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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Red Dawn (1984) review



Patrick Swayze (Jed), Charlie Sheen (Matt), C. Thomas Howell (Robert), Lea Thompson (Erica), Jennifer Grey (Toni), Darren Dalton (Daryl), Brad Savage (Danny), Doug Toby (Aardvark), Ben Johnson (Mr. Mason), Harry Dean Stanton (Mr. Eckert), Ron O'Neal (Colonel Ernesto Bella), William Smith (Strelnikov), Powers Booth (Lieutenant Colonel Andy Tanner)

Directed by John Milius

The Short Version: It's America vs. Russia. Freedom vs. Communism in Milius's macho 'What If' interpretation of WWIII enacted on these shores, and centered on a small Colorado town. At its core, RED DAWN is a Coming of Age tale told through the gun barrels of high school kids turned guerrillas against Soviet, and Latin American enemies chomping at the bit to trample the land of the free, and the home of the brave. An entertaining macho fantasy, the film resonates more today than it did back then. Notable for featuring a lot of future movie stars, and for being the first film released bearing the PG-13 rating. If you're a survivalist; or ever collected Soldier of Fortune magazine; or yearn for the better days of the 1980s, RED DAWN most likely holds a special place in your red, white, and blue heart.

The Soviet Union and their Latin American allies invade the United States of America capturing and executing people left and right in a bid to take the entire country. A small band of Colorado high school students scrape together as many supplies and guns as they can, head for the wilderness and form a resistance, using guerrilla tactics against the foreign occupation.

Movies are often reflections of the time periods in which they are made. RED DAWN is one such picture. The United States of America was in a very robust, influential position as the leading Super Power in the world. Bolstered by a strong economy and formidable military, an invasion by an enemy threat was highly unlikely, but not impossible. Like any classic tale of good and evil, every hero needs its villain, and America's was the Soviet Union. The Cold War was heating up between them, and the fear of a nuclear assault was ever present via heavy bombardment from media outlets and propagandists at home and abroad. Sensing singing cash registers in their heads, Hollywood took full advantage to make money off of this palpable threat.

The impetus of macho bravado in the 1980s, John Milius amassed his entire 'hairy man' arsenal to deliver a violent, melodramatic account of American patriotism doubling as a coming of age tale; and with a touch of the Old West thrown in for good measure. Milius's 'What If' scenario toys with the country's perceived invincibility (something that would ultimately be taken for granted by the new millennium); centering on a group of Colorado high school students combating a growing insurgency that has, as per Powers Booth's dialog, stretched beyond the US, and onto a global scale. Naming their group 'Wolverines' -- so named for their high school football team -- this band of kids and young adults prove to be fearsome opponents for the Russian and Cuban adversaries. To underestimate an enemy is to welcome defeat. The bad guys expect the military to retaliate, but not the populace; and especially not with the level of ferocity they bring.

The cast is a perfect blend of young up and coming stars and seasoned veterans. Performances are all fairly strong considering the cast is rather large, although not everybody gets a lot of time to flex their acting muscles. It doesn't really matter that much as this is a fairly linear action story about a ragtag band of freedom fighters versus an evil invading empire (which is how the Russians were described at the time) attempting to take everything dear to them, including their lives in some cases. Not all the youngsters wish to fight, though; fear prevents them from initially defending themselves. It's only after they witness family members gunned down by firing squad that they all make the decision to fight for their homeland. In time, these youthful warriors adopt, rather proficiently, a survivalist mentality, ultimately outsmarting the invaders. Milius, ever the master of movie martyrdom, devises some heroic exits for his cast, too.

Patrick Swayze is the leader of the pack. A major 80s heartthrob, Swayze was an extremely versatile actor. He wasn't solely an action star. He differentiated himself from the likes of Stallone and Eastwood by headlining dramas in addition to action vehicles. Men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be WITH him. He wasn't a big guy, but he could press a few hundred pounds of charisma. Some of his action films include UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), STEEL DAWN (1987), ROAD HOUSE (1989), and BLACK DOG (1998).

Before he became a SOUL MAN (1986), C. Thomas Howell was a Wolverine. His character is arguably the most interesting of this Wild Bunch. There's an early sequence where he's hunting with Swayze and Sheen. He gets his first kill and Swayze tells him he has to drink the blood of the deer to absorb its spirit -- apparently taken from Native American rites of passage. Charlie Sheen follows that up with the statement that after drinking the blood, something about him will change. This proves prophetic as Howell's character definitely undergoes a transformation. He turns from a young high school kid to a hard-hearted killing machine.

Ron O'Neal, SUPER FLY (1972) himself, plays the Latin American invader, Colonel Bella. He, too, is a bit of a complicated character. He's the only one of the bad guys written with a modicum of sympathetic characteristics. By the end of the movie, he, too -- like Howell's character -- undergoes a change. Ron was also seen in the talky, pretentious THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER (1975); the Chuck Norris actioner A FORCE OF ONE (1979); and the time travel adventure, THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980).

