’s a film where the only African American actors play the first real protagonist to die, a collaborator, and a non-descript freedom fighter who is left for dead after unknowingly betraying his comrades. And it’s a film where hordes of North Koreans, with their friendly slogans, are given as much motivation as the zombies in “The Walking Dead.” The film has some very clear ideas about our country’s national identity and who really represents that identity, and it’s pretty close to the ideals described by history’s most infamous nationalists. And that’s a pretty dark interpretation of what America stands for.
“Red Dawn” is available on streaming video and Blu-ray through Amazon.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at email@example.com