By Tom Demerly.
Remakes usually bomb. They almost always bomb when they’re a remake of a film that was quirky or marginal to begin with. They may have a chance if there is a relevant cultural change that reframes the plot between the original and the remake. That is the case with the new Red Dawn. Things have changed that make this film work oddly well. Red Dawn is a remake of the 1984 movie of the same name with Patrick Swayze and Lea Thompson, both credible actors even before Swayze started dancing.
I have a unique relationship with the original Red Dawn since it was released when I was in U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Fort Benning had three movie theaters then. All three were playing Red Dawn, and only Red Dawn. Every showing was sold out. We were soldiers then, and young, new to the military and hot off the successful invasion of Grenada. The fictional prospect of being able to fight the Russians (and Mexicans, oddly enough in the first film) made us feel like we were “ministers of death, praying for war” (Full Metal Jacket). We saw it over and over, debating the tactics, the weapons, the plausibility.
On 9/11 we got our war.
The original Red Dawn was written with technical insights from the insurgent war in Afghanistan. Not the one we’re in now, the one before that. It seems we had found a hero of sorts in that war, a courageous and charismatic tall sheik who fought the Russians in the high mountains of Afghanistan. Patrick Swayze’s character in Red Dawn 1984 was inspired by him. His name was Osama bin Laden. Osama eventually fell from U.S. favor in about the biggest way possible and another movie about his inevitable appointment with a red-haired CIA lass and some Navy SEALs is due out next month. You already know how that ends.
Red Dawn 1984 didn’t resonate much beyond the military and right-wing NRA audience since there wasn’t much to hold it up then. The Berlin wall came down in 1989 and Reagan was taking care of those pesky Soviets who would fall altogether in 1991. The entire prospect of an attack on U.S. soil was too farfetched to prop up a story. Until 9/11.
The new Red Dawn leverages not only a post-9/11 realization that the world is indeed, very small, we’re only a short plane ride away from the Global War on Terror. It also leverages something Adolf Hitler did maniacally in Germany in 1936. A terrible economy. Red Dawn 2012 demonizes the North Koreans, the primary villains of the film and depicts them offering respite from a bad economy after they invade. Like Hitler did when he invaded France and Poland. In a sinister way the plot works if you understand the historical context.
What is even more haunting about the film is that the original villain in Red Dawn 2012 was not the North Koreans, it was the Chinese. The plot would have worked even better with the Chinese invading. Apparently, a little too good for Chinese political sensitivities. Most of the Chinese stuff had to be digitally replaced with North Korean stuff when the Chinese media got a hold of the plot for Red Dawn 2012 and had a fit. Since the film is intended for international release and a big part of the audience is in Asia the idea of having the Chinese invade the U.S. was a little too prickly for the Asian market and for the studio execs who sweated over threats of boycott.
Red Dawn 2012 itself is not a bad action movie. It gets going quickly and the pace remains spritely. Some of the opening special effects are unconvincing as is a lot of the plot. How did the Chinese, I mean, North Koreans, get all those transports and paratroopers into U.S. airspace without a big fight? What happened to our military? Those are pesky details that get in the way of wrapping your mind around the prospect of the Chinese… sorry, North Koreans getting in a bunch of airplanes and flying over here to parachute into Anytown, USA. That part is a big stretch. The depictions of urban combat, an insurgent war, the doctrine of guerilla warfare and even most of the technical details aren’t bad. In fact, they are a little haunting. There are a couple of scenes in Red Dawn where the kids who form the U.S. guerilla insurgency begin to question the wisdom of what they are doing. To understand the bad guys in the Global War on Terror simply insert a scene here where they are reminded of their religious conviction and now you understand much of the Middle East insurgency. Spooky. There is even a weird little vignette when a free American radio broadcast transmits “…the chair is against the wall”. It’s the same code Free French partisans broadcast in a scene from the D-Day invasion film, The Longest Day.
A connection I share with the new Red Dawn is that, while the movie is set on the U.S. West coast it was mostly shot in Detroit, Michigan. I lived in Detroit then. My friends and I rode our bikes to downtown Detroit where the movie was being shot and took cell phone photos of the giant Chinese Communist Party banners hanging from downtown buildings, sandbag bunkers and TOW missile launchers. It was weird to see that, especially when GM had just filed bankruptcy and most of Detroit was abandoned. In a way the film’s plot became… oddly relevant.
The fact that the Chinese wielded so much influence over Red Dawn and what it showed may suggest we need the Wolverines, the American good guys in the movie, in Hollywood a little sooner than we thought.
Red Dawn 2012 has enough going for it that it’s worth a look if you’ve already seen the new Bond blockbuster Skyfall and have some interest in the historical influences and controversy about the Chinese in Red Dawn. Those things and a good, “B” grade action shoot-’em-up may make the movie worthwhile despite some weaknesses.