Directed by: Dan Bradley
Written by: Carl Ellsworth, Jeremy Passmore
Featuring: Chris Hemsworth, Isabel Lucas, Josh Hutcherson
Warning: This review contains massive spoilers. Seriously. It will tell you that key characters in the film die (although the author doesn’t really remember their names).
That’s not entirely true. In all honesty, he didn’t catch all the names because the names were apparently not as important as throwing multiple characters at the audience at once. Clearly, the best way for any audience to determine a character’s name is to have other characters yell their name multiple times while they’re in danger. Then you know that character is important. Or about to die.
I barely remember seeing Red Dawn as a kid in the '80s. With the release of the remake on the horizon, I watched the first one again prior to seeing the new version. Although the original’s Soviets, Cubans, and Nicaraguans sneak-attacking a small town in Colorado is far-fetched, there was something endearing in the effort to frighten children with a brutally violent film that includes an entire school senselessly shot up in broad daylight by Communist invaders. However, the film tends to linger on certain scenes that would be drastically cut down for today’s ADD crowd. Moreover, the writers clearly attempted to develop a dynamic among the characters that was somewhat engaging, even if Grandpa remains a little too calm, Charlie Sheen is a little too dumbstruck, and C. Thomas Howell overacts to the point that some scenes feel like a taped theater class. (Notice how they wisely cut to a two-fer frame of Swayze and Sheen when Harry Dean Stanton is leading up to his AVENGE ME! line. Howell is bawling his eyes out and appears to be suffering from a seizure.) It’s not quite art, and it’s not quite the high concept films of the '80s that dominated cinema until Jason Eisner pointed out that exploitation is exploitation is exploitation with Hobo With a Shotgun.
Instead, I picture the movie pitch for the original Red Dawn to have been The Deer Hunter meets Rambo meets Taps meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring half the cast from The Outsiders (the Venn Diagram of Target Audience they had to have printed out on poster board for the sales pitch must’ve been amazing). I was interested in whether we’d get to see Howell die and if I’d be able to recognize the scenes when Sheen was on coke. Despite many years of letdowns in the form of horror remakes, I hoped that the same level of engagement would be met with Dan Bradley’s directorial debut.
The 2012 version opens with a montage of news casts from varying stations spliced and sutured together with clips of Biden and Obama talking. It crafts a political landscape featuring North Korea and Russia in an increasingly disgruntled relationship with the United States. Something about South Korea getting pissed off is glossed over as well. Despite clearly recognizing the high levels of ADHD in the bloodstream of its target audience, I lost interest in the opening because the popcorn at the Graumann was really, really good and I wasn’t expecting popcorn at the Graumann to be that good. Mind you, I didn’t even have a chance to get butter and the popcorn was still that good.
The newscasts end and we’re thrown into idyllic Middle America with a shot of a football field in the background and a parking lot full of SUVs and pick-up trucks in the foreground. Despite several characters of interest (including a cameo by former NFL football offensive lineman Mark “Stink” Scherleth as Matty’s coach (note: nickname was given by teammates, not the author’s choice), I believe we’re supposed to follow Matty as he singlehandedly fucks up the football game for his team.
Matty is understandably depressed about the team’s loss and he dejectedly walks away from the field. Honestly, he has a lot to think about. Coach Stink told him to run out of bounds. He didn’t. Coach Stink wanted him to kick a field goal. He disagreed and said he could win it. Coach Stink sat his ass down. The field-goal kicker then blows the fucking field goal. Who is to blame in this chaotic world of high school? Coach Stink? Matty? Or, the field-goal kicker who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a nuke? (And can he really fill the shoes of Charlie Sheen? There’s clearly zero Tiger in his DNA. How the fuck can he be expected to succeed?)
I can immediately relate to Matty. A girl I had a crush on in high school called me “pizza face” and devastated me even though I told my friends prior to approaching her that I shouldn’t approach her. It was not easy finding a young woman who wanted to date a short, skinny, pimply-faced kid whose main afterschool activities included running a business club and trying to convince his musician friends to stop saying “fuck the trends” and to organize themselves into record-selling bands. My experience was not at all a far cry from the disappointment of a high school quarterback who is so stubborn as to not relish the opportunity to be a starter on the varsity team and ignore the instructions of his middle-aged coach with years of experience under his belt. For a moment I want to reach out to Matty and explain that I eventually overcame the insult years later when I saw my high school crush at a subway station in Manhattan. My face had been clear (with the exception of an occasional pimple) since I turned old enough to legally drink. Her ass, however, had expanded into a shape reminiscent of the hot air balloon from Around the World in 80 Days.
