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Entries in Red Dawn [1984] (1)

Monday
Nov262012

Red Dawn (1984)

Jingoes Unchained

Red Dawn isn't so much pro-American as it is anti-human. Though John Milius's bloody fantasy tells the story of American teens waging war against invading Cuban/Russian military forces, it's hard to know which side to root for. One group is whiny, incompetent, and culturally illiterate; the other has a young Charlie Sheen as its second-in-command.

I'll give Milius and co-writer Kevin Reynolds this: they waste very little time in getting to the action. Following a series of fast-moving current-events title cards, the movie opens on a Colorado history class. The teacher stops mid-lesson to investigate a paratrooper battalion raining from the sky. Within seconds, he's gunned down and his students run for cover. In the ensuing chaos, former high-school football star Jed (Patrick Swayze) collects his brother Matt (Sheen) and a handful of other kids in his pickup truck; they speed out of town, avoiding road blocks and RPGs on the way to some nearby mountains.

Soon, Jed and his small group of refugee kids form a resistance movement called "The Wolverines"* to take back their town from the evil communists. They attack supply convoys, blow up stores in the town square that have been turned into propaganda headquarters, and free as many people from the hastily established re-education camps as possible. A put-upon Cuban colonel named Bella (Ron O'Neal) finds that he doesn't quite have the stomach for mass graves and mayhem, so he relies on the Russian military to supply him with Strelnikov (William Smith)--a cold-blooded hunter who substitutes great white sharks for Brat Packers during his take on Quint's "doll's eyes" speech from Jaws.

Red Dawn has two things going for it: a strong story and Powers Boothe. I'll address the latter first, in order to give your giggle-fit about the former a minute to die down.

Boothe plays Andy Tanner, a U.S. fighter pilot whom the Wolverines discover amidst the wreckage of his plane. He joins the group, sharing news from the rest of the country and providing tactical insight when needed. The actor tarnishes his macho charisma here, with a shell-shocked performance that he would indirectly reprise years later in By Dawn's Early Light. And though his young co-stars were destined for legitimacy, Red Dawn plays like a grade-school Shakespeare audition for many of them.  After an hour of watching Swayze, Sheen, and C. Thomas Howell cry endlessly in laughable attempts at conveying gravity, it was refreshing to see a more experienced actor show everyone how it's done.

Now, let's talk about that story. In order to appreciate Red Dawn, you have to put aside any notion of the United States as an indomitable force. Sure, it's unlikely that America would put up with aerial assaults and enemy tanks rolling over the Great Plains, but for the sake of argument, we must assume that something went horribly wrong in every aspect of modern defense, circa 1984.**

The problem with Red Dawn is in the execution, not the premise. The idea of relatively privileged teens fighting an enemy who grew up in decidedly harsher conditions is a fascinating one. In strokes, Milius and Reynolds touch on the cruel barbarism of warfare, planting a traitor in the Wolverines' midst and killing off ninety percent of the principal cast. But the filmmakers build a flimsy candy house on that solid foundation, spewing laughable nonsense in every direction at almost every opportunity.

For starters, the teens' scared, teary demeanors may be realistic, but the portrayals are grating and unintentionally hilarious. The melodramatic way in which Swayze and Sheen grip the re-education camp's metal fence while talking to their imprisoned dad calls to mind a painful rectal probe rather than a gut-wrenching moment of honesty. Conversely, when Jed toughens up and tells the Wolverines to turn their sadness into "something else", I couldn't help but think of the pedophile motivational speaker he played in Donnie Darko.

Then there are the myriad weird details that play like gags out of Airplane!. When the teens raid a roadside gas station for supplies at the beginning of the siege, we see boxes of ceiling fans on the shelves next to arrows and ammunition. I get the weaponry; it's a hunting community, after all--but ceiling fans? In that same scene, one of the boys makes a big point of stocking up on Kleenex. I doubt the filmmakers were going for a masturbation joke, but having endured the American Pie era, I'm sad to say that was the first thing that sprung to mind (it's an unfair point, but a funny one).

Speaking of cartoons, the invading army appears to have been trained by Boris and Natasha. One commander brags about his knowledge of the "elite paramilitary force" known as the Eagle Scouts, and the Cuban/Russian army's idea of securing a town appears to involve only letting non-gun-owners walk the streets. The Reds could have prevailed within the first two days of guerilla assaults by simply locking down the open society they'd commandeered.

Which brings me to the film's biggest Warner Brothers-cartoon moment. Col. Bella discusses the Wolverine problem with his Soviet liaison. They bookend the propaganda ministry in-frame perfectly--a building that one of the rebels has just entered and exited with great haste (again, not a problem when even cursory security forces are in place). They talk and talk and talk, until a bomb goes off right as one of the officers says something about the Wolverines not posing a real threat.

It's apparent that, in all their "Ra-ra! USA! USA!" fervor, the filmmakers forgot to think out plot points or watch dailies of the performances. Okay, it's apparent to me, nearly thirty years on, but I can't imagine a decade or a state of mind that accepts this movie as being good. From the Wolverines doing stupid things like charging a pair of tanks to standing directly in the way of a firing gunship, Red Dawn forsakes strategy and intrigue for the visceral thrill of seeing kids and commies get blowed up real good. That would be forgivable (maybe) if the scenes were well put together. As it stands, the angles and close-ups in several of the film's montages make it seem as though the Wolverines are perpetually firing on each other.

The only reason to watch Red Dawn today is as a fascination. In the same way that Reefer Madness is a kitschy slice of nostalgia, this film is more entertaining in the context of how Reagan-era foreign policy was sold to the American public than in terms of irony-free escapism. It's also fun to play "Spot the Rising Star" with the likes of Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson (and, in a weird way, O'Neal, who is practically unrecognizable from his Super Fly days). Other than that, it's a remarkable premise betrayed by unremarkable storytelling.

*The name derives from the high school football team.

**Of course, the idea seems a tad less ridiculous now, considering our sacred airspace was violated numerous times on 9/11, but I still see how someone would skip this movie based solely on the synopsis.