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"Red Dawn" (1984) Movie Review
RED DAWN (1984) - Directed by John Milius
Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all of our ships at sea! Tonight we will be taking a look at 1984's controversial cult classic RED DAWN - the anti-"Brat Pack" action film where a virtual who's-who of '80s teen cinema (Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson) takes up arms to defend their small Colorado town against Communist invaders. It had been years since I'd last seen this movie but when I found the DVD at a local thrift store for the price of one thin dollar (what a steal!) I simply couldn't resist.
A note before pressing "play" on this movie: depending on who you talk to, "Red Dawn" is either one of the most bad-ass action movies of the 1980s, or an outdated, utterly absurd piece of Cold War propaganda. Though "Red Dawn" seems hilariously over-the-top and paranoid now, one must keep in mind that the Cold War was still in full swing when it was released in 1984. In Hollywood and in real life, the U.S.S.R. was still the world's number one bad guy, which almost (note I said "almost ") makes the events of this film seem plausible. A brief pre-title crawl informs the audience that Russia has suffered its worst wheat harvest in over 50 years, several nations have withdrawn from NATO, and that Mexico has fallen to a Communist uprising. The camera then takes us on a tour through the Norman Rockwell-esque streets of Calumet, Colorado on a typical Autumn morning. Despite the bad vibes building around the world, all seems right with this small town. The sun is shining, birds are tweeting, and God is in his Heaven as Jed Eckert (Swayze) drops his younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and several of their friends off at school. Suddenly, Matt's first period history class is rudely interrupted by a squadron of paratroopers landing in the field outside. When the intruders open fire on the school building, all hell well and truly breaks loose. World War III has landed on Calumet's doorstep, and Jed quickly speeds back to the school, grabs Matt and his pals, and they head off into the surrounding mountains (after a quick stop at the local hunting/fishing emporium to stock up on guns, ammo, food and supplies) to hide out from the invaders.
As Jed and the boys hole up in the forest honing their hunting-rifle and bow-and-arrow skills, Calumet becomes Occupied Territory, controlled by a combination of Cuban and Russian forces. In a series of scenes designed to play on viewers' worst fears about the Red Threat, we see Communist soldiers marching through the small town streets, Soviet tanks on every corner, and we learn that any citizens who owned guns or were otherwise deemed potentially dangerous (including Jed and Matt's Dad, played by Harry Dean Stanton) have been packed off to "re-education camps."
If "Red Dawn" had stayed on this track and became a treatise showing us what America would be like under Soviet rule, it might've been a much scarier film. However, this is an action flick, so they show just enough scenes of red blooded Americans bein' mistreated by the bad guys to get everyone in the audience good and mad, then we return to Jed and the gang -- who've formed a guerrilla fighting force (dubbed "The Wolverines" after their high school mascot) and started going all Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos on the bad guys. Striking against the Commies by day and hiding in the hills by night, the Wolverines start out as a minor annoyance but eventually develop into a serious threat to the Communists' control of the region. The local commandant, Colonel Bella (Ron O'Neal) eventually declares an all out war against the insurgency, leading to much gun fire, lotsa stuff blowin' up, and eventually, a much bleaker ending than some viewers might anticipate.
"Avenge Me! AVENNNNGE MEEEEEE!"
"Red Dawn" was met with mixed critical reviews in 1984 but was a box office hit. However, as time wore on changes to world history and current events made the film's story outdated. Red Dawn was soon regarded as an interesting relic of the '80s, with a small but strong cult following. The performances from its then-young cast are suitably intense (particularly Swayze as the troubled leader "Jed" and C. Thomas Howell as "Robert," an amped-up member of the Wolverines who seems to enjoy killing those Russkies a little too much) which fortunately elevates the movie's slight script. I'm not going to lie to you, it's also a load of sadistic fun watching Swayze, a pre-"Winning!" Charlie Sheen, "Dirty Dancing's" Jennifer Grey and Lea "Back to the Future" Thompson gleefully killin' Commies for Mommy! The always-welcome Powers Boothe also drops in (literally) to lend some world-weary gravitas as a downed Air Force colonel who hooks up with the Wolverines and aids them in their cause.
On a side note, I was in high school when the film was released and had a history teacher who was obsessed with this film. To him, "Red Dawn" was not just a movie, it was a cautionary tale of what could be, and an instruction manual to '80s youth on what we'd have to do to survive! We watched this film in class and for the rest of the school year, we knew that if we wanted to get him to deviate from his lesson plan for a day, all someone had to do was bring up this movie and he'd be off and running. One tip from "Red Dawn" that sticks with me to this day is this: if the radiator of your pickup truck catches a bullet, you can get back on the road again by plugging up the hole and then urinating into the radiator to replace the lost coolant. (I've never had to put that tip to the acid test, but it's good to know.)
The Remake (ugh!)...
A big budget remake of "Red Dawn" -- starring Chris Hemsworth, Adrienne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson, and Josh Peck - was filmed in 2009 and was slated for a November 2010 release until the movie's post-production phase (in which the sound effects, editing, music scoring, etc. are added to the film) was halted by MGM's descent into bankruptcy. As MGM slowly emerged from Chapter 11 they struck a deal with the independent studio FilmDistrict to complete "Red Dawn," but its troubles weren't over yet. In early 2011 the movie underwent even more last minute editing and re-tooling in response to controversy over the film's choice of villains. In the original script, "Red Dawn's" invaders were Chinese, but after much political outcry (and doubtlessly, a realization that China now represents a sizable chunk of foreign box office receipts), the film was tweaked even further so that the bad guys were now North Korean.
Interestingly enough, during "Red Dawn's" down time, two of its young stars - who were nobodies when they made the film - had become legitimate box office draws. Chris Hemsworth appeared in "Thor" and "The Avengers," while Josh Hutcherson co-starred in the "Hunger Games" films. One has to wonder if the "Red Dawn" re-do would've even been completed if these two cast members hadn't suddenly become fast-rising stars.
After years of delays and false starts, the new "Red Dawn" was finally released to theaters on November 21, 2012. It received mostly negative reviews, performed poorly at the box office and faded quickly from movie screens. I've seen both and I maintain that the original 1984 film, which is easily obtainable from your nearest local Bargain Bin, is the superior version of "Red Dawn."