Red Dawn (2012) begins with a sobering recap of the economic and political turmoil that has bedeviled the world in the last few years, then the movie begins to tell its story and it gets real depressing. If I were to put as much thought into my review as the filmmakers put into the movie, I would simply write, “Red Dawn, more like Red Yawn,” and call it a day because that’s really about as much as this thoughtless, uninteresting and barely alive movie deserves, but this is the season of giving and so, though it pains me, I will do my duty and give it an honest once over, though, for what I think of it, it might prefer the quick and snarky one-liner.
In the Pacific Northwest we are treated to a high school football game that epitomizes middle–class values. The quarterback is Matt (Josh Peck) who’s in love with the head cheerleader (Isabel Lucas); he has an older brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth), on leave from the military, and his father is the local sheriff (Brett Cullen). It’s all the things about America that the North Koreans can’t stand, and the next day the Reds invade because they don’t like football. Within hours the area is occupied, and the North Korean flag festoons post offices and government buildings. Jed and Matt are separated from their father who is taken prisoner, and Jed uses his training and his knowledge of insurgency to form a band of rebels who will trouble the occupiers. This group includes classmates of Matt’s—Daryl (Connor Cruise), Robert (Josh Hutcherson) and Toni (Adrianne Palicki)—and they name their group the Wolverines after their high school mascot. They spend the rest of the movie wreaking havoc against their oppressors, who get stronger every day as the citizenry becomes collaborators. The Wolverines are the last bastion of the American way of life against the football-less hordes.
I can grant that the premise could make a good movie* (in fact, Red Dawn is a remake of a 1984 movie that substituted the Russians for the North Koreans, though the Russkies play a role here as well), but the execution in this one is sloppy and uninspired. It sets up a decent situation but does nothing with it. Although we find out how a country with a fraction of America’s population could invade it (the North Koreans used an electronic bomb that scrambled all of the American military’s hardware and moved in from there), it doesn’t explain how it could hold it or why they want to. It seems as if a lot of resources are being used just to occupy the Spokane Subway sandwich shop. A pointless plot is one thing; uninteresting characters working against it are strikes two and three. Hemsworth adds his admirable energy, but he’s a stock character of the unbending authority, and Peck is underwhelming as the loose cannon younger brother. Furthermore, there’s a not-so-veiled agenda about “taking America back” that smacks of the worst kind of Tea Party rhetoric and gives the entire thing a grimy feeling.
What’s left is an uninteresting and consequence-free series of sequences in which people we don’t care about do things we aren’t invested in. After it’s clear that the set-up isn’t going to be paid off, it’s a struggle to even pay attention to what’s going on. In one of the many moments where the movie left me to amuse myself, I thought about how curious it was that the Wolverines took the name for their military unit from their high school nickname when my high school got its nickname, the Rough Riders, from a military unit. These were the things that kept my interest. Other games I played to stay engaged included picking out funny bits of dialogue, which out of context provided a self-review of the movie. My favorites were, “I’m not very good at this, man,” “We’re living ‘Call of Duty,’ and it sucks,” and “That’s a shit sandwich without the bread.” Had I left it to the movie to entertain me, who knows where I’d be.
Besides, watching the movie became odious as it started with the battle-weary Jed extolling to the Wolverines that he won’t try to “sell” the violence of warfare to them because he’s seen too much and knows how ugly it is, and then watch the movie proceed to sell how exciting and honorable violence can be. Speaking of selling, I read that the movie was originally to be released with the Chinese as the invaders, but after principal photography was finished, someone realized that by making China the bad guys, they were shooting themselves in the foot to the tune of a billion Chinese people, many of whom love American movies, so they went with an enemy we can all get behind, I guess, using computers to change the Chinese flags in the movie to North Korean ones. It appears that Washington State is under the threat of communism in Red Dawn, but capitalism is alive and well in its marketing department.
Perhaps it’s an issue of timing: Red Dawn can’t possibly be any more insulting to the intelligence than, say, Battleship (2012), but that movie had only the other summer drivel to contend with. However, to see Red Dawn buttressed between the thoughtful, provocative, intelligent movies of awards season simply underlines its deficiencies. It’s depressing that someone, given all the good movies available now and the great movies of the past to choose from, would choose to see this movie instead, even more so to realize that I was one of them.
*Only because, theoretically, any premise could make a good movie.