Movie Review: Red Dawn
In 1984, the movie world was rocked by John Milius’ RED DAWN. Politically set in the Cold War era, WWIII had begun with Soviets invading the United States - and by Soviets, I mean from Cuba, the USSR and Nicaragua. In a small Colorado town, a group of teenagers calling themselves the Wolverines banded together to take a stand and save their homeland. Developing a cult following and beloved not only for the strength of character and confidence it gave to teens in a world gone mad, RED DAWN served as an early vehicle that helped catapult the careers of Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson and C. Thomas Howell.
Fast forward some 28 years and RED DAWN returns. Written by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore, and directed by stunt coordinator/2nd unit director, Dan Bradley who marks this as his feature directorial debut, the basic elements of the original film remain intact but with a 21st Century twist. The Cold War is over, but we face new threats. For the first time in history, 9/11 marks an attack on American soil by a foreign enemy; nuclear capabilities have spread; and, the geopolitical climate has shifted with new enemies, strong enemies and America is still in the midst of its longest war in history. Calling on the youthful talents of Josh Peck, Isabel Lucas, Josh Hutcherson, Connor Cruise, Adrianne Palicki and Chris Hemsworth, together with veterans Brett Cullen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, RED DAWN is ready to take on a new generation. Rooted in the strength of patented sensibilities in the styling and execution of the action and man-on-man stunt work, get ready to lock, load and howl as RED DAWN delivers “Action Awesomeness” in your own backyard.
Tom Eckert is a police chief in a sleepy, small Washington town; the kind of town where everyone turns out for the local high school football game on a Friday night, where neighbors get together for cookouts and everybody knows everybody. After the death of his wife several years ago, Tom focused his attention on his youngest son Matt while his eldest, Jed, joined the Marines and went off to war in the Middle East. Jed’s first trip home to the family since his mother’s death, shows a strained relationship with Matt who felt abandoned by his brother and left alone to bear his own grief and that of his father.
After a fun Friday night of football and friendship, the Eckerts and the rest of the town are awakened by what feels like the earth breaking under their feet. An earthquake? Volcanic eruption? A plane crashes into the house next door erupting into flames. Running into the street, the Eckerts are met with hundreds of parachutes dropping from the sky and armed men in military garb grabbing the residents. Jed knows immediately what is happening. An invasion. On US soil. With rapid-fire knee jerk reaction, Chief Eckert takes off for town and his headquarters while Jed grabs Matt, racing through blockades seeking safety at a hidden family cabin in the mountains. Picking up Matt’s friends Robert and Daryl along the way, the boys speed to safety. Following them are Matt’s classmates Danny and Julie, Pete and Jed’s old flame, Toni.
The family cabin and surrounding area are safe. No invaders. Yet. Survival becomes the first order of business. Placing himself in charge, Jed quickly has his own mild mutiny to contend with as the teens resent authority and one, Pete, is only concerned about himself, leading him to sneak off in the night with all of the supplies the team has managed to muster. But running off isn’t all that Pete has done as the next day, North Korean soldiers appear at the cabin with Tom Eckert as a hostage and Pete panting like a dog waiting for a treat at the heels of Captain Lo. Hiding, but able to see Lo and his men, Jed and Matt watch Lo execute their father. Determined to stand strong so their father’s death may not be in vain, Jed and Matt rally the “troops” who vow to fight for each other, for their home and for America as the militia group - The Wolverines.
Filmed long before “Thor” and “The Hunger Games” were even on the page, let alone being cast, as it did in 1984, RED DAWN again taps relative unknowns as its stars - unknowns like Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki and Josh Peck; not to mention n up and coming Connor Cruise (aka son of Tom). Only this time, thanks to industry delays, these unknowns are now recognizable stars in multi-million dollar action film franchises. As Jed, Hemsworth sizzles not only with strength and sex appeal but star power. It’s easy to see why and how he has become the leading action hero that he is. Fueling Jed with an internal emotional drive as much as physicality, Hemsworth commands the screen at every turn, making a surprise plot twist involving the character that much more jaw-dropping.