A Milius movie with William Smith is almost too much macho for one film to handle, even with Smith playing the supporting role of the Russian commander Strelnikov. Smith spoke Russian (and a few others), so this role fit him like a glove. Playing good guys and bad guys in hundreds of movies and TV shows, Smith has starred in movies like RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969), THE LOSERS (1970), HAMMER (1972), INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973), GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1974), BOSS NIGGER (1975), HOLLYWOOD MAN (1976), ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980), CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), RUMBLE FISH (1983), and EYE OF THE TIGER (1986).

Not everybody saw RED DAWN as escapist entertainment with patriotic leanings. In discussing RED DAWN, it's virtually impossible to do so without bringing politics into it. It's one of those movies that bothered leftists and communists back then (the latter call themselves progressives today), and that sentiment continues three decades running.

Certain critics laughed it off as right-wing hysteria, or propaganda as they always do for anything remotely pro-America. It was the 1980s, after all. It was a great time for the country. The economy was rebounding in a massive way after a disastrous downturn from the Carter administration. Money and jobs were in abundance, and the populace enjoyed a great sense of safety that is all but non-existent in today's climate. With that feeling of security, what better time to play with public sensibilities while simultaneously emboldening the patriotic spirit of the audience. Milius's intention with this movie was to show what COULD happen. Again, this was a film to stir an emotional response in its viewers and entertain them for two hours. To look at RED DAWN for its historical significance, at that time, such an invasion was preposterous, but in the America of today, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched.

With a booming economy, the right leader at the country's helm, an imposing adversary in the form of Russia's Communist regime, and the nuclear arms race at the center, films about the outbreak of nuclear war, or, as RED DAWN depicts, a national invasion, were ripe for the making. In early 1982, a miniseries titled WORLD WAR III premiered on network television. It remains mostly a forgotten artifact; it's of note mostly because the original director, Boris Sagal, was killed three days into filming after he accidentally walked into the rear rotary blade of the helicopter he stepped out of.

In 1983, another Made For TV film, THE DAY AFTER, was a response to the nuclear threat. I remember we were in school, and were shown the film in class one day. Needless to say, it scared the hell out of all of us. It was like a horror movie with the worst parts being the aftermath as opposed to the initial bombings. RED DAWN had a similar reaction to us kids that saw it at a very young age.

Other films confronted foreign threats of one sort or the other; two of the most well known chest-thumpers being INVASION USA (1985) and ROCKY IV (1985). The former was the ultra-violent comic book version of RED DAWN while the latter was among the biggest hits of both Sylvester Stallone and the decade; not to mention one of the prime examples of the 80s born and bred USA vs. Russia schematic.

A limp-wristed remake of John Milius's original surfaced in 2012. To compare the two eras and films, one can surmise by the current lowly state of the country. For example, the original villains of the 2012 piece were the Chinese. In a bid to not offend them (they do own a great deal of our debt, mind you), a lot of digital enhancement was utilized to turn everything Chinese into everything Korean. Yes, the PC Rangers once more rode in on their high-horses as they often do these days. On another note, this remake was shot in 2009 and remained on a shelf for three years. 

Basil Poledouris is perfectly chosen, and once again composes an heroic score. His cues for RED DAWN range from militaristic marches, to stirring action pieces. The opening theme is a soaring, yet ominous cue that sums up the mood of the film; while the fast-paced end theme is a rousing coda to those who fought and died throughout the films 114 battle-hardened minutes.

RED DAWN still holds up remarkably well today; mostly because it represents a better, safer time period when most people worked hard for what they owned, which only meant they'd be more inclined to fight for it. Flashing forward 30 years, its macho fantasy proclivities feel more realistic and tangible than it did back then -- reinforcing its 'What If' scenario. Taking current events of the last 10 to 14 years into consideration, RED DAWN feels less like a product of its era, than a look into a possible future for a nation that has lost some spangles in its starry banner.

This review is representative of the MGM Blu-ray.


Dick Vincent said...

Great run of posts here Brian. I especially like the one-two punch of this and Invasion USA above. Awhile back I was sick and spent the day on the couch. Fired up a triple feature of Red Dawn, Roadhouse and Black Dog.

John Milius has had one of the more amazing carers in Hollywood. You just look through his credits and all you can say is HOLY CRAP... (or something akin to that).

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Dick. It's been fun, if tiring. If I hadn't started writing these a couple weeks ahead of the start of the month, I don't think there would have been as many posted. That's quite a triple bill. One other of those you mention is the next one to be posted, actually.

Yes he was. He was a fantastic writer in addition to his directorial skills.

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