Last week I revisited Red Dawn after many, many years and found it surprisingly … watchable. I admit that some scenes are pretty awful and cringe-inducing, and nostalgia may be obscuring some of its warts, but in general Red Dawn has held up as an entertaining action film with a great premise that, sadly, fails to live up to its heady potential.
I’ve often seen Red Dawn labeled around the internet as a) jingoistic and b) junk. While a) is mostly true, I will say this: Red Dawn is in every way a product of its time. In the mid-80s its premise seemed plausible. With films like The Terminator, Wargames, and The Day After on television and in our consciousness, World War III was a doomsday scenario to consider, not some fantasy to laugh at. The media likes to call the 1980s a decade of innocent excess and consumerism, but beneath the MTV veneer lurked the fear of instant annihilation. In some respects these were scary times, and Red Dawn represented our fears writ large. Given the enemy we were facing, albeit in a “cold war” standoff situation, national pride was nothing to scoff at. Cynicism was not as rampant as it is now.
As for b), no, I don’t consider Red Dawn junk, just very, very far-fetched. But once you commit to divorcing it from realism, I think it’s pretty entertaining. Put another way: If I want to watch a realistic war film which depicts the terrible reality of bullets meeting flesh, I’ll pop in Saving Private Ryan or an episode of Band of Brothers. If I want bloodless action masquerading as real war, Red Dawn fits the bill.
There are of course several things wrong with the film that I simply cannot gloss over. For example:
• Why are the Central Americans and Russians bothering with a shithole town in the middle of Colorado with no apparent military value?
• How is a limited nuclear exchange in any way possible? What, did the Soviet Union and the United States realize that mutually assured destruction wouldn’t make for a good film? If I was the U.S. and being overrun, I’d give the Soviets six hours to reverse course, or the nukes would be flying … at their country. There’s some discussion early in the film about “selective nuke strikes” wiping out silos in Omaha, Washington, the Dakotas, and Kansas City, but how they hit the U.S. with no advance warning is never satisfactorily explained.
• Why do the enemy forces that the Wolverines ambush a) lack any accuracy; b) not use grenades, artillery, heavy machine guns, etc. to just wipe these kids out as soon as they start firing from their “concealed positions” by the side of the road?
• Why is C. Thomas Howell’s death scene so bad? The suicidal last stand, his gun blazing, accompanied by cheesy, swelling music, his final cry of “Wolverines” as 23 mm helicopter cannon take him down—this is so bad as to defy description.
But now that these not insubstantial complaints are out of the way, on to the good.
• John Milius’ writing. Milius is a good screenwriter and has a particular talent for crafting memorable dialogue. If you like the sparse but memorable lines of Conan the Barbarian, Dirty Harry, and Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws, you’ll also love his work in Red Dawn.
• The pacing. Red Dawn doesn’t waste any time with exposition or character development. It opens with some stark subtitles about political crises and food shortages in Europe and the Soviet Union, and bare minutes into the movie we’re hit with...
• The initial attack. Who can forget the shock of seeing Soviet Union paratroopers landing in the school yard? Like the silhouette of an annihilated atomic blast victim at ground zero, the image of the teacher walking outside to confront the soldiers before getting mercilessly mowed down is permanently burned into my brain. As is the next scene of the Russkies raking the classroom window with machine gun fire. I always felt bad for that girl lying in the window frame with a bullet in her head. You know the one.
• Great “brother love.” I couldn’t help but be moved by the scene with Patrick Swayze cradling his dead brother (Charlie Sheen) on the park bench in the snow at the end of the film. Red Dawn actually contains an undercurrent of anti-war sentiment (the Central American officer putting down his AK-47 in disgust, Patrick Swayze sobbing at the old pictures of he and his brother Matt’s lost childhood, etc.), although this admittedly feels tacked-on and rather lost amidst the non-stop, kick-ass carnage.
• The downed air force colonel. Powers Boothe has a great turn as Col. Andy Tanner, a downed F-15 fighter pilot who briefly joins the Wolverines. He plays the wise old warrior and Milius gives him most of the best lines in the movie, including:
• The Russians need to take us in one piece, and that's why they're here. That's why they won't use nukes anymore; and we won't either, not on our own soil. The whole damn thing's pretty conventional now. Who knows? Maybe next week will be swords.
• You think you're tough for eating beans every day? There's half a million scarecrows in Denver who'd give anything for one mouthful of what you got. They've been under siege for about three months. They live on rats and sawdust bread and sometimes... on each other. At night, the pyres for the dead light up the sky. It's medieval.
I also love this early exchange with he and the Wolverines around a campfire:
Red Dawn is currently being remade and is on schedule for a 2010 release, according to the Internet Movie Database. I’m not sure how I feel about this: While it’s possible it could be improvement on the original—I always felt that Red Dawn was a great idea for a movie, just under-budgeted and riddled with flaws—I also think, as noted above, that it works as a product of its time. Times have changed, and now terrorism, not conventional war, lurks as our biggest threat.
Swayze: Well, who *is* on our side?
Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen.
Darryl Bates (played by Darren Dalton) Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen.
Col. Andy Tanner: There were.
That said, it would be interesting to see what CGI and a bigger budget could do for this film. I always wanted to see the big engagements in the South, the tactical nuke strikes, and the invasion of Alaska on the screen. Perhaps the remake will deliver.