Joining Hemsworth as part of the Eckert family is Josh Peck. Excelling with his heart and an ability to carry and maintain conflict within a character and use it to his best advantage, Peck does just that here as Matt. Your heart breaks with his when his father is shot in the head in his eyeline but then watch him turn into a warrior with a different set of skills but still pulling on emotional chords. While Peck is more than adept at the stunt work required to execute this role, where he excels is with this emotional range, and never moreso than in intimate scenes with Hemsworth and veteran Brett Cullen, who plays his dad. Giving credit for the depth of his performance and character growth to the “generosity” of Cullen and the true brotherly camaraderie between he and Hemsworth, Peck describes it as “[giving] over to that moment. . .With scenes like that, I think any of us, the idea of someone that close to us being put in a position of immense violence immediately brings up so many emotions for us. . . I was lucky to be surrounded by great actors who helped me to be better.”
A real surprise is the pre-Peeta Josh Hutcherson. Giving an opening wimpy simpy persona, Hutcherson emotionally muscles up and really becomes a force to be reckoned with as Robert. Layering in growing emotional levels, Hutcherson walks a thin line, keeping the audience on its toes and wondering if Robert is leaking information to Captain Lo and the Koreans. And with that in mind, nice little twist by screenwriters Ellsworth and Passmore and director Bradley tossing Connor Cruise's Daryl into the mix. And speaking of Connor Cruise, he displays some definite acting potential.
Not to let the ladies be out done, look no further for action and acting chops than Adrianne Palicki. Relishing the opportunity to play Toni, this girl can kick ass, handle weapons and act all at the same time and does it all with great speed and agility. Notable to Palicki is that “One of the prerequisites of being in this film - one of the questions I was asked - was, ‘Are you willing to do your own stunts?’” But part and parcel with “stunts” in RED DAWN comes action and military tactics which led Palicki and the rest of the young cast to military boot camp with former Marine and military trainer, Jon Barton. As much as boot camp provided the physical training and technique for the film, however, it also served as the emotional base on which the character dynamic was built. “[A] lot of us didn’t know each other before this and we all kind of show up at 6:00 o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere in the Valley at this boot camp. . . We all had the exact same experience. We all had to start from scratch. We pretty much became the Wolverines. This tactical training is how we really came to know each other and become friends. It really worked because that’s exactly what happened with the Wolverines.”
With weapons handling being part and parcel of boot camp training and an integral part of the film’s action, both Peck and Palicki have attained proficiencies in different areas. As Palicki describes it, “I got to shoot a 50 cal off a humvee that was moving at 60 mph and it was maybe one of the greatest moments of my life” while Peck was “shooting that AK-47" and displaying admirable knife work. Sadly, he “didn’t get to kill anyone with a knife but that would have been pretty cool, too.” But even with all the training and acquired skills, all of the cast came away with battle scars. Palicki still “[has] scars still on my hands. Poor Julian [Alcarez], his entire back was bleeding through his shirt. It really did put the fear of God in you. They weren’t actual bullets, thank God, but it gave you some sense of that fear what it would be like if someone was actually shooting at you.”
Adding some veteran muscle to the mix are Brett Cullen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. As Tom Eckert and Colonel Andy Tanner, respectively, the two serve as perfect bookends to the story and the journey of Matt and Jed, with Brett Cullen at the beginning and Jeffrey Dean Morgan at the end, but then leave the battle for family and home in the capable hands of the young. This not only taps parental influence and experience, but reminds us of the youth of our principals and the fact that the world is in their hands. Nice subtly played messaging. And, of course, Morgan is great and adds some balancing tonal sarcasm.
