Film Review: Red Dawn

This glossy "reboot" of the 1984 Brat Pack extravaganza pits a plucky band of small-town teenagers against a military invasion by Russian-backed North Koreans. How that plays comes as no huge surprise.

Washington State, 15 minutes into the future: The citizens of Spokane (OK, not a small town…but a small city) wake up to the sight of parachutes drifting down from the clear blue sky (a gorgeous image lifted directly from the original 1984 Red Dawn) and depositing armed paratroopers on the kind of idyllic Main Street, USA that exists more in Hollywood's collective imagination than the rest of America's reality.

Brothers Jed and Matt Eckert (Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck) have been estranged since their mother's death a few years earlier. The animosity is mainly on Matt's part: He's mad that older brother Jed up and joined the Marines and got shipped to Afghanistan, while he was forced to stay at home and become a high-school football hero with a cheerleader girlfriend (Isabel Lucas)…which really doesn't seem so awful, especially since their police-officer dad (Brett Cullen) is a devoted father and all-around great guy. But that's teenagers for you, and Matt is predictably less-than-welcoming when Jed comes home on leave.
But once the bullets start flying, he has to admit that big brother isn't such a bad guy to have around: The Marines teach you a whole lot of stuff that comes in handy when you're up against a bunch of Russian-backed North Korean soldiers looking to teach fat, lazy Americans how it feels to get their asses kicked by a bunch of foreigners. Encouraged by their dad, who figures his boys are better off playing wilderness survivalists than staying in town, they grab some supplies and head for the family's cabin in the hills, picking up a motley crew of cute teenage neighbors along the way. They include Robert and Danny (Josh Hutcherson and Edwin Hodge), game but clueless kids who learned everything they know about roughing it from PS2; pretty Toni (Adrianne Palecki); Daryl Jenkins (Connor Cruise), the mayor's son; natural-born quisling Pete (Steve Lenz) and Latino out-of-towners Julie and Greg (Alyssa Diaz and Julian Alcaraz).

Jed reflexively takes charge of whipping the kids into shape, first teaching them how to survive and then how to fight back: A couple of surreptitious trips into town—during one of which Matt breaks ranks to rescue Erica—make it clear that the U.S. Government is doing a piss-poor job of restoring order. But once the Wolverines—named for their beloved football team—are targeted by the implacable Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee) and his Soviet handlers, the boys'/girls' own adventuring turns into a take-no-prisoners dogfight for America's future. The Wolverines may be a bunch of kids, but when they're thrown into the crucible of war, they stand and deliver.

Stuntman-turned-director Dan Bradley's remake isn't a terrible movie, any more than the John Milius original is a great one. But the differences between them speak sometimes surprising volumes. The new Red Dawn is polished to a high Hollywood gloss and stripped of nuance and moral ambiguity, while flamboyant man's-man Milius' version dares to accord the invaders a measure of humanity: His battle-weary Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O'Neal) actually expresses real qualms about grinding the Wolverines into dust, not because he has a problem with killing for a cause, but because in the past he was always an insurgent and playing boot-on-throat oppressor doesn't come naturally to him.

And despite the fact that the original Red Dawn's cast is a who's-who of Brat Packers/’80s icons like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, C. Thomas Howell and Lea Thompson, it actually succeeds far better than Bradley's do-over when it comes to making the baby-faced resistance fighters seem like real teens: You don't see Bradley's boys weeping disconsolately as they see their parents killed, their futures shattered and their hometown turned into a propaganda-postered gulag.