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Review: 'Red Dawn' remake is an illogical misfire

From left, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth fight bad guys from North Korea in this remake of the 1984 movie.
From left, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth fight bad guys from North Korea in this remake of the 1984 movie.
Published Nov. 20, 2012

Back in 1984, the teen commando fantasy Red Dawn caused quite a stir, more for its violent jingoism thanks to screenwriter John Milius than for the movie careers it helped launch.

Before Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey had the time of their lives, before Lea Thompson went Back to the Future and Charlie Sheen went over the edge, Red Dawn was the biggest hit on their resumes. Poor C. Thomas Howell still works regularly but never matched its success again.

Now we have a remake, as people stuck in the '80s are learning to expect and loathe at the same time. They're squarely in the disposable income bracket Hollywood cyclically plumbs, a generational cash-in we've witnessed since the Fonz profited from the 1950s in the '70s. Nothing about Red Dawn's remake will replace their memories. Get used to it, as generations have before.

The situation is practically the same, with only the bad guys switched from the Soviet Union to North Korea. A western U.S. suburb encounters invaders in the first wave of a world war nobody saw coming. A makeshift platoon of teenagers calling themselves the Wolverines (their high school mascot) wage guerrilla warfare. The odds and the movie aren't good.

Don't waste much time with comparisons between the two casts: Chris Hemsworth is an able substitute for Swayze but we expect that from Thor. I'll take Howell's eager insurgency over Josh Hutcherson's puppy dog Hunger Games reprise any day. Same goes for Sheen over Josh Peck's slack-jawed brat. Adrianne Palicki is an upgrade from Grey, and Thompson's role is downsized by Isabel Lucas.

Instead, focus on missteps by director Dan Bradley, whose approach is defined by not recreating the original's famous first invasion scene, when a high school class is interrupted by Soviet parachutists outside. Rather than simple tension Bradley goes all Michael Bay, staging an aerial assault so massive that somebody's radar should have picked it up. And exactly who in this quiet suburb has anti-aircraft artillery ready to shoot down enemy planes? It's just an illogical excuse for fireballs.

After a while all you notice are the head-slapping moments, like an odd bit of product placement when in the midst of street warfare a Subway store is open for brisk business, with the Wolverines grabbing cold cuts and cheese. Or an "electromagnetic pulse" device straight out of 1950s sci-fi. Or one character declaring he never dreamed such a violation of the United States could happen. Hello? Where was he on 9/11?

Yet the core issue with Red Dawn is out of Bradley's hands. The Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore, but in 1984 audiences still remembered ducking and covering under the Soviet nuclear threat. The fantasy of an invasion held a modicum of belief, at least enough to make a movie.

On the other hand, North Korea hasn't displayed power to reach out beyond Sea of Japan missile tests and a failed satellite launch. But North Korea is the closest thing today to a defined national bogeyman, so it's an easy transfer of villainy. Even the lucrative international market will be cheering. It's enough to make Kim Jong ill.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.