To make matters worse, Matty has Thor as a brother, who everyone is more interested in following. Let’s face it. It’s fucking Thor. He’s gorgeous. He’s a god. And when the dude wields his hammer… He also has an Academy Award-winning Sheriff as a father who will upstage both his sons until he’s brutally shot in the head for telling the North Koreans to go fuck themselves. Though that’s not exactly what he says because they’re living in a PG-13 world where “fuck” can only be uttered once, and Dad’s death really isn’t dramatic enough. Plus, this death comes way too early in the plot so why waste the one allotted “fuck” there when you can throw the “fuck” in a more powerful scene? This isn’t to say that Dad’s death isn’t a powerful scene. The music swells as the boys are forced to restrain themselves. Someone in the audience even sniffled. Mostly because the theater was a little chilly and is in Los Angeles where people have been complaining that it’s cold because the temperature has dipped below 70 degrees.
None of that really matters though, because Matty has a hot girlfriend who wants to fuck. Score. Though not really. Scoring is apparently a problem where Matty lives.
What we immediately come to learn is that there’s a reason I had to go to Wikipedia after watching the film to find out that the setting is supposed to be Spokane, Washington. Part of this problem is that Red Dawn was filmed in Michigan. Also part of this problem is that the settings constantly shift from open fields to mountains to forest without explanation. And part of this problem is that prior to the Koreans invading via CGI parachutes, the world these characters inhabit is an alien one. Pre-Korean landfall, Spokane is overflowing with women who are really beautiful and really horny. It also features beautiful, mythic gods like Thor who are not only surrealistically handsome, but who also break down into tears at the mere mention of their mother, who has been dead for at least six years.
These alien life forms from Spokane also have masculinity steaming out of their nostrils. Not only can Matty not score, but he has to deal with people calling him a “bitch” and a “pussy,” sexist derogatory terms that Matty should be really upset about. Those are terms that should be reserved strictly for the hot chicks who are told to “show us their guns” later on at the climax of the film (because when else would be a good time for them to show their guns?). The women immediately follow orders and blow their payloads from their shoulder-mounted bazookas at a really unimportant and insignificant military vehicle down below them. Once it explodes, the women flee for their lives as shit just starts exploding around them from a storm of Korean bullets raining down – even though they’re up in a vantage point that was staked out because of its height advantage. If one thing is clear about Red Dawn, it’s that in Spokane, it’s the women who can only blow their load once before fleeing the scene of engagement.
Both the character of Daryl Jenkins and his father, the Mayor, are black. Even though the character of Daryl was named “Daryl Bates” in the original Red Dawn, the screenwriters clearly thought “Bates” wasn’t a “black” enough name, but “Jenkins,” c'mon, “Jenkins” sounds black. Like Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins. The Jenkins from 227. And all of the multiple Jenkins from Scooby-Doo… Perhaps the cultural history of the name is a riff on Obama. Y’know, half-white, half-black guy.
Dad’s death scene reveals that for once in my life I’m right about the subtext of a film. Mayor Jenkins is actually a puppet of the North Korean army while white Academy Award-winning Dad stands up to the North Koreans. The scene proves that holding dear to the long-established American values of being a tough, rogue son of a bitch is the only way we can survive the mass invasion by a military force that is funded with the equivalent of a mere fraction of our country’s defense budget.
The boys survive the invasion by becoming men in this Bildungsroman that rivals any comic book film in the exploitation of male anxiety. Matty toughens up, thanks to the guidance of his big brother, Thor. Daryl gets tagged again, but this time he mans up and decides to do what Custer would do. There’s also a kid who flies out of the back of Thor’s pick-up truck and goes right through a windshield, but no one in the film seems to care or remember when Thor asks if everyone’s okay. That’s really not a problem, though because no one in the theater seemed to care either. We, too, have been trained to muscle our way through strenuous and painful experiences.
The climax is marked by the arrival of Shit-Man (because when else would be a good time for shit to start flowing?). I’m pretty sure he had a real name in the film, but he’s a marine designated to deliver catchy one-liners like, “We’re in shit creek.” And “It’s a shit sandwich without the bread.” You see, the marines have shown up in search of the boys who have named themselves The Wolverines (after the football team that lost because of the stupid field goal kicker – I didn’t get a good look at the kicker, but I’m beginning to believe that it was probably a girl from the girls varsity soccer team who thought she was “equal” enough to kick field goals for the boys). It turns out that the boys have been causing enough of a problem for the North Koreans that news of the uprising has spread through the land in a grassroots manner just like the Koch-directed Tea Party Campaign. (Of course, the Eastern Seaboard has already been captured by the North Koreans because let’s face it, Humphrey Bogart was wrong; New York City would easily be taken over in a mass invasion and it would no doubt be in Spokane, Washington, where the biggest problems would arise for the New World Order.)
