Chaos in movies can provide a chance to question order. Instead, director (and NRA doyen) John Milius seizes it to teach those spoiled ’80s teen brats about gun-barrel fortitude. Outrageously jingoistic as it is, the doomsday scenario Milius posits in his bizarrely enduring Red Dawn is nevertheless erected on a radical switcheroo: What if Reagan’s America got a taste of her own “interventionist” foreign policies? Apocalypse, wow. The Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua make up the chosen Axis of Evil in a world where “NATO dissolves and the United States stands alone.” World War III might have seemed frighteningly plausible in 1984, but, as soon as the invading Reds are introduced parachuting down on the varsity football field of a quaint Colorado burg, it’s clear that the picture is going to be set squarely in the realm of hairy-chested fantasy. Enemy tanks muscle down the street, people are assigned to “re-education camps,” the country is divided between “occupied” and “free” territories. Plucked out of school in the middle of a lecture on Genghis Khan, a group of American juveniles headed by football-star-turned-alpha-dog Jed (Patrick Swayze) hides out in the woods, forms a guerilla squad called the Wolverines, and stands up to the rocket-launching commies.
Released in the midst of renewed Cold War nuclear dread, Red Dawn doesn’t starve for unintended wackiness. The Why We Fight levels of testosterone don’t exactly gain in credibility with B-movie bruiser William “Big Bill” Smith cast as an icy Russky badass named Strelnikov, C. Thomas Howell downing a glass of blood from a freshly slain deer (“You’ll be a real hunter now”), or Harry Dean Stanton howling for his boys to “aveeeeeenge me!” Yet the film survives better today than such relics of the ’80s as the Rambo movies, mainly due to the visceral force with which the director imbues his characters, young actors (including the a still-green Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey), and James Fenimore Cooperish antics.
Often caricatured as Oliver Stone’s right-wing lost brother, Milius can be a formidable primitive, cultivating the pose of the chivalrous warrior while hinting at the absurdity of the pose; the irony is not lost on him when Soviet soldiers construe the Forest Transfer Act of 1905 as the crushing of the “great peasant uprising” by Roosevelt and his “imperialist armies and cowboys.” Raised on anarchism and volcanic emotion, it’s a worldview less reactionary than primeval: War is boiled down to a spat between “the two toughest kids in the block,” where the Cuban mercenary baddie (Ron O’Neal), ennobled by his own experience as a revolutionary, can salute the Yankee insurgents. There’s a perversely utopian feeling to the images of fireballs in the snowy battlefield or of Thompson with bonnet and rifle against the cloudy sky: By envisioning invasion U.S.A. as a playground for his fantasies, Milius can’t help turn Armageddon into Valhalla. If not quite a great “confused text,” Red Dawn is still forceful and exciting enough to satisfy even this pinko reviewer, and scarcely irrelevant in times when the nation remains waist-deep in another invader/insurgent mess.