But now I must be politically incorrect. Where did the casting agent find all the Asians to play the North Koreans? And let's say “YES” to Will Yun Lee who soars as North Korean General Lo. Interestingly, when originally written and shot, China was the invading force and Lo’s dialogue (in addition to uniforms and insignia) was in Chinese. After shooting when the invading force was changed to North Korea, Lee was called back to reloop all of his dialogue in Korean while post-production teams digitally changed visual Chinese references to North Korean.
Some great casting twists that fuel the 21st Century plot involve casting Ken Choi as Marine Smith and Steve Lenz as the two-faced collaborator Pete. Both add another story dimension with the idea that the face of the enemy is no longer black or white. Your enemy can be the person next door and you better darn well look before you shoot.
Drawing on the original RED DAWN, it was apparent from the start of the reboot that elements of the original film had to be included, but which ones. According to producer Beau Flynn, “There were those scenes which propelled the story and then there were iconic moments as well and we wanted to be true to that. . .There was a lot of discussion about that, about the moments from [the original] that were relevant to us. The ones we also really looked for are the ones that would hold up today in 2012 now.” Expounding on Flynn’s sentiments is co-producer Tripp Vinson noting, “It’s nice to look for those opportunities when you can pay homage to the original but put your own stamp on it.”
For director Dan Bradley, as important as the action sequences were, it was the emotion and the story of the kids that took priority. “My own personal mission on the movie was I wanted the action, and when a character got injured or was killed, I wanted it to mean something, I wanted people to feel something in the audience and that was what was my central focus.” Still, the action is exemplary and the stunts flawlessly executed. To be savored is the opening invasion which ranks in my books as one of the stand-out action scenes in film, not only setting the tone of the film, but pulling the audience into an immersive experience and putting one on the edge of their seat. Although a similar scene takes place in the original but concentrated just on the high school grounds, by injecting action steroids into it with Bradley’s muscular version, breathing during this sequence is no longer an option. The result is eye-poppingly stunning.
Kudos to screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore who deliver a script that is a spot on 21st century update with a more than plausible scenario in today's geopolitical climate. Originally written with China as the invading forces, the real life film industry and political dramas unfolding behind the scenes necessitated a change to North Korea but the change wasn’t damaging to the film. According to Flynn, “China attacking the United States had a lot of limitations to it. Luckily for us, we accounted for a lot of those limitation in the construction of the story which is why we have Russians who provide air and naval support. . . We did a lot of research on the limitations of the Chinese military, so we accounted for those. . . It just so happened that the North Korean military is lesser than the Chinese so those story points worked well to justify the way North Koreans would be involved in this as well.”
Implementing his long held style of 2nd unit direction, for RED DAWN Bradley still wrote out each sequence and then visualized every shot and shot-listed. Used to working on films such as “Ghost Protocol”, “Spiderman” or “James Bond” and having the luxury of multiple takes with action, RED DAWN afforded no such luxury. “I’m used to doing these huge movies where I have 20 days to do a car chase. In this situation, it’s ‘Okay. I’ve got 3.’ But I see it the same way. The images in my head are the same. Just have to figure out how to aggressively get it done.” From a production standpoint, because of Bradley’s 2nd unit experience, there was no 2nd unit on RED DAWN. Everything fell under the guise of 1st unit. But again, as key as the action is to this film, more important was the character development. “I really wanted to feel that these kids were making choices that felt reasonable motivated”, thus, the importance of the early death of Tom Eckert which served as an impetus for the rest of the story.
In this post 9/11 world in which we live, the global reality is that anything can happen. What was once pure fantasy is now a conceptual reality. A blend of fun popcorn entertainment, resonating characters, and balls to the wall basic action with bullets, car chases and blowing things up, it's the dawn of a new era for RED DAWN. Lock, load and howl. Go Wolverines!
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Brett Cullen, Will Yun Lee, Connor Cruise
Directed by Dan Bradley
Written by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore based on the 1984 screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius and story by Kevin Reynolds.