Director – Dan Bradley, Screenplay – Carl Ellsworth & Jeremy Passmore, Based on the Screenplay by John Milius & Kevin Reynolds, From a Story by John Milius, Producers – Beau Flynn & Tripp Vinson, Photography – Mitchell Amundsen, Music – Ramin Dajawadi, Visual Effects – CIS Hollywood (Supervisor – Geoffrey Hancock), Custom Film Effects (Supervisor – Mark Dornfeld), Perpetual Motion Pictures & Rhythm and Hues (Supervisor – Robert Mercier), Special Effects Supervisor – Mark Byers, Production Design – Dominic Watkins. Production Company – Contrafilm
Chris Hemsworth (Jed Eckert), Josh Peck (Matt Eckert), Josh Hutcherson (Robert), Adrianne Palicki (Toni), Connor Cruise (Daryl Jenkins), Isabel Lucas (Erica), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Colonel Andy Tanner), Will Yun Lee (Captain Cho), Alyssa Diaz (Julie), Brett Cullen (Tom Eckert), Edwin Hodge (Danny), Michael Beach (Mayor Jenkins), Matt Gerald (Hodges), Kenneth Choi (Smith)
In sleepy Spokane, Washington, Jed Ekert, a marine home on leave, and his brother Matt, a high school football player, wake in the morning as North Korean planes fly over. Soldiers parachute in, begin shooting and place the town under martial control as part of an invasion of the US northwest. Jed, Matt and several other teens make an escape and take refuge in the woods. Jed begins training the others to fight back using weapons taken from the occupiers. Naming themselves after the high school football team The Wolverines, their insurgent activities become a constant thorn in the Koreans side.
The original Red Dawn (1984) was made at the height of Ronald Reagan’s nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. Made by director John Milius, who would in real-life appear to be the Hollywood equivalent of a survivalist holed up in a Montana bunker surrounded by a collection of guns and canned food, prepared to shoot anyone who steps over the line of his property, Red Dawn was a pure red, white and blue fantasy made for all the people who believed in the imminent menace posed by Communism to the American way of life. The film was certain that American military weakness equated with the potential for imminent invasion and held a fervent belief in the necessity of gun ownership for defence. This was wedded to the constant theme in John Milius’s films of heroes having to undergo tough rights of passage to prove themselves. Of course, such a fantasy never came to pass – the muchly feared Soviet Union was a thing of the past a mere six years later and the United States remained the planet’s superpower with no credible threat ever having emerged with even the vaguest likelihood of conducting a military invasion of its borders.
The failure of Milius’s paranoid right wing gun-toting fantasy to ever emerge did not appear to deter the people behind Red Dawn 2012. Given that the Soviet Union no longer exists, the idea of a new version of Red Dawn is something that may well count among the most absurd and pointless remakes since the idea of remaking Edge of Darkness (1985) as Edge of Darkness (2010) in a post-Thatcherite world where the use of nuclear power is almost obsolete. The producers said they wanted to rewrite the film for a post-9/11 world. This immediately causes a problem in that the predominant boogeyman in a 9/11 world has become jihadi Islam, not one that can be pitched in terms of two superpowers at war but of a single superpower facing the threat of an amorphous, faceless series of shadowy insurgent cells. The remake proposed to deal with this by substituting China as the new invading enemy. This makes reasonable sense as China is the only country in the world with a large enough army, populace and economic might to come anywhere near fulfilling the shoes that the Soviet Union did in the original. However, given that China has only just built their first aircraft carrier, the fear of its military potential might be somewhat less than that, but one is prepared to extend the film this artistic licence.
