I can appreciate a remake when executed with a certain amount of enthusiasm: a filmmaker who really loved the original can put his own spin on it while paying proper homage at the same time. In no way does that apply to the creators of the new Red Dawn. They really seem to miss the point; more pertinently, they don’t have one of their own to replace it with. We’re left with a chop-shop version of the first film, with the serial numbers sanded off and a clunkier, less interesting engine driving it forward. If it fails to offend us, it’s only because it fails to invest us with any rooting interest. We don’t care about anything or anyone onscreen, turning it into a lot of senseless noise.
Granted, the John Milius original wasn’t exactly a classic. But it had a crazy energy and a fervent belief in its ludicrous concept that demanded attention. And once you got past the big leap that its premise demanded – an armed invasion of the United States by a belligerent foreign power – its convictions carried it quite a long way. So too did its refreshing fatalism and its commitment to avoiding the traditional clichés of Reagan-era action films. It was crazy, paranoid, jingoistic, and ridiculous in all the wrong ways… and yet it still held your attention through sheer force of will.
The remake offers none of these things. It has no passion because it has no real point of view. It just goes through the motions: empty actions performed by empty characters with no concept of the political quicksand into which it blithely stumbles. The first film was jingoistic, yes, but it believed in its jingoism. This one can’t even muster the energy for that. Even its watered-down patriotism smacks of bored fifth graders reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: a routine dirge incapable of stirring anyone’s blood (either positively or negatively).
It’s telling, too, that they swapped bad guys late in the game. Originally, the invaders of our fair shores were supposed to be Chinese. Then someone pointed out that China was a big market for stupid action movies, and the villains became North Korean (thanks to a little CGI and a lot of bad redubbing). At least they get the geography right. Thanks to a convenient plot device, the Evil Ferners cripple our defense systems and start landing troops in Washington State. Spokane is quickly overrun and occupied, though a small band of young people flees to the nearby woods. Led by Iraq veteran Robert (Chris Hemsworth), they quickly form into a guerilla strike force, practicing hit-and-run tactics both in the forest and on the streets of Spokane itself.
As with the first film, you have to buy a lot to get there. But even if you can swallow the whole paranoid “no one could seem them coming over 3,000 miles of ocean” thing, Red Dawn doesn’t reward you for your efforts. The whole idea is to see how ordinary Americans would fight a traditional enemy on their home soil: to apply established training and combat methods for guerilla fighters elsewhere in the world to small-town just-plain-folks. But Red Dawn quickly skips over all those elements. We get training methods in a quick montage, followed by a lot of pointless fighting sequences that let our heroes mow down Koreans at random. A principal adversary emerges (Will Yun Lee), brimming with foreign Otherness but otherwise devoid of personality.
Indeed the whole film fails to register any pulse. Hemsworth does a little to alleviate the tedium, but you keep expecting him to pull out Mjolnir and end the whole thing in one fell swoop, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan swoops in for some eleventh-hour heroics that come far too late to save us. The remainder of the film is a slow, pointless march to nowhere in particular. We see nothing of interest or relevance in its hastily-executed action scenes, and if it didn’t have a recognizable brand name to cling to, it would disappear into the fog of direct-to-Netflix also-rans. And speaking of the brand name…. the new Red Dawn enjoys trotting out tropes from the old film, such as the teenagers adopting their high school mascot (the Wolverines) as a rallying cry for all their oppressed countrymen. But they’re as devoid of passion as the rest of the film, a perfunctory gesture to the fans instead of a claim to any real identity.
Perhaps most tellingly, Red Dawn has already been lapped by a number of other productions who deliver the same basic material better. The Dark Knight Rises already delivered a guerilla war in an urban setting, while Falling Skies goes into far greater detail about the trials and tribulations of surviving in an occupied homeland. We weren’t expecting this effort to reach such heights, of course, but Red Dawn might have saved itself with just a little more flair. As it stands, it merely answers the question as to why it’s been rotting on the shelf for three years, and with Hemsworth moving on to better things, I don’t expect we’ll hear much more about it. It’s worse than bad, it’s forgettable: something we never said about its predecessor, and which now stands as the only epitaph it deserves.