Friday, November 16, 2012

Red Dawn

Like John Milius' 1984 original, from which it never strays far, Dan Bradley’s remake feeds the warrior fantasies of adolescent boys in the waning North American empire with a testosterone-heavy tale of a war much like the ones in Iraq and Vietnam—only with the roles reversed, so we’re the blameless civilians protecting our homes from armed invaders.

The setting this time around is Washington state rather than Colorado, but the guerilla uprising is still led by a pack of kids, most of them football players or cheerleaders from the local high school. The country behind the attack isn't Russia but North Korea, which sends in paratroopers like so many dandelion spores to blanket the Spokane sky. (Hard to imagine North Korea having that much military muscle, I know, but the invader was China until the studio decided to change it—after the movie was shot—to avoid alienating Chinese moviegoers).

Bradley made his bones as a second-unit director on some high-class action thrillers, Bourne and Bond movies and the like, so you'd think he'd ace the action in Red Dawn, and it does have its moments, like when teen guerillas leap from a window to a roof far below. But too often, the film tries to compensate for weak visuals by leaning on steroidal sounds, as if the amped-up squeal of tires and bass-heavy beats could inject suspense into a sequence leached of coherence by shaky camerawork and too few establishing shots.

Red Dawn is first and foremost a story about boys: fathers and sons to some extent, but mostly brothers. Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) came back from Iraq just in time to shepherd his little brother, Matt (Josh Peck), and a few of their friends to safety in the family cabin after the invasion. In one of too many montages, he puts them through a sort of boot camp, turning them into lean, mean, fighting machines with ludicrous ease.

The one exception is Matt, who chafes under his brother's leadership, angry at Jed for abandoning him after their mother died. Hemsworth handles his end of that labored subplot gracefully, but Peck buckles under its weight. For practically the entire movie, he wears a scowl that's clearly intended to signal manly determination, though it more accurately resembles the pains of gastritis.

When the Koreans invade, explosions knock over some of the toys in Matt's bedroom. That's the closest we get to subtlety in a movie whose points are mostly scored with macho mantras, like the benediction Matt gets from his father (Brett Cullen) after his Wolverines lose a football game just before all hell breaks loose. "I'm proud of you, son," says Dad. "You did your best, and that's all that really counts."

It's hard to take the bad guys too seriously when our heroes can so easily saunter or drive right through town, sometimes even whipping out their weapons to lay waste to a few soldiers without seeming to be in much danger of being captured or killed. With no character development to speak of and no real sense of what the kids have had to give up or how scared they must feel, life off the battleground seems even more abstract and unreal, and the craven collaborators and brave resisters the kids come across are so hastily drawn that they barely register.

There’s some fun to be had in watching bunch of good-looking kids run, jump, and shoot, but that wears pretty thin when it’s this hard to buy the premise and care about what’s supposedly at stake. As one of them puts it: "Dude, we're living Call of Duty. And it sucks.”

Written for Slant

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