Released during Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign, the original Red Dawn was denounced as right-wing propaganda. But while director and co-writer John Milius' fantasy of Colorado high-school students who battle Soviet and Cuban invaders was anti-communist, it was principally pro-gun and pro-youth. In spirit, it was closer to Frank Capra than to Leni Riefenstahl.
Neither of those names comes to mind when watching the clunky new Red Dawn — which is not all that new. Filmed in 2009, the remake was shelved for several years. Then, apparently, someone noticed that it stars Chris Hemsworth, who later played Thor in two superhero flicks that made a few bucks. Alas, he doesn't impersonate the Norse god in this movie, which might benefit from a thunderbolt of divine intervention.
Narratively, the revamped Red Dawn is much like the first one. The heroes are still mostly teenagers, although they now live in Spokane. And they still call themselves "Wolverines," after the local high school team. But the villains have been updated, which may be the funniest thing about this inadvertently comic misfire.
When the movie was shot, the invaders were Chinese. But as the pixels aged in some digital cellar, the producers had second thoughts. China is a growing market for film production and distribution. So they did reshoots and CGI fixes, and turned the marauding hordes into North Koreans.
Yes, soldiers from North Korea, a country whose electrical grid is frail, whose food production is disastrous and whose missiles tend not to travel far from their launchpads. A country whose likelihood of conquering Spokane is about as high as, say, Yemen's.
Nonetheless, the movie shows a sky full of North Korean paratroopers, who land just after the football team loses a squeaker. Luckily, Jed (Hemsworth) is in town, on leave from the Marines. He assembles an adolescent guerrilla force that includes younger brother Matt (Josh Peck) — the quarterback whose team just folded, so he's got something to prove.
Also in the ranks are a tech guy (Josh Hutcherson), a woman with a crush on Jed (Adrianne Palicki) and the son of the city's turncoat mayor (Conner Cruise, son of Tom). Matt's blond-cheerleader girlfriend (Isabel Lucas) is already in commie custody, but the Wolverines will soon rescue her.
The kids' enemies are mostly nameless, their threat condensed into one figure, Capt. Cho (Korean-American actor Will Yun Lee). He's a Ming the Merciless type who's fond of summary executions, preferably witnessed by the victim's family.
Perhaps inspired by U.S. troops' battles in Iraqi cities, director Dan Bradley often abandons the hilltops for urban combat. But Spokane isn't exactly Baghdad, and it's hard to believe that the Wolverines could strike with impunity and then blend into the teeming crowds. No medium-sized American city teems.
Bradley has experience as a stunt coordinator, which might have heralded credible battle sequences; as a director, however, he conforms to the current vogue for fast pans, handheld camera and frenzied edits. That makes large chunks of the movie energetic but incoherent. The pace slows for the deaths of named characters, but the rest of the action could just as easily be break-dancing as combat.
The new Red Dawn's body count is as high as its predecessor's. But the fatalism in all of Milius' projects — even the silliest ones — has weight. That's not the case with the remake, whose portrayal of violence derives more from video games than from history. It wouldn't really matter if the movie were doctored once again to replace the Koreans with Klingons.