The original Red Dawn was, if nothing else, a good old-fashioned entertaining popcorn flick. It was by no means a masterpiece, it never pretended to be a smart political thriller, but it certainly delivered on its premise: a patriotic wet dream to cater to the masses. Unfortunately, its 2012 remake could not even live up to that aim.
The plot is familiar enough. The USA is invaded by a foreign country (North Korea replacing the original’s USSR) and a group of stubborn and extremely lucky teenagers, dubbing themselves the Wolverines, start a guerrilla war to win back their home town. The original, set during the Cold War, was unashamedly patriotic in a time when any kind of jingoistic nonsense was not just popular but sometimes surprisingly good. Unfortunately, the remake takes itself a bit too seriously and this is where it starts to fall apart. In a time when political rhetoric has changed – and when films like The Hurt Locker and Argo make strong cases for biased US heroics – Red Dawn sticks out like a sore thumb. One so bad it needs immediate amputation.
It did itself no favours by changing its big-bad during post-production. The original script had the Wolverines repel an invading Chinese army. But in all their profit-fuelled wisdom, the powers that be decided to change the antagonists to the more easily abhorred North Korea. In addition to the uneasy moments when the villains are clearly meant to be Chinese, a full-on North Korean invasion is completely laughable even in the fantastical context of the film, which is set in the modern day. In 1984, the USSR, while perhaps not as advanced as the US, was still a realistic threat. Similarly, China can actually prove to be a worthy opponent if it ever goes wacko and decides to use Jeremy Passmore and Carl Ellsworth’s script as its military tactics. Deciding not to use nuclear weapons on these countries for fear of a very serious retaliation makes sense. On the other hand, North Korea, the country that is under constant international scrutiny and gets in trouble if it goes so far as to test a single missile, should be swatted aside quite easily by the US military.
Of course, suspension of disbelief is a very convenient excuse for logical plot-holes. The same justification cannot be given for some of the worst performances committed to the screen since Battlefield Earth. Fans of Thor and The Hunger Games should avoid this remake like the plague. Gone are Chris Hemsworth’s arrogant charisma and Josh Hutcherson’s innocent charms. Their performances here are pure schmaltz with enough cheesiness to rival the mouldiest gorgonzola. This might not be entirely their own fault. The rest of the cast (including Tom Cruise’s son Connor in what may be his last cinematic role and Josh Peck) are just as bad that it leads me to believe the director was aiming for cringe-worthy. The dialogue is nothing to write home about either. Red Dawn was actually completed in 2009 with producers pushing it back both to accommodate the China-North Korea switch and to capitalise on the popularity of Hemsworth and Hutcherson. Perhaps their acting chops had not quite developed back then. At least, that is the only way I can justify paying to watch them on screen after this.
Other problems include how the story tries to differentiate itself from the original. The 1984 version saw the guerrilla warfare being portrayed as a war of attrition, with the teenagers needing outside help and suffering several casualties. Exposition allowed viewers to find out what happened to the rest of the country which made the invasion seem possible if not entirely plausible and an epilogue at the end showed how difficult it was to win back the country. The remake decides to take a more reckless, gung-ho approach to fighting (yes, more so than the original), with the protagonists overcoming insurmountable odds with the aid of nothing more than self-belief and some coincidental adult supervision. There is no explanation for the invasion and there is undue importance given to a high-tech phone that seems to be the holy grail the Wolverines need to find.
The special effects are fine – but in this day and age that is a minimum requirement, not a compliment – and the score is inoffensive. Those really are the nicest things to be said about Red Dawn. To call it terrible would be an understatement.