When John Milius' "Red Dawn" was released in 1984, it played upon topical fears of an imminent Soviet invasion on American soil. Although it was likely not to occur, the threat was real and the premise of the film relatively plausibleif embellished a little for audiences. In 2012 (or 2009, when this remake was filmed before studio MGM went bankrupt, leaving several of its projects in limbo), the new "Red Dawn" plays like a post-9/11 action-fantasy with a "what-if?" scenario that, it's safe to say, no one would wish to come true. A seasoned second-unit director promoted to the top of the ranks, Dan Bradley (2011's "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol
") does a competent job of adhering to the spirit of the original while taking things in enough of a new direction that it doesn't feel like a tired rehash. The same goes for screenwriters Carl Ellsworth (2009's "Last House on the Left
") and Jeremy Passmore, who sprinkle clever odes to the predecessor throughout. In a sign of the times, the PG-13 "Red Dawn" of today is violent, but not nearly as edgy as the PG-13 "Red Dawn" of the mid-'80s, decreasing the body count of the central cast while simultaneously leading toward a more open-ended, up-in-the-air conclusion, lest there be the possibility for money to be made on a sequel.
Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) has picked the wrong time to go on leave from the Marines. No sooner has he returned to his hometown of Spokane, Washington and fumbled his way through reconnecting with teenage brother Matt (Josh Peck), angry that he left after their mother died several years earlier, when a mysterious power outage sweeps across the Pacific Northwest. The next morning, the brothers are woken by North Korean soldiers parachuting from the sky. World War III has begun! Separated from their police officer father (Brett Cullen), Jed and Matt escape to their family's wooded retreat in the mountains, several of Matt's classmates, like Robert (Josh Hutcherson) and Daryl (Connor Cruise), in tow. When their dad is killed in front of them, the siblings and their friends decide it's time to fight back. Nicknaming themselves the Wolverines (after the high school football team), they increasingly ramp up their own form of terrorism on their enemy as Matt begins his search for his captured girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas).
"Red Dawn" is slower in set-up (the original wasted no time depicting a small Colorado high school suddenly under siege by armed foreign invaders), but quicker getting to the story's central thread of regular kids and twenty-somethings becoming self-made soldiers and seeking vengeance for the loss of their home and loved ones. It stretches credibility on more than one occasion, but that's okay since it is positioned as more of a nostalgic, large-scale throwback to the action pictures of the 1980s. The fun is in the carnage of just desserts the rag-tag Wolverines cause for their North Korean opponents, with explosions, shootouts and narrow getaways on foot and in buses well-placed between a handful of moments of soul-searching, whether it be between semi-estranged brothers Jed and Matt, or Jed and childhood friend Toni (Adrianne Palicki). If there is one decidedly non-vintage element, it is the insistence on shaky, rapid-fire camerawork and editing during the action scenes. This overused stylistic choice isn't as annoying as it could have been, but it still calls attention to itself too often.
The ensemble cast work as a solid unit, with only Josh Peck (2012's "ATM
") appearing to try too hard at times; as Matt, he occasionally seems to be channeling the role of a stoner rather than a high school football star. Chris Hemsworth, in a part he shot before 2011's "Thor
" and 2012's "The Avengers
," is appropriately authoritative without coming off as obtrusive. As the sole member of the Wolverines who has experience in the military, his Jed is still very much the leader. Josh Hutcherson (2012's "The Hunger Games
") receives some of the most crowd-pleasing momentsa triumphant rooftop battle cry; a sly scene that twists the outcome of a moment from the original where his Robert is told to drink the blood of the deer he just shotbut might have actually been better-suited for playing Matt. In his first substantial role, Connor Cruise (yes, that would be Tom's son) handles himself nicely as Robert's best friend Daryl, though, to be fair, little is asked of him. Since her outstanding work on TV's "Friday Night Lights," Adrianne Palicki (2010's "Legion
") has been someone to watch out for, and she makes Toni a strong, likable, captivating heroine. As Erica, Isabel Lucus (2010's "Daybreakers
") gets the lesser female lead; for as much as Matt's obsessed with rescuing her, he all but ignores her completely once he finds her. If more than three words are exchanged between them in the movie's second half, it would be a surprise in hindsight.
On its elongated path to theaters, "Red Dawn" has gone through some changes, the most radical being the alteration from China to North Korea as the villain of the piece (flags, uniforms, and dialogue were CGI'ed and ADR'ed in post-production to convey this). It doesn't truly matter who the foreign invaders are, though; the rest of the script would remain intact no matter, and, either way, the title is less relevant. While this new "Red Dawn" falls into traps the earlier one avoideddirector Dan Bradley can't help himself on the rah-rah speech-making frontit is faithful enough to valiantly adhere to what's come before without making it a needless carbon copy. Viewers willing to check their brains at the door and go along for the ride will find it a suitably exciting, if not exactly tougher or smarter, version of subject matter that is timely in an entirely different way than it was nearly thirty years ago.