The combo of the boys with the marines turns out to be a formidable one. The marines tell the boys they need to capture the North Koreans’ little black box. My friend points out that it’s a MacGuffin which should’ve been presented earlier, but I think the timing is just right. Matty fucks up going after his captured girlfriend and Thor keeps getting sidetracked by the really hot girl who has a crush on him, so clearly the black box is a metaphor for North Korean poontang. Control the box and you control your destiny. Or, at the very least you cause serious communication problems between men.
But the boys do get control of the box with the help of the marines. Or vice versa. Matty, of course, is the one to grab the box while Thor serves as his wingman. Fittingly, Thor instead grabs for his Dad’s pistol and blows the Korean leader away in the head while simultaneously delivering the best line in the film, “You fucked with the wrong family.”
Obviously, the riff on A Few Good Men is yet another allusion in this wondrously crafted meta-narrative for teenage boys who can’t understand why other kids at school think they’re racist, misogynist pigs when they follow in their fathers’ cultural footsteps for taking pride in being white, privileged and isolated from the cultural centers of the nation of which they claim to be the bedrock. This is a world where real men, like assholes such as Nathan R. Jessup, are allowed to spread their wings and get things done. As George Romero once explained, when all hell breaks loose, the people most prepared for it are the rednecks. Matty’s manhood has been on the line since the opening scene, and Thor has been there to guide him into becoming the next John Wayne, even if after the rite of passage he still looks more beta-male like Shia LeBouf. Deep down, he’s more like Thor.
In fact, a tough son of a bitch is exactly what Thor is. Over the course of the film, we find out that Thor was in the army and can identify high-ranking Russian military officials with ease. He’s also inconceivably bad at expressing himself to Matty as their relationship is profoundly developed by at least three scenes in which they have heart-to-hearts where nothing is really discussed or any real breakthrough is ever made. With the black box recovered, Matty and Thor have one more heart-to-heart. Thor tells Matty he’s proud of the little guy. They share an uncomfortable laugh and the reporter sitting in front of me starts to shift around as though he’s ready to leave. One would assume the film is over. Conflicts are resolved. Matty is a man. Thor is the man. Dad and the Law are both avenged.
Thor has a weak spot. And it must be dealt with. He falls for the beautiful girl who has had a crush on him since high school and he’s always ignored because she’s a friend, and you don’t fuck friends. Unless you’re in a rom-com. And this isn’t a rom-com. When Thor and his new girl are about to finally get it on, we find out that Thor has a second weak spot. His head is incapable of deflecting bullets. (Note to Loki: Purchase a sniper rifle.)
The film needlessly continues on for the next five or ten minutes charting Matty’s rise to power as a revolutionary figure until the credits finally show up. The women in the theater do not seem entirely enthralled. Perhaps for good reason. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the new version of Red Dawn it’s that although Jay-Z may not be affected by them, women are a very big problem for men in Spokane. Moreover, in a North Korean invasion, women better watch the fuck out. Even though women are the majority of the nation’s and the world’s population (women account for 52% of the U.S. population and 51% of the world population – numbers that should probably be fact-checked as I’m sure they’ve shifted since last time I checked), they are at a premium once the North Koreans arrive. Despite the fact they score higher on the SATs and consistently earn higher GPAs than males, they make absolutely no decisions and contribute absolutely nothing to the solution of national invasion. Women also cannot shoot straight in Spokane. They’re also incredibly horny and can’t get laid. But they’re very beautiful and rail thin, so that might explain why they don’t fare well.
Perhaps remaking a Cold War film is difficult when there is no Cold War. But now it’s been done. And it has taught me that even if a guy looks like Josh Peck, he can still get Isabel Lucas if he only acts like Chris Hemsworth. It’s also taught me that if you hire one of the best stunt coordinators in Hollywood to direct a Hollywood film, expect to see some beautiful images (the snow-globe shot…seriously cool) and some amazing action sequences. And when you combine a screenwriter of remakes with a screenwriter of shorts, you get “a shit sandwich…without the bread.”