“I miss ‘Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare.'”
“Your life is ‘Call Of Duty’ now. And it sucks.”
The original “Red Dawn” was released in 1984, and as much as any film of that decade, it is a product of its times. I was 14 that year, and like most school-aged kids, I had been completely and utterly indoctrinated to be terrified of the Russians. “Red Dawn” played expertly on that fear, and it helped that John Milius, the film’s co-writer and director, is a glorious war-monger, a man who loves the way conflict defines a person. The movie featured a cast of some of the best-known young actors in the ’80s, including Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey, and even if you were able to avoid the film’s politics, it worked as an action film. There was something about the film’s invasion scenario that struck a very deep chord with young viewers at the time, and for many of them, it remains a nostalgic favorite.
The new “Red Dawn” is a deeply frustrating experience, and by the end of the world premiere that took place as part of the closing night of Fantastic Fest, it seemed pretty clear to me why MGM had a hard time selling the film off during their bankruptcy problems. The script by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore lays down a fairly solid foundation for the new film, and I’d love to read it to see how much the finished film hews to what was on the page. The cast this time is filled with really solid choices, including Chris Hemsworth, Adrianne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Brett Cullen, and many of them do really solid work in the film. Most importantly, when it comes to the big action set pieces in the film, they are staged and choreographed well, which is no surprise since the film was directed by Dan Bradley, one of the best stunt coordinators in the business.
So why hire cameramen who are going to make it impossible for me to see anything?
We’ve reached the point where this is a real issue, and it’s gone well past a stylistic tic now. If I took any of the action scenes from “Red Dawn” back in time and showed them to a director or a cinematographer in the ’50s, they would be completely unable to decipher what they were looking at. When did camerawork that would have gotten you blackballed from the system in the golden age of Hollywood become the norm? At what point does cinematic language reassert itself so that I can actually see the stunts and the fights and the geography of the goddamn room again? Shaking the camera to the point of visual incoherence does not convey energy, and it does not make me feel like I’m in the middle of the action. Bradley worked on both of the Greengrass “Bourne” films, and I feel like he picked up some very bad habits in the process. There’s a sequence late in this movie where the Wolverines and some special forces soldiers break into the police station of their small town, and the set is perfectly created to stage a great action sequence. It’s a huge circular room, fronted on all sides by four floors of offices with windows looking into the room, and there are staircases and ramps all over the place. Much of the action that is staged during the sequence is clever and there are some great stunts. And yet the sequence as a whole is garbage thanks to the non-stop spastic shaking of the camera, so none of the rest of it matters at all.
While the action sequences bothered me, the real reason I didn’t like the film is because I think it is politically confused in a huge way. Switching the bad guys of the movie from China to North Korea in the post-production process probably didn’t help, but no matter who the villains were, the film simply doesn’t work in the same way because this isn’t an actual anxiety that we’re grappling with right now. An economic apocalypse is likely, but a straight-up invasion on American soil just doesn’t work on a narrative level these days. A smart update of “Red Dawn” would address the way warfare itself has changed since the ’80s, but this film still feels grounded in that movie’s idea of war. The film’s other major misstep is the casting of Josh Peck as Matt, the younger brother to Chris Hemsworth’s Jed. Hemsworth is perfectly cast in the film, and he gives the movie a weighty lead, someone who feels like he can absolutely take care of himself, and to some degree, the movie is a coming of age story about Matt learning to be like Jed thanks to these extraordinary circumstances. Peck, who was the star of “The Wackness,” could easily be cast in the right role and do nice work, but this role simply isn’t in his range. He’s got a dopey stoner charm, and even late in this film, when he’s supposed to have transformed into a fierce warrior, he looks like he was ripping bong hits between takes. Josh Hutcherson, who plays a supporting role, absolutely handles himself right, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the “Hunger Games” producers saw this before they hired him to play Peeta in those movies. Adrianne Palicki is a credible presence in the film as well, and despite her preposterous good looks, she carries herself with a certain amount of authenticity.
Overall, the new “Red Dawn” is too confused and too muddled to be either a love-letter to the militia movement or an indictment of putting guns in the hands of kids, and without any specific point of view or focus to its storytelling, it just doesn’t work. FilmDistrict will probably do well enough with it thanks to the presence of Hemsworth and the fondness for the original, but this will be forgotten quickly, just one more shabby remake to throw on the bonfire that has been 21st century studio filmmaking so far.
“Red Dawn” opens November 21, 2012.