Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 7, 2013)
Back in the mid-1980s, the original Red Dawn capitalized on Cold War fears of the Soviets. For the 2012 remake, we get a shift in geography, as the focus turns east.
A prologue shows that North Korea has recently displayed increased aggression before we head to Spokane, Washington, to meet the locals. We focus on the Eckert family, where high school senior Matt (Josh Peck) plays quarterback for the Warwick High Wolverines – and loses a big game due to his cockiness. Matt’s big brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth) comes home on leave from the Marines, but Matt doesn’t seem to be happy to see him due to personal issues we’ll later explore.
More pressing matters come to the fore when the power goes out around town. We soon discover the cause: the North Korean military launches an invasion and takes over the town. In the midst of the chaos and confusion, Matt and Jed ignore their personal issues to gather others and fight back. The North Koreans quickly gain dominance over the town, so the Eckert boys and pals execute their own rebellion.
Back in 1984, the notion that the Soviets could pop out of nowhere and effectively invade the US seemed ridiculous, and the shift to the North Koreans seems no less dopey. At least the original movie made sense as a reflection of the mid-1980s combination of anti-Soviet paranoia and pro-US jingoism; all at once, it mixed national fears and pride into one little package.
I’m not sure what audience the 2012 Dawn serves – Tea Partiers afraid that Obama won’t be able to stop aggressors? – so it lacks the same cultural resonance found in the original. The film’s mediocre box office returns might indicate that modern audiences don’t feel the same interest in the subject matter.
Or maybe moviegoers just didn’t want to see a pretty forgettable action flick. I do think that as absurd as it seems, the film comes with an interesting premise. The notion of US “citizen soldiers” on guard against foreign aggressors gives the flick an intriguing theme, and it occasionally provides decent action, but for the most part, it flails.
Like the original, the 2012 Dawn plays as a right-wing wet dream. It doesn’t attempt any form of irony after all this time; don’t expect any winking or nodding at the audience, as the movie plays it entirely straight.
Which I suspect was probably the right way to go given the inherent goofiness of the scenario. While I find the idea of the foreign invasion intriguing – and the filmmakers work overtime to convince us it could really happen – the concept remains tough to swallow and unbelievable at its core. Of course, the notion that terrorists would fly planes into landmarks sounded nuts pre-9/11, but at least that situation could be enacted by a handful of people, whereas the story of Dawn requires much larger-scale plotting and execution – so large scale that it would appear to be beyond the realm of possibility.
Even if I ignore the flaws of the basic narrative, Dawn still doesn’t function especially well. Essentially it suffers from its thinness. We get vaguely-sketched characters who act stupidly much of the time, and the movie throws out perplexing notions from start to finish.
For instance, it doesn’t seem clear why the North Koreans are so obsessed with finding the kids. Yeah, I get that they sort of “made it personal” with lead officer Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee), but it still doesn’t make much sense that they’d expend resources to find a few runaways who shouldn’t pose an obvious threat. Of course, once the “Wolverines” start their insurrection, the hunt becomes logical, but until then, it’s a strange waste of time.
Other basic leaps of logic occur. In one scene, we see an “official food distribution center” – right before the guys hop into a fully-functioning Subway. In the middle of this oppressive police state, a fast food chain continues to run unimpeded – and a mix of locals hang out there like on any other day? Really?
It doesn’t help when you actively want to slap one of the lead characters. Matt behaves in such a selfish, reckless manner for so much of the film that it becomes tough to connect with him. I realize that it’s part of his arc, but the choices damage our view of him too heavily; the movie makes him out to be so self-absorbed that he can’t rebound. Peck’s smirking performance makes it worse; even when he behaves bravely, he still looks like a snot that you want to whack upside the head.
Actually, of the entire cast, the only one who makes a dent is Lee. He gives Captain Cho a steely cool that turns him into the film’s most interesting role by far. I liked him so much more than the Wolverines that I started to want him to win!
As a brain-dead action flick, Red Dawn offers occasional thrills; if nothing else, it delivers a handful of reasonably well-staged action scenes. Unfortunately, it lacks anything more than that, so it becomes thin gruel without a consistently compelling story or engaging characters to carry it.
Bizarre coincidence footnote: as I noted, Red Dawn was left on the shelves for three years before it finally made it to cinemas. The same was true for The Cabin in the Woods - which also starred Chris Hemsworth. Granted, his presence – and his high profile as Thor in the mega-successful Avengers - probably was part of the reason the respective studios finally put out the flicks, but it’s still a funky connection between Cabin and Dawn.