All words: Al Moore
In my fall preview treatment of Red Dawn (2012), I suggested it would be the kind of movie you’d have to see, but be morally and aesthetically obligated to buy a ticket to an under-performing, better movie (Cloud Atlas?). Unfortunately, I was wrong. Red Dawn falls somewhere long of “mandatory train wreck” and somewhere short of “consistent, watchable movie.”
Even though Red Dawn doesn’t provide the same courtesy with respect to its narrative, some backstory is important to lay out. The original Red Dawn (1984) was a piece of Red Scare ultra-nationalist propaganda in which a plucky group of white youngsters from Colorado form the nucleus of resistance to a Soviet invasion and occupation of the continental United States. In retrospect, the idea is preposterous, but bore some semblance of credibility in its release context. The new Red Dawn, henceforth RD2K12 for disambiguation, was produced in 2009 and featured Chinese invaders. Post-production release was delayed by two factors. First, the parent studio entered dire financial straits. Second, pre-release screenings generated uproar in a Chinese state press which, perhaps, assumed the U.S. Government neglected to exercise a nonexistent censorship power. Portions of the movie were re-shot, and its iconography re-digitized, to cast the North Koreans in the role of the villain, because the studio needed to earn money from Chinese audiences. Mull on that. It is this core of spineless market waffling that prevents the movie from having any force whatsoever, even falling short of the low watermark set by the original.
It also explains many bizarre elements of the production – why, for example, insert blatant product placement for three model-year old vehicles? Why is Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) so young and what was his agent thinking? Shouldn’t Josh Hutcherson be busy Hungering more Games? Why do all the putative North Koreans look and talk like Han Chinese*?
Among RD2K12’s many, many failures, it achieves a remarkable success: the movie could be screened without modification to North Korean audiences as effective propaganda. It implies a capability of subjugating the American homeland by force – a largely competent, professional, well-fed, and effective Armed Forces – and geopolitical primacy on par with China and Russia. Sure, the invaders suffer some setbacks, but by and large it’s a dramatic improvement over what could be expected in the reality-based community. Is it a bug or a feature of globalization there’s only a few socially feasible Nation-State Bad Guys left, and those left are the least credible?
The context for the re-release is fascinating. We have never, as a people, had less to fear from hostile State-sponsored invasion and, yet, are conducting many of our own (some might go so far as to link the two, but that is a story for a different day and a better movie). And yet, RD2K12 by its very premise has a rare and subversive opportunity to let us see from our enemy’s eyes – it has all the trappings of an intellectual Trojan horse, but the writers never get around to filling it with soldiers. Hemsworth tells his band of Wolverines they’re fighting for home and hearth, and they must use the tactics of the Mujahadeen (who the target demographic might know better as the Taliban) and thus might triumph over a technologically superior enemy. Later, a band of freelance Marines links up with the Wolverines, and they’re all wearing Keffiyehs – the same garment that got Rachel Ray excoriated. Was this deliberate iconography? Or did some hack costume designer call an even hackier intern to round up some of “those resistance-type scarves.” It’s hard to tell if these and other like moments were dog whistles to my own sensitivities or triple-ironic accidental commentary because we are relieved of any moral obligation to explore this rich territory when Hemsworth states – apropos of nothing – “in Iraq, we were the good guys; we were there to bring order!” At this point, even Bill O’Reilly doesn’t think we had any business there, so I’m not sure what demographic is being pandered to here. It could be a knee-jerk genuflection to our servicemen and women, but I’m not even sure returning veterans want to watch two hours of occupying uniformed military being blown up at checkpoints by IEDs.
Red Dawn (1984) was about as red as red meat media gets, but there was a human sensitivity to it. For starters, most of the heroic Wolverines earn their red badge of courage by – perish the thought – perishing. There was a slightly ham-fisted but still real exploration of cancerous violence in Robert’s B-plot: recall the sweet kid who reluctantly killed his first deer, and slowly devolved into insatiable bloodlust.
RD2K12 dispenses with any of this difficult, rewarding material. It recreates the deer hunting scene from the original, but then Robert just goes on to be… a decent guerilla fighter? Some of the Wolverines don’t make it (hint: the darker ones) but by and large things seem to work out okay. It is shameful, really, because RD2K12 comes so close to not being an abomination.
For what, at its core, is teen empowerment porn for the Call of Duty generation, there is evidence of care and feeding and artistry; most damnation should be reserved for the writers. In fact, the first reel of the movie – up to and including the shaking snowglobe – had me convinced this thing would actually be good. Hemsworth is wholly credible as a returning Marine with complex family issues; this future vision from the past presages a good career arc for him. Fight, battle, and chase scenes are, largely, very well put together and paced. The set design is fantastic – I was more interested in the vision of post-occupation America than any of the characters, frankly, and I really enjoyed the background propaganda. I was especially pleased that the actors and actresses, as barbied-out as they seemed in the beginning, actually look like they’ve been living in makeshift camps in between bouts of being shot at. The psychological scars get shrugged off, but at least the physical ones linger – which is more than you can say for most movies of the genre.
Whether you want it to be good or you want it to be horrifically bad, Red Dawn (2012) disappoints. Genuine pathos is replaced by video game tropes, and some of the elements that aged the 1984 version respectably are assuredly not there – not even a single “AVENGE ME!”
*Odd exception: the first order barked by an invader sounded awfully like the Deer Hunter’s favorite Viet Cong catchphrase “Di Di Mau!” I would be interested in confirmation from other ears.