Editor’s note: we first reviewed the new Red Dawn back at Fantastic Fest, so please enjoy a re-run of that review, originally published on September 27, 2012, no guns necessary.
Possibly the biggest challenge in creating a Red Dawn remake is that the original was such a product of its time. By 1984, tensions from the Cold War were at their peak and Red Dawn deftly played on and exploited those fears. While it got bogged down a bit in melodrama, our national xenophobia gave it more impact than it may have had otherwise.
Fast forward to 2012 and despite perhaps a mild fear of another attack from Middle Eastern extremists, we’re not particularly afraid of a full scale invasion. In fact, the plausibility is so up in the air that the invading army was changed from China to North Korea in post-production. We don’t live in a culture of fear like the one that existed during the Cold War, but the sight of planes dropping bombs on your neighbors and soldiers parachuting into your town is still a terrifying one, and the new Red Dawn handles that sequence well. While it may not play on legitimate fears like the original, the remake does a decent job of creating chaos and tension if not outright terror.
Surprisingly, the change from China to North Korea as the invading force doesn’t have a huge impact on the film. The changes go mostly unnoticed and the actor playing the head of the invasion team, Will Yun Lee, is actually Korean. If anything, fear of North Korea may have faded a bit following the death of Kim Jong-Il in December, though that’s obviously not something the filmmakers could foresee or control and some would contend that an unpredictable Kim Il-sung represents an even bigger threat.
While the original Red Dawn will remain noteworthy for being the first film released with the PG-13 rating, it’s a possible stumbling block when bestowed on a modern action film. Will it seem like the film had to pull its punches in order to secure a more box-office friendly rating? Fortunately, the Red Dawn remake, which is also PG-13, never elicits that feeling. There’s plenty of bullets and bombs with kids on both sides of the barrel. While there’s not a lot of blood, it never feels like it’s missing. It’s actually surprising how big and bold the action sequences are, especially given the rating. However, the camera work isn’t always stellar. The handheld camera work sometimes gets a bit too shaky and close-up shots are a bit overused making some of the early action scenes overly chaotic and a bit hard to follow. This is not the case with the later action sequences which are actually quite well shot.
While the film works, it is mostly in spite of Josh Peck. In his defense, he’s engaged and trying hard. He’s not phoning anything in and he’s not wooden. Unfortunately, he sounds like he’s in pain, struggling to get each word out. His delivery is fine, it doesn’t sound like a table read, it just sounds like he’s trying to put too much weight or emotion in his words and instead it comes out strained. Add to this the fact that he spends most of his on-screen non-speaking time making some kind of emo duck face and it makes for a bit of a problem. It’s definitely a minor quibble, but an annoyance nonetheless.
Luckily, Peck is the only slightly down note in the cast. Chris Hemsworth is great as always, Adrianne Palicki shows more of the spark we saw from her on Friday Night Lights, and even Josh Hutcherson holds his own. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also solid, but he’s slightly overshadowed by his hilarious compatriot who seems to only speak Marine and not actual English, though some may find the schtick grating. And the aforementioned Will Yun Lee represents the opposition quite well with his cool, controlled presence.
Ultimately, Red Dawn is a fun film that knows enough not to try to be anything it’s not. Most of the cast is solid, the action is good, and there’s a nice sprinkling of legitimately funny moments throughout. Thankfully, the high melodrama from the original is toned way down and traded for some quiet heart and emotion. Political stances and statements take a backseat to kids kicking ass allowing the audience to simply set back and enjoy themselves.
The Upside: Solid action that doesn’t feel censored, strong cast, funny moments, WOLVERINES!
The Downside: Josh Peck’s Blue Steel sucks, the camera work is up and down, and the ending makes the film feel too small.
On the Side: Red Dawn finds Chris Hemsworth playing at another cabin in the woods and was actually shot just a few months after Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods.