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Red Dawn is a remake that vacillates between gritty war feature and bubble-gum drama, doing neither particularly well.
In the genre of war movies, there are generally two kinds that Hollywood produces: ones that display the heavy trauma associated with war; and the mindless, unrealistic action flick that insults our intelligence with its implausibility. Both have their detractors - who can watch Saving Private Ryan more than once per year without wanting to slash their wrists for displaying war in such a graphic manner? In the latter category, the action is so unbelievable - whether it be people surviving a massive explosion or somehow beating someone twice their size - that you never really feel for the characters when they experience difficulty, thus losing any buy-in and therefore interest. Wedged somewhere in-between these is Red Dawn, the remake of the 1984 invasion film, a feel-good effort of mindless action filled with good-looking teenagers trying to depose a modern military machine in North Korea. And while the overall result is disappointing, audiences might appreciate and even enjoy the various twists that come with operating heavy military machinery.
When war comes the city of Spokane after a power outage the previous evening, residents are neither prepared for the misery of war, nor know the full scope of the invasion they're witnessing. Scenes of paratroopers fill the air while shock waves from bombs wake up brothers Jed (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) and Matt Eckert (Josh Peck, Drake and Josh) who gather Matt's high school buddies to make a break for it. After running into Korean Captain Lo (Will Yun Lee,Total Recall 2012), the brothers become central targets for the invading army. As the city is overwhelmed, the boys escape only to see their police officer father (Brett Cullen, Person of Interest) executed by Captain Lo. Luckily, Jed has recently returned from an Army stint in Iraq, and the survivors decide to strike back at the North Koreans. Early on, things look simple: distractions lead to massive explosions and destruction of Korean property, until Lo recruits the Russian Spetznah to root out the Wolverines, a moniker used by the Eckerts for their terrorist network. While Jed is the cool Army guy, Matt is brash and arrogant, leading to some poor decisions that end up costing the lives of several Wolverines, culminating in Matt's insatiable desire to find his girlfriend (Isabel Lucas, Immortals). In their greatest hour of need, a team of Marines led by Colonel Andy Tanner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Losers) secretly lands and begins to seek out the Wolverines. Together with Jed and Matt, Tanner attempts to find a communication device that will help the Americans listen in on North Korea's movements, thus bringing a swift end to the war.
At just 93 minutes, there isn't enough time for our characters to develop much beyond the good looks they bring with them, marginalizing the efforts of writers Carl Ellsworth (Last House on the Left) and Jeremy Passmore (The Cleaner). From the Act 2 disappearance of Spokane's mayor (Michael Beach, Stargate: Atlantis), to the Russians who are literally there to look menacing, Ellsworth and Passmore have an interesting script that seems the victim of a poor edit. Given the two-year release delay that plagued Red Dawn, combined with Chinese investors who didn't appreciate the first cut - in which Chinese, not North Koreans, were the invaders - one might understand why the film's tone feels uneven. Thus it's only natural why Newcomer Director Dan Bradley's interesting premise for Red Dawn never achieves its full potential. But not all blame should be placed on the investors, for while Hemsworth and Peck do most of the heavy lifting with fair results, everyone else struggles to look good under the muck while failing to deliver cheap one liners about living the real-life Call of Duty. Even Jed's love interest Toni (Adrianne Palicki, GI Joe: Retaliation) is only there to look good; even though she's witness to a surprising plot twist, we're still not convinced she could handle heavier roles. Morgan - one of the most underutilized actors around - shows up too late to deliver the bad news to our freedom fighters about the scope of the invasion. By then, audiences have had too much time picking the thin plot apart for Morgan to bring them all the way back. People will most likely show up to see Hemsworth blaze a glorious trail to victory, which is surprisingly not how things turn out. Judging by his body of work so far, Hemsworth is the real deal, mixing his rugged charm and steely-eyed glances with roles that don't always end the way people might expect. Considering that Red Dawn was finished long before Thor and The Avengers vaulted him to the top of Hollywood's A List, audiences might wonder how much fame Hemsworth would have attained had Red Dawn and Cabin in the Woods been released on time.
Fans of the original will remember that most of the cast dies by the end of the film, leaving audiences with a simple memorial about the tenacity of Americans fighting back to win the war. And while plenty of the modern cast perishes along the way, Red Dawn suffers from too many issues to save itself. The inferior notion that simple Americans with a few rifles can somehow outwit a trained military machine was a mistake that almost cost America the Revolutionary War. It was only after France's and Spain's involvement that turned the tide. With Red Dawn there is no such Calvary, invalidating any realism that Bradley and team might have tried to create. As things end with a particularly good patriotic scene, we can't help but wish this middle-of-the-road effort had taken a page from Saving Private Ryan to deliver a more balanced product. It's not an awful movie but it could have been a lot better. The movie is rated PG-13, but don't wait too long to see it, as this one has the potential to lose the war early.
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