Red Dawn (1984)

7 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1984’s “Red Dawn” has an engaging idea for a war film. Actually, it has two. The one I keep coming back to, however, is the premise of a band of heroic high school teenagers becoming a hit-and-run guerilla force in World War III. And this happens when (and here’s the other neat idea) the Russians and Cubans land and invade. Of course, I’m reviewing this in a time when the Soviet Union is no more, but even for its time, it’s pretty chilling (for an idealistic war film, anyway) that the Russians would take us over after so much talk. And having a group of teenagers be the ultimate line of defense against the commies is a fascinating mainstream idea, since teenagers are the crowd to impress (in that sense, things haven’t changed much since 1984).

The movie opens terrifically with a sequence in which some of the kids are enduring a Genghis Khan lecture in their high school history class. As the teacher talks about the Mongols, he notices paratroopers are landing just outside the school. The teacher goes out to see what’s going on, and he is shot and the students flee for their lives as the invaders use artillery on the school.

By the way, don’t ask why they use an RPG to blow up an empty school bus, or even why they would shoot up the school in the first place. The sequence is still pretty shocking, as the history lesson suddenly becomes reality for these kids. The invaders are Russian with a few Cubans thrown in. They kill off people who try to stop them coming, and imprisons (and later executes) people who make trouble when they’ve made their post in downtown Calumet, Colorado. Six boys escape, grab supplies from a gas station, and decide to hide in the mountains until everything blows over. The oldest one in the group is Jed (Patrick Swayze), who has better experience in hunting in the outdoors. The other boys—Jed’s younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and his friends Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Daryl (Darren Dalton), Danny (Brad Savage), and Aardvark (Doug Toby)—are members of the high school football team, the Wolverines. They view Jed as their leader.

A month passes, and some of the boys go back to town to see what’s become of it. But the Russkies are still around, having settled there. Many people are either killed or imprisoned, including Jed and Matt’s father (Harry Dean Stanton), who demands to be avenged. Robert’s dad, however, has been shot for “aiding guerillas.” (It was his store that the Wolverines looted for supplies.)

The Wolverines, with two new female additions (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), decide they cannot sit by any longer. They begin to stand up against the enemy Communists by demolishing tanks and planes, delivering explosive packages, and ultimately striking back against firing squads that killed their families. “Wolverines” becomes their title of rebellion as these teenagers become America’s new line of defense.

That’s a wonderful idea for a movie, and I imagine people racing to see this movie around its release, or at least have someone tell them about it in case they don’t want to waste their time and money. Since I am writing a review for it, I can say this about “Red Dawn.” It’s successful in setting up its story. We know now, in our time, that the Russians never bothered to invade us or nuke us after all. But back then, with the Cold War still underway, director John Milius and writer Kevin Reynolds felt like playing with this premise of World War III and teenagers fighting back. The opening sequence is terrific and is enough to draw you in. The feeling from the idea of this town being occupied by hostile invaders is visceral as you notice tanks parked all over main street, for example. Also, there’s a nice, unimposing music score that plays with the dramatic scenes, making them surprisingly stronger. And you admit it feels good to see these kids strike back against the commies by force.

But “Red Dawn” unfortunately doesn’t maintain its great opening. Its many war scenes become repetitive with only occasionally stopping for some sort of valuable source, except for further character development. This is what I really could have used from “Red Dawn”—at least one scene that captures the essence of what these teenagers are really going through. And have them really talk about the situation once in a while. And while they’re doing that, they can develop the minor characters so we can care about when they’re killed in battle (not giving much away). The most distinguishable character is Jed, and that’s because he’s the leader and is given more to deal with than the others. The other interesting character is Robert, who lets war overtake him as a killing machine. There’s a nice development with this character, as he shoots a deer for the first time and drinks its blood (as a rite of passage). And then when he becomes a “real hunter” and starts to kill the enemy, he lets his hatred get the best of him.

There’s one strong scene later in the film, and that is when one of the Wolverines has betrayed the others and must be executed for doing so. Jed can’t bring himself to do it, since he was one of them. When he breaks down and doesn’t go through with it, Robert steps in and shoots him instead. It’s a strong moment and a great scene, and it’s part of what I was hoping for, since it reminds these characters that war is indeed hell. But that’s not enough to fill the void.

As for the other Wolverines, Matt is only there to support Jed as his brother; Erica (Thompson) has some quality character traits, but they’re quickly disposed of; Danny has one note (whiny); Daryl, Toni (Grey), and Aardvark fade into the background, and so it’s hard to feel anything for their untimely ends (by the way, any character not given enough substance is destined to die, which doesn’t make things dramatically involving). These are good actors; I wish they had more to do than fight. I realize that the idea of “Red Dawn” is a most intriguing one, but it should throw in some other details for good measure, in my opinion.

Speaking of good measure, I suppose I should mention that the Wolverines use anti-tank missiles, grenades, machine guns, and everything else you can name handy. Where they got all of that is never revealed (unless they stole them from the enemy after the many attacks). But I’m not going to be one of those critics who say that “Red Dawn” is going to urge young people to buy handguns; however, there is something that Roger Ebert said that makes an interesting point. He mentions that “Red Dawn” never portrays this tale as how real teenagers would act in this situation, that if real teenagers wanted to cause trouble for the Russians, they would steal their gasoline or something. That’s a good point, but if these teenagers were less resourceful than they made them to be, then we’d have a different movie. There is a good movie to be made here given the right amount of dramatic tension. Here, we have mostly mechanics and very little substance. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t tell you how the war ended. We just sort of assume it did, with no transition whatsoever.

And I’ll get to what you’re all thinking about—what I think of the way the enemy invades America in this movie. This is mainly the reason people are describing “Red Dawn” as one of the most ludicrous, preposterous movies ever made. You know something? I am willing to buy all of this (even if it seems improbable that the enemy would get here with full artillery the way they did), mainly because it’s played straight. However, while it shouldn’t be important, and focus more on the Wolverines and the disturbing sights they endure beforehand, there are many scenes that feature a few leaders discussing how to handle this new revolution. What’s worse is that they try to give one of them—Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal), a Cuban freedom fighter—reasons to sympathize with him. The target audience didn’t want to see that, and the adult audiences are most likely tired of the constant struggle between left-wing and right-wing. And by the way, should I also mention that the Russians are complete incompetent in battle? Of course they are, because the teens must win.

“Red Dawn” opens in an intriguingly effective way, but it’s not as stirring as it should have been. From the moment the Wolverines’ revolution begins, the film is heavy on violence and light on drama. Teenagers may have eaten it up, but I personally could have used more from this admittedly-great premise.

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