Red Dawn is a lot funnier than you remember.
This remake is based on 1984's Reagan-era rah-rah movie about rural footballers who run Russian invaders and their Cuban and Nicaraguan surrogates out of America. The new Red Dawn dispenses with a lot of that red-meat Red-State "reds" scariness and settles into a solid if silly action picture about what happens after the North Koreans invade.
A brisk news montage under the opening credits, featuring snippets of stories about global financial collapse, rogue state cyber-warfare programs, Obama and Biden warning about this threat or that foreign policy challenge, does all that any Red Dawn could ever do to make this plausible. Yes, the North Koreans have a huge army and a government bent on creating global chaos. No, it won't help the movie to worry about how they could transport that army to the Pacific Northwest.
That's where ex-jock/ current Marine Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) is on leave, visiting his widowed police chief dad (Brett Cullen) and ball-hog quarterback younger sibling Matty (Josh Peck), when the paratroopers tumble in. "North Korea — it doesn't make any sense."
But stuntman-turned-director Dan Bradley doesn't sit still long enough for that to sink in. In a jerky and jarring shaky-cam escape sequence, the Eckert brothers and assorted friends and hangers-on — the tech nerd (Josh Hutcherson), the mayor's son (Connor Cruise), assorted jocks and cheerleaders — head for the hills. Or the mountains. That's where they plot America's comeback.
"We inherited our freedom," Jed, who literally towers over the others, preaches. "Now it's up to all of us to fight for it."
The original Red Dawn was co-written and directed by John Milius, a primal-violence primitivist and true believer when it came to the Soviet menace. His movie had a scruffy, lived-in Friday Night Lights-meets-Lord of the Flies aura about it — rural kids comfortable with guns improvising their way to getting comfortable shooting Russians and Cubans. The new Dawn has the Thor-sized Marine teach city kids insurgent warfare. Not better, just different.
The original film was weepy — ex-jock Patrick Swayze mourning his father (Harry Dean Stanton), who had the best line not repeated here: "Avenge me, boys!" It had Jennifer Grey (Toledo native Adrianne Palicki plays the new version of Toni) plays risking her neck and dying a good death. Here, it's mushy-centered self-absorbed Josh Peck trying to free his imprisoned cheerleader girlfriend (Isabel Lucas). The new Dawn doesn't have the moist-eyed heart that a true believer might have given it.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the real soldier who stumbles into their midst (Powers Boothe played that role in the original). Will Yun Lee is the hapless North Korean captain chasing these "Wolverines," insurgents who take their high school mascot's name into combat. One area in which the remake matches the original is in school spirit, cheer-leading every ambush. It's a real crowd-pleaser.
And it betters the first film with every fire fight, every improvised explosion. Bradley auditions for a future Die Hard here. And passes.
Which is about where Red Dawn lands — a passing grade. Then and now, it doesn't pay dividends to think too hard about how what happens, happens. If you need a villain, sometimes you've got to build him up to make it seem plausible.
Directed by Dan Bradley. Written by Jeremy Passmore and Carl Ellsworth, based on the screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius. A FilmDistrict release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense war violence and action, and for language. Running time: 93 minutes.
Critic's rating: **½