There are several good reasons not to reboot 1984’s jingoistic Cold War paean, Red Dawn, not the least of which is this: It’s not even remotely topical anymore, given the dissipation of the threat of Communism. The original’s particular brand of flag-waving, America Fuck Yeah! mouth-breathing goofiness is a part of an era gone by, rightfully left behind in favor of films with less obvious villains and actual, you know, plots. Then again, we’re also seeing the inexplicable and geriatrically awkward resurgence of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, so what the hell do I know?
I know this: Red Dawn is dumb. It’s fifteen pounds of stupid crammed into a five pound bag with a hole in the bottom. Left on the shelf for two years due to MGM’s financial woes and eventually released through another studio, it’s a film that hews so closely to the original that, ambiguous villain ethnicities aside, there’s very little to separate it other than hairstyles. That said, there was at least a doddering charm to the original, a film that you sort of wanted to pat on the head as you would a toddler who made it through the day without shitting itself. There’s little of that in the 2012 project, a film that takes itself dreadfully seriously yet is simultaneously laughably inept.
The story, as mentioned, is essentially the same. The United States is invaded by the Commies, only this time it’s North Korea (swapped in during post-production when the studio decided not to piss off China), and a small, ragtag group of high school students get their guerrilla warfare on in an effort to throw a little chaos into the works and try to save America — or at least, Spokane. After a cobbled-together, artless and vaguely nauseating opening credit sequence that will likely result in mass seizures where we learn about how the unchecked rise of North Korea and the destabilization of Western… Jesus, it so doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that there are Asians, and they are capital-B Bad.
Anyway, the film focuses on a Friday Night Lights-esque community, where everyone loves football and beer and family, and thankfully, Marine Corps badass Jed (Chris Hemsworth) is back in town for shore leave or something. When the paratroopers start falling and the fighter jets zing around, he grabs his dopey-ass hero quarterback brother Matt (Josh Peck), and a bunch of other high schoolers, and leads them to a nearby cabin, eventually formulating a plan to fight back. That’s really all there is to it, and it’s simply not enough. The film’s story is anemic at best, with lifeless, robotic villains who are so mindlessly grim and uninteresting that one can’t even really drum up any antipathy towards them. They’re video game shock troop drones, bereft of personality, and because of that, it’s equally hard to really root for the heroes of the story.
Of course, that’s not helped by the heroes themselves, who are spectacularly bland. Carefully and deliberately diverse (there’s two Latinos! And two African Americans!), what they gain in multiculturalism they lose in absolutely dreadful acting. Credit is backhandedly due to Hemsworth and Adrianne Palicki’s Toni for attempting to make the best out of the hideously derivative dialogue that they’re given — they’re the least lifeless of the bunch. Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games’ Peeta) is the next rung down, acting-wise, as the geeky cowardly lion of the group (guess who saves the day later!), and after that it’s a bucket of crap outfitted by Abercrombie & Fitch, then rolled down a hill. Worst of all is the pairing of Peck’s Matt and his adoring girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas), a brutally and unrelentingly bland couple that are so wooden as to make mannequins seem lively. Peck’s mopey face is really only capable of two expressions, and there’s a constipated discomfort to both of them. Yet he’s downright Shakespearean when compared to Lucas, who is wisely given few lines and asked to do little more than to vacuously imitate concern (scrunchy face!) and to happily hug people (less scrunchy face!). Oh, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan shows up later to be Jeffrey Dean Morgan and shoot some people.
Despite the awful characters, stilted and cliched dialogue (lines like “you’re gonna get us all killed!” and “I’m gonna stay and fight!” are spoken every other minute), and atrocious writing, the actions sequences actually aren’t half-bad. There’s a refreshing lack of CGI and a certain breathless pacing to it that keeps the film from staggering during its breakneck 90 minutes. The action is the only thing that makes the film tolerable, yet there’s not enough excitement to actually warrant recommending it. The caveat is that someone desperately needs to buy director Dan Bradley a steadicam, because the film has moments of such dizzying, hectic chaos that you literally cannot tell what is happening. I don’t say that as praise, either. Those moments are cheap and amateurish and actually serve to remove the viewer from the only damn parts of the film that are even remotely enjoyable.
Surprisingly absent from the film is the rah-rah, obnoxiously pugnacious patriotism that was the inevitable overtone of its predecessor. The film instead focuses on simple folk defending their homes, rather than saving the country and America kicking ass. The downside is that it spends a great deal of time demonizing its aggressors, which is made weirder by the knowledge that in its original incarnation, they were an entirely different group of countrymen. This is further confused by the fact that the evil leader of the invaders is played by Will Yun Lee, a Korean-American actor who was therefore originally asked to play a Chinese bad guy, and then changed in post-production to play a North Korean one. That shit is just flat-out confusing. I can’t even tell if I’m supposed to be offended by it.
I am offended by the overall terribleness of the film, from its weak characters to its oversimplified plotting to its politically precarious and lazy storyline. The heroes are dull and uninspiring, a carefully selected group with the white guys prominent as the leaders, and minorities serving as emotional and literal cannon fodder (SPOILER ALERT: every minority good guy save one dies). The villains are equally devoid of interest, soulless automatons who periodically yell and all have contracted a nasty case of Stormtrooper Syndrome (while the group of high schoolers are all crack shots). The action works well enough, when it isn’t drowning in its own apoplectic dizziness. Yet what sticks with you the most is that Red Dawn is totally unnecessary. It’s stupid, cliched, rife with racially questionable writing, poorly acted and clumsily directed, a film that should never have left the shelf it was dumped on two years ago.