A remake of John Milius’s 1984 Reagan-era Soviet-invasion fantasy, Red Dawn sees a new generation of kids fighting against an even more improbable communist invasion as the North Korean military takes charge of heartland America after dealing a paralyzing strike to the U.S. electrical grid.
The movie, delayed from its 2009 completion because of MGM’s financial problems, was originally about a Chinese invasion. But rather than offend a lucrative film market, some post-production editing and CGI tweaking was done to change the military logos. In the process, the filmmakers have altered the premise from the unlikely to the ridiculous.
The closing minutes of a high-school football game in Spokane, Wash., introduce us to the main players. Impetuous home-team quarterback Matt (Josh Peck) is watched by his strong-and-silent policeman dad (Brett Cullen) and manly big brother, Jed (Chris Hemsworth), a recently returned Iraq war vet. Later that night there’s a mysterious power outage at a local bar. In the morning, the brothers wake to a sky filled with North Korean airplanes and paratroopers.
Jed and Matt and a few local teenagers escape to a nearby cabin in the woods, where Jed quickly trains them into a guerrilla fighting force. Well-armed after a series of daring raids on the North Korean occupiers, they become an insurgency group named the Wolverines, after their football team.
Twenty minutes in, Red Dawn evolves into a series of shaky-cam raids and manically edited firefights (“Dude, we’re living Call of Duty and it sucks,” complains one of the kids). The gruff Hemsworth (who had not yet starred in Thor and The Avengers when this was shot) is a competent tough guy, snapping out orders and glowering when needed. Most of the other characters come across as disposable horror-movie teen extras, particularly the female cuties-in-distress (Adrianne Palicki and Isabel Lucas). The North Korean invaders are anonymous, except for the sadistic Captain Lo (Will Yun Lee).
While catering to the uncomplicated pleasures of righteous butt-kicking, the updated script also allows room for some ironies about how circumstances can change perspective. In Iraq, Jed explains, “We were the good guys.… Here, we’re the bad guys.”
Some uncomfortable doubts remain about who exactly “they” and “we” are supposed to be. Late in the film, a trio of former Marines bolster the Wolverines, including an Asian-American vet (Kenneth Choi). His blatantly token presence can’t erase suspicion that Red Dawn panders to the worst kind of racist and jingoist impulses, though the movie is so preposterously insincere, it feels like those adjectives should be in air quotes.