Looking back at Red Dawn, I find myself grappling with two distinct, seemingly opposing truths:
1) Showing a genuine guerilla war in the heartland of America could be genuinely cool; and
2) You still have to get the bad guys there in the first place.
#2 usually trumps #1 for me, as does a lot of the film’s other Hollywood non-sequiturs that detract from the ostensibly gritty realism it wants to convey. I love those moments where you sense what a resistance movement in an occupied America might actually look like, and in so doing start to understand what other such movements throughout history might have felt for those who lived through them. When they click, the nuts and bolts of the scenario become darkly magical, and I wanted so badly to see it break free. Unfortunately, the very plausibility that makes those moments work also demands answers to questions that the movie isn't up for.
To wit, if you're going to invade Colorado, you need a lot of stuff: tanks, guns, jack-booted thugs and the like. The only way to get there without first taking over a whole lot of other real estate is to use planes. Lots and lots of planes. So many planes in fact, that someone is bound to SEE THEM and raise the alarm long before they get to the Rockies. You have to swallow that "but" if you want to have any hope of enjoying Red Dawn – in which no one sees the planes coming and local high school students become heroic guerilla fighters in an occupied United States – and try as I might, I just can't.
There are plenty of other problems too, of course, though their ultimate entertainment value depends largely on your capacity for camp. Mustachioed Latin strongmen rub shoulders with sneering Russian Commies as they run roughshod over Main Street, U.S.A. The rampant jingoism arises in response to the nastiest stereotypes you can imagine… now rendered quaint and amusing by the passage of time. We snicker at the one-note villains, even as we cheer the clean-cut (and mostly white) young people periodically ambushing them in the mountains. And like the central whopper that kicks this whole thing off in the first place, they run straight up against the more interesting stuff that the movie wants desperately to share.
And when the film finds that stuff, oh but it's glorious. Director John Milius probably belongs in a rubber room somewhere, but when he gets behind the camera, you always get a wild ride. Beneath the sheer Boys' Own enthusiasm of it all (this film really makes occupation look like fun), he peppers in some nasty jolts reminding us of war’s terrible cost. Monolithic Soviet bad guys suddenly look a lot more human when you have look them in the eye before shooting them, and a sense of pervading doom accompanies these freedom fighters: the feeling that death is coming for all of them much sooner than they think. When Red Dawn hits that groove, it finds something unique. Milius had that touch – though it could be flawed sometimes – and no one else could deliver it quite like him.
Sadly, it gets too caught up in the zeitgeist of the moment to push past all the ridiculous parts, too concerned about waving the flag that covering up its glaring logic holes. The young cast sports a number of stars in the making – including Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Lea Thompson – but Milius reduces their personalities to one-note ciphers, preventing us from appreciating the slow loss of their humanity. Red Dawn knows what it wants to say; it just has a hard time saying it, and too often it goes for the easy score instead of really delving into the possibilities of the scenario. The effort is admirable and produces moments of violent beauty. Moments, however, do not a complete film make.