MGM // 1984 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // August 6th, 2007
Like Dirty Dancing, except with more communism and explosions.
A Twilight Zone "what if?" doomsday scenario of Cold War paranoia tearing through middle America, Red Dawn is a grim, patriotic, and often unintentionally hilarious cult movie, featuring early performances from some of the biggest names of the 1980s. I mean, you've got Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing), Charlie Sheen (Platoon), Jennifer Grey (also Dirty Dancing), Lea Thompson (Back to the Future), and C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders) in early roles, toting machine guns and fighting the Russian army -- in Colorado! What more could you want?
Well, that's a good question. Red Dawn is a film that many remember fondly, singing its praise aloud to others, but I suspect secretly avoid watching in private, because, really, the movie kind of sucks.
Yeah, I said it. Bring it on, you Wolverines!
Life in small-town Calumet, Colorado, is peaceful and quiet, exactly how the residents like it. Everyone goes to see the local high school football games, the boys drive pickup trucks and the girls are cheerleaders. Life is good. But the world grows uneasy outside the small town. The year is 1984, and the Cold War is heating up. The Soviets and the Cubans have put a plan into motion that will change the world forever.
One moment, everything is idyllic in Calumet, and the next minute, the high school is amazed to see paratroopers floating gently from the sky. Unbeknownst to them, World War III has just begun. The troops open fire upon the school, capturing and killing citizens throughout the town. In a panic, a small group of high school students manages to escape into the mountains surrounding the town, hiding out while the town is overtaken by the Soviet and South American forces.
After seeing their friends and family imprisoned and murdered, the eight teenagers make a promise to reclaim their town, no matter what the cost. Naming themselves the Wolverines, after their school mascot, they begin a series of counter-insurgency sabotages and raids upon the unsuspecting Soviet forces in the town below, slowly teaching themselves how to fight and sabotage. The Wolverines may be last line of defense against the opposing Red Army forces, but they will do whatever is necessary to defend their town, their country, and their friends!
Controversial during its time, Red Dawn has the auspicious honor of being the first ever PG-13 rated film in North America, as well as having the highest estimated percentage of on-screen violence ever created at the time. By the standards of today, the action is tame and dated, but in 1984, such carnage was unprecedented, especially for a film partially marketed towards teenagers. Imagine The Goonies if everyone had AK-47s and killed Russians instead of hunting treasure, and you get the idea.
Red Dawn often feels like a Republican wet dream manifested into a surrealistic Orwellian nightmare; a film born from a universe of gun culture, sacrifice for country, action film clichés, and endless explosions. But for all its gung-ho attitude, there is a dark and discontent undertone to the film. It is excessively patriotic, yet depressingly nihilistic; it glorifies violence and guerrilla warfare, yet often expresses dire criticism of war. It literally bathes in rugged individualist ideology. The creator of this erstwhile vision, director John Milius (Flight of the Intruder) has an obvious flair for writing and directing ultra-masculine, cynical films. A massive gun nut, he is a self-proclaimed "Zen anarchist," whatever that means. When you consider, however, that the character of Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski is rumored to be based on Milius's real-life personality -- they look and sound identical -- the description begins to make sense. I bet Walter would have adored Red Dawn.
This is the kind of film that divides viewers like a great wall running down the middle of the country, separating the peaceniks from the war hawks. Red Dawn is unapologetically grim, bleak and brutal, offering an interpretation of Cold War events leading America into being invaded by (gasp) Communists -- the worst crime imaginable. The only sensible, red-blooded American solution is to give guns to the teenagers and have them kill some Ruskies. Not surprisingly, the film resonated strongly as a cautionary tale of Cold War paranoia during the 1980s, awing a generation of youth into believing their country could be, however far-fetched, at risk from invasion. Invasion...by communists! A generation of young boys got pumped, started thumping their chests and making "ook ook" guttural gorilla noises, whipped into patriotic frenzies by the heroism of the Wolverines...Wolverineeees!! Graaaahhhhh!!!
Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. Red Dawn certainly arched some eyebrows upon its release, but this is no Army recruitment film. Far too nihilistic and ambiguous to inspire out-of-control military conscription in the masses, Red Dawn alienates its viewers each way they turn. Today, it has reached full-fledged cult status, immortalized by a few memorable sequences, like the paratroopers landing in the football field, but more or less, the cinematic world has written off as a shamefully exploitive and depressing action film from the early 1980s -- probably with good cause.
As a kid, I remember holding this film in high regard, but as an adult, viewing it ten years later, Red Dawn is kind of stupid. Okay, extremely stupid. First of all, the film makes no sense, not even a lick. It has tank-sized plot holes in which tanks drive through and randomly explode. We are to believe that a small group of teenagers from small-town Colorado essentially move into the woods and, with a few guns and supplies pilfered from a gas station, systematically dismantle an entire battalion of trained military men? Really? You're serious? I mean, it is a miracle that any of the Wolverines can walk, what with the seemingly inexhaustible amount of grenades stashed in their pockets. Those things are heavy.
Secondly, the acting and dialogue are tedious, even for an action film. A veritable who's who of young actors and actresses from the Eighties, Red Dawn was an early launching point for Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen (his credited feature film role), Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, and C. Thomas Howell, who all went on to success in later years to various degrees. Unfortunately, at this point in time, most of them sucked in the acting department. There is no chemistry between any of the characters whatsoever, and most of the Wolverines are entirely forgettable and get little character development of any kind in their metamorphosis from scared and crying teenagers to hard-faced guerrilla warfare leaders seemingly overnight. The Communist invaders are equally faceless, painfully incompetent in battle but never-ending in number. A solitary sympathetic character, the Cuban commander Bella (Ron O'Neal), is given some character development, but he is only considered "sympathetic" because he himself used to be on the side of the "resistance." Now, as the foreign invader, he finds himself conflicted, disliking the feel of the other side of the battlefield. If he had his way, he'd be in the woods, planning bombing runs against the evil oppressors, but of course, now, he's the oppressor. Oh, bitter irony!
Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen manage to emote a tiny bit, but only in the presence of their on-screen father. In truth, dialogue between characters acts only as filler, linking a never-ending string of moderately entertaining battle sequences, which all follow the same pattern regardless: Russian troops walk casually out in the open, are suddenly mowed down by Wolverine gunfire, and spend the next ten minutes waving their hands in the air and screaming at the top of their lungs, while grenade after grenade gets hurled at them until every object in range has exploded. Things pick up, plot-wise when a U.S. pilot recovered from a crash (Powers Boothe, Deadwood) joins the Scooby Gang, adding much-needed sarcasm and humor to the proceedings. A little mirth goes a long way, after all.
The film climaxes with a sequence of increasingly large-scale conflicts involving incredible logistical feats of warfare, like "horseback riding vs. helicopter" and "bare fists vs. tank" where tensions, for a time, genuinely run high, albeit in increasingly improbable ways. Admittedly, individuals of a certain age will no doubt receive a perverse, 1980s sort of thrill to see Baby from Dirty Dancing and Marty McFly's mom kill a hundred or so people with a M60 machine gun, but the novelty wears off embarrassingly fast. Ultimately, Red Dawn is an uncomfortable action film, completely over-the-top in its condemnation and violence and excesses, yet never allowing the audience to enjoy one's self. Action movies should be fun, but Red Dawn is too serious, too sober in its condemnations. It is rare to find a film so shamefully exploitative, so unabashedly sensationalist, but feels so thoroughly miserable at the same time. I mean, come on, the Russians freaking invaded America! Nobody's going to have any fun? Anyone? Bueller?
For this two-disc Collector's Edition, we get the film presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Visually, the film looks quite good for its age. Black levels are deep and rich, colors are vibrant and sharp, detail is good, and the overall fidelity is impressive. Some print damage and grain are noticeable here and there, but overall, it appears quite a bit of restoration work was done on Red Dawn for this DVD. The final result is extremely pleasing. The audio is a bit weaker -- we only get a 2.0 stereo track, no surround. The mix is acceptable, but a bit thin on the bass, and often mixes the dialogue painfully low. You crank the volume to catch the dialogue, and then a grenade goes off, blasting your eardrums. If this DVD has a technical flaw, the audio presentation is it. Here's a movie that could have really benefited from a nice, immersive surround track. The score, a military drum marching-influenced battle theme suits the film to a tee.
Also included on the first disc is the goofiest special feature by far, the "Carnage Counter," which is exactly as it sounds: an on-screen display that keeps a running tally of violent acts at the bottom of the screen so the viewer can keep count. It is a grin-inducing feature and definitely highlights the non-stop carnage, chaos, and absurd body count, tracking Russians killed, grenades, explosions, civilian deaths, etc. All action movies should have this feature, end period.
Disc two contains the bulk of the supplementary materials in the form of four featurettes. The first, "Red Dawn Rising: A Retrospective Look at the Making of the Film" is a 23-minute documentary comprised of newly recorded cast and crew interviews. "Building the Red Menace: What It Took to Make World War III," a ten-minute feature discusses the challenges in getting authentic-looking Soviet weaponry and vehicles into New Mexico for shooting. The attention to authenticity is impressive; the producers went all-out for this one. A ten-minute feature, "Military Training," discusses the arduous boot camp-like training director Milius put his actors through to train them for the role. Finally, a 13-minute featurette, "WWIII Comes to Town" discusses the location shooting in New Mexico, simulating the rural look of a Midwestern anytown, interviewing locals. All told, Red Dawn: Collector's Edition produces barely an hour of supplements, but the featurettes are well produced and of high quality. The cast and crew are proud of their work, and it makes these featurettes shine.
I'm conflicted. There is an undeniable gung-ho charm to Red Dawn film, and I admire its utter contempt for convention, going all-out in a patriotic blaze of self-destructive glory, but the acting and plot muddle things. All in all, I think people remember the film as far more enjoyable and cool than it actually is.
Still, I'd be foolish to deny that Red Dawn has its moments, many of them gruesomely enjoyable. Considering how serious and somber the tone of the film is, it is most interesting to see how the passing of time has tempered Red Dawn's furious anxiety to the point of absurd campy 1980s action. Watching the film today, through the eyes of black comedy, new possibilities open for appreciation. There is a perverse thrill, a righteous cowboy kind of machismo, a Peckinpah-vlovian (yes, I invented this word) self-destructive joy in embracing this glorified militarism, throwing lives down for flag and country, be it for America or for the Wolverines. Really, the two are one in the same here.
A great DVD presentation of a mediocre movie, Red Dawn: Collector's Edition gives this cult film its proper due on DVD. Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, by today's standards, the film is pretty laughable in premise, plot, acting, and execution. Nevertheless, a surrealist thrill can be had from the film if you allow yourself to give into your patriotism and rampant action film ideology. It's like First Blood for teenagers!
Why do I have "Never Surrender" by Corey Hart stuck in my head?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Carnage Counter" Featurette
* "Red Dawn Rising: A Retrospective Look at the Making of the Film" Featurette
* "Building the Red Menace: What It Took to Make World War III" Featurette
* "Military Training" Featurette
* "WWIII Comes to Town" Featurette