Abraham Lincoln once said that all the armies of Europe and Asia could not by force take a drink form the Ohio river, or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. Of course when old Abe said that, the British army had burned Washington within living memory, so a foreign invasion wasn’t completely implausible, even then, and Lincoln never lived to see the Cold War and the invention of the ICBM. Still, Lincoln’s basic point was right - Americans mostly have more to fear from themselves than they do from any foreign enemy, and an invasion of North America would be quite an undertaking.
Which means that a movie about America being invaded and occupied has got quite a job of selling to do. Who’s going to do it, and how do they pull it off? You can always bring on the invading aliens, which has been done plenty of times. Since they’re invading aliens, they can pretty much do anything the story requires. But if you want to use a real world enemy in the story, you’ve got to get the audience to suspend disbelief, and that’s going to take some doing.
Red Dawn, an ill advised remake of the far better original that John Milius directed in 1984, doesn’t pull it off. The reasons why are actually more interesting than the movie itself. First, and most obvious, is the fact that we won the Cold War. But Director Dan Bradley made some bad choices, and saddled this movie with some handicaps that it didn’t have to have. The first and most obvious is that in Kevin Reynold’s original story, this movie was going to have a Chinese invasion of the United States, opposed, as in the original, by high school students turned resistance fighters. (Reynolds co-wrote the 1984 original with John Milius) But fear of offending China, which Hollywood considers an important market, led to the story being rewritten to feature an invasion by North Korea.
Now given that North Korea is a starving hellhole with a corrupt and rusting military this is ridiculous on its face, and this movie is being pilloried by the critics for using the Norks as villains. Except there’s more to it than that. In the movie, it turns out that the Norks are apparently part of an alliance that includes Russia, which has invaded the eastern US. The Norks have been given equipment and weapons, apparently by those same Russians, and during the movie, we see a Russian officer working with North Korean troops. Whatever Axis of Evil has invaded the USA has supposedly used some sort of electromagnetic pulse weapon to shut down the power grid, communications, and US defenses, and the Nork Invasion is taking place in the Pacific Northwest. (This movie is set in Spokane.) The point of all this is that using Norks as villains basically just worsens the movie’s credibility problems, helped get it beaten up by the critics, and it’s not likely that Red Dawn, even with North Korean villains, was going to do major box office in the People’s Republic anyway.
Another problem is that Bradley moves the action to an urban locale, and most of the action scenes take place in the city. Milius set his story in Calumet, Colorado, deep in heartland America, and he took care to make his invading Soviet army look authentic. The urban setting doesn’t work as well, because the shootouts end up having a very generic feel to them, and the viewer keeps wondering how the Wolverines keep slipping in and out of the city and through presumably multiple and extensive patrols and checkpoints. Even the opening action scene basically looks wrong, with North Korean paratroopers coming down in a residential neighborhood. (To secure a strategically vital suburb?) Moving the story into the middle of a major city robs it of much of whatever impact or distinctive feel it might have had.
As for the invading Nork army, it looks mostly like the present day US Army, complete with Hummers, Abrams tanks, and digital camo. Well, it’s what they could get. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but John Milius went all out to make his Red Army look authentic. About all this bunch could manage was some AK s. Milius knew that if he could sell the audience on the characters and the threat, they’d suspend disbelief and overlook whatever plausibility issues his premise had. Bradley doesn’t sell his villains, or his heroes either.
Which brings us to the cast, many of whom are uninteresting or too generically pretty to make credible urban guerillas. Chris Hemsworth, as a Marine veteran of Iraq who puts these high school commandoes through a sort of makeshift boot camp and then leads them against the North Korean invaders does passably well, even though he really doesn’t look the part. Marines on active