The Red Dawn remake has not had an easy journey to the screen. The film was originally shot in 2009 but release was held up after distributor MGM went into bankruptcy. In the midst of this, a leaked copy of the script found its way to China and caused an outrage in the local press at the way the Chinese saw themselves being demonised. As part of the MGM bailout proceedings, the film was bought out by FilmDistrict who proceeded to conduct a digital reediting to turn all of the Chinese military portrayed throughout into North Koreans. This change immediately gives Red Dawn 2012 a vast credibility gap. North Korea is certainly a Communist military dictatorship and has a very large army. However, it is also a country of only 25 million people most of whom live in direly impoverished conditions, including power frequently being off in major cities and the country having to appeal for food aid from outside. The idea that North Korea, which has a GDP that is around forty times less than the entire annual US military budget and a population twelfth the size, could invade the US seems so preposterous that it has one laughing before they have even sat down to watch the film. The film offers vague attempts to embellish this by the suggestion that Russians are backing the invasion, while also including an alarmist opening montage that covers everything from cyber-terrorism, the Russian invasion of Georgia to the Recession – none of which serves to credibly bulk out the plausibility of the premise. The film also claims that the invasion only covers the Pacific Northwest (although at least down as far as California), which can only leave you wondering what happened to the US armed forces and why none of them ever consider it worth standing up to defend their country.
Once it kicks in, Red Dawn 2012 is neither any better nor any worse than Red Dawn 1984. It plays out the same absurd fantasy of adolescent military heroism. Both films have slight differences of focus. Dan Bradley does a far better job of making the characters in the film well rounded and with some human depth. In particular, Chris Hemsworth comes to the fore and gives a performance that is determinedly in charge. (It is interesting to note that when Red Dawn was shot in 2009, most of its teen cast were unknowns, however being released in 2012, several of its cast have become much better known. Chris Hemsworth of course became Thor in Thor (2011) and the year’s mega-hit of The Avengers (2012), while Josh Hutcherson underwent a major escalation in profile after appearing as the male lead in The Hunger Games (2012) earlier in the year).
On the other hand, John Milius definitely made a harder edged film. Milius was very much focused on the issue of the teens having to toughen up in order to survive. Dan Bradley, who it should be noted comes from a stunt coordinator background before making his directorial debut here, is more interested in images of teens posing with guns in their hands, blowing things up and shooting at people. There are a few scenes of Chris Hemsworth teaching the group combat techniques early on but these are quickly forgotten about and the focus placed on action. Notedly, this film also ends on a more positive defiant note with the group stirring a rebellion whereas Milius left his film on a bleak note where everybody went down in a blaze of glory. There are times that you think Bradley is parodying and deflating John Milius’s po-faced seriousness – like his repeating the blood-drinking scene but turning it into a comedy scene – but other scenes like where the teens conduct an armed robbery of a Subway teeter over into absurdity. The difference between the two directors is surely demonstrated by a scene here where it is discovered that Connor Cruise has been bugged by the North Koreans – for Milius, they would have readily shot him right there and then, whereas here all they do is leave him on the roadside and the film sentimentalises his abandonment, showing him standing alone while they drive off. Indeed, what we have here is a safe teen fantasy of military survivalism – one removed of any social context, any seeming hardship that extends much beyond a camping trip. People in the group are killed but only the ones down the cast list that the film has never invested much effort in caring about.
The very best filmed work about insurgency and freedom fighting still remains the British tv series Secret Army (1977-9) about the Belgian resistance of World War II, a series that lacks the nonsensical patriotism that fires up both Red Dawns and showed the dangers with a grim realism and moral complexity on both sides. The absurdity of Red Dawn 2012 is that it remakes one of the most ardently political films of the 1980s yet seems determined to avoid any political overtones. It sets out wanting to proclaim American red-blooded defiance yet seems so bend-over-backwards fearful of the reaction of China (for which read not selling any tickets there) that it has erased any reference to the country and substituted a laughably ineffectual boogeyman. There is considerable irony is that the situation the film describes has happening very much on the US’s doorstep in the last few years, yet when placed in a real world context the actions that the heroes conduct have been entirely demonised. In Iraq, the people of the country were invaded by a super military force (the US) resulting in a death toll of 100,000+, yet when the people fought back against this by employing many of the methods depicted here, they were portrayed as terrorists. In the same week that Red Dawn 2012 opens, the Palestinian populace of the Gaza strip are defending themselves against a vastly superior military force after having been forced into a ghetto and routinely deprived of their lands and shot at, yet when they engage in an attempt to fight back against their occupiers are similarly portrayed not as freedom fighters but as a dangerous terrorist organisation. The difference of the two seems more a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes – that the insurgents suddenly become heroes as opposed to terrorists the moment that everything takes place on American soil and they are portrayed by American faces.