Thursday, January 14, 2010

Red Dawn (1984)

"They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers." - Old John Milius proverb

Starring: Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, C. Thomas Howell
Written by: John Milius, Kevin Reynolds
Directed by: John Milius

And over on the left, we have a quaint little war movie from 1984, called Red Dawn. For those of you who missed out on the 1980s, Red Dawn is a veritable time capsule. Just by popping this bad boy into your video machine and sipping some nice cognac, you can learn a remarkable amount of information about the Reagan years. To put it simply, people were street rat crazy in those days. The threat of the Ruskies was hyper-real and ever present, permeating our subconscious with thoughts of hammers, sickles and borscht on Christmas morning.

Red Dawn tells the story of a heroic group of teenagers who band together, and raise hell after invading Russians occupy a large part of the United States. Dubbing themselves The Wolverines (after the local high school football team), they take up any arms they can find and begin an armed resistance against the Soviet occupation. That's as simple as it gets - and really, what more do you need? What we have here is the perfect 1980s WWIII nightmare scenario. The Red Menace finally takes the Cold War to a whole new level, and storms the American Midwest. And only one group of warriors can stop them: a bunch of kids. Just imagine The Breakfast Club in a salad bowl with Platoon, and even a dash of Star Wars, for good measure. The Brat Pack vs. the Evil Empire. Now look at the 80s cinema landscape and tell me that's not the greatest foundation for a movie you've ever heard. I didn't think so.

Before we go any further, we must address the movie's politics. Back in '84, Red Dawn was panned as a Conservative wet dream; a love letter to Reagan and the 2nd Amendment. When the Soviets rain from the sky and take our country right out from under us, what do we do? We arm the youth of America and fight back! Any liberal in his/her right mind would obviously take issue with this. But that's where the politics of Red Dawn actually work in the movie's favor. How else would you handle the nightmare invasion scenario? This is reflective of the Cold War paranoia of the mid-80s. Liberals scoffed when Red Dawn was released, but the message to young America was clear: This could happen! And who better to direct such a cautionary tale than "zen-fascist" John Milius, the primary inspiration for The Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchak?

But therein lies the problem. Red Dawn works best as a message. As a movie, not so much. Everything about Red Dawn is the setup; there's no payoff. Looking at this as a war movie, the most gripping action clearly takes place in the opening twenty minutes. We are treated to the idyllic serenity of Calumet, Colorado on a crisp September morning. High school football is a big draw, the pickups have gun racks; life is simple. "Pure" America, as it were. This is until Russian paratroopers rain down from the sky and open fire on the local high school. Milius uses reactionary images of bloody students hanging out of classroom windows and a history teacher riddled with gunfire to snap the audience to attention. But it works, because the godless Commies are ruining our serenity - and we're pissed, dammit!

In the mass panic and confusion during the initial attack, a small group of high school students manage to escape into the mountains. Using whatever weapons they can find (hunting rifles, mostly), they form an armed resistance against the occupation, dubbing themselves The Wolverines (after the high school football team). They spend most of their time living off of game in the wilderness and training in the art of guerrilla warfare (apparently it's up to the viewer to figure out where they learned said tactics). This is where the movie falls off a cliff. The problem here, is that the remaining action scenes are restricted to The Wolverines getting into small skirmishes with the Ruskies, and tagging their territories, gang-style (attack, run, repeat). Intermixed between these skirmishes are scenes of the teenagers dealing with feelings of isolation, self-reliance, and the ravages of killing other human beings. This is most apparent in the dehumanization of Robert (C. Thomas Howell). Every kill adds another notch to the butt of his AK-47, and the death of his humanity. Now we have a movie that's at once glorifying violence, and condemning the act of guerrilla warfare.

Even if you were to praise this film as the ultimate in Conservative movies, in the end you have a film that's at odds with itself. There's a coming-of-age teen story buried somewhere deep within the conflicted war movie, but unfortunately it isn't fleshed out, as the actors have no chemistry among one another. One could argue that the wilderness isolation and domestic defense force these kids to grow up, but there isn't enough character to make us care about any of these people.

With such a delightfully absurd premise, I was expecting at least some 80s cheese. But Red Dawn doesn't even constitute a "bad" movie (a la The Apple), as it just tends to bore the audience (especially at an overly long 144 minutes). You look at this movie, and you hope for something so bad, it's good. Hey, Patrick Swayze gifted us with the sheer awesomeness that is Road House - there's gotta be something here, right? Unfortunately, Red Dawn just isn't bad enough. The only person who had anything to work with here was Swayze. As the leader of The Wolverines (and the glue that holds them together), he's the most captivating to watch, as he slowly loses his focus and determination. Alas, Red Dawn is a movie that's all about its ideology, with nothing else beneath the surface.


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