Dan Bradley’s remake of John Milius’s Red Dawn feeds the warrior fantasies of adolescent boys with a testosterone-heavy tale of a war free of moral complications—one in which Americans are blameless civilians, defending their homes from armed invaders. The setting this time is Washington state, but the guerilla uprising is still led by a pack of kids, most of them football players or cheerleaders from the local high school. The country behind the attack isn’t Russia, but North Korea, which sends in paratroopers like so many dandelion spores to blanket the Spokane sky. (Hard to imagine North Korea having that much military muscle, I know, but the invader was China until the studio decided to change it, after the film was shot, so as to avoid alienating Chinese moviegoers).
Bradley made his bones as a second-unit director on some high-class action thrillers, Bourne and Bond movies and the like, so you’d think he’d ace the film’s action. There are a few choice moments, such as teen guerillas leaping from a window to a roof far below, but too often the film tries to compensate for weak visuals by leaning on steroidal sounds, as if the amped-up squeal of tires and bass-heavy beats could possibly bring suspense to sequences leached of coherence by shaky camerawork and few establishing shots.
This is foremost a story about boys: fathers and sons to some extent, but mostly brothers. Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) came back from Iraq just in time to shepherd his little brother, Matt (Josh Peck), and a few of their friends to safety in the family cabin after the invasion. In one of too many montages, he puts them through a sort of boot camp, turning them into lean, mean, fighting machines with ludicrous ease. The one exception is Matt, who chafes under his brother’s leadership, angry at Jed for abandoning him after their mother died. Hemsworth gracefully handles his end of the labored subplot, but Peck buckles under its weight. For practically the entire movie, he wears a scowl that’s clearly intended to signal manly determination, though it more accurately resembles the pains of gastritis.
When the Koreans invade, explosions knock over some of the toys in Matt’s bedroom, which is the closest we get to subtlety in a movie whose points are mostly scored with macho mantras, like the benediction Matt gets from his father (Brett Cullen) after his Wolverines lose a football game just before all hell breaks loose. “I’m proud of you, son,” says Dad. “You did your best, and that’s all that really counts.”
It’s hard to take the enemy threat seriously when our heroes can so easily saunter or drive right through town, sometimes even whipping out their weapons to lay waste to a few soldiers without seeming to be in much danger of being captured or killed. Because there’s never a sense of what the teenage protagonists have had to give up, or how scared they must feel, they remain ciphers, with life off the battleground seeming almost abstract and unreal, and the craven collaborators and brave resisters they come across are so hastily drawn that they barely register. There’s potential for fun in watching good-looking kids run, jump, and shoot all over the place, but not when both the characters and their ordeal are too thinly developed to capture your imagination. As one of the teens succinctly puts it: “Dude, we’re living Call of Duty. And it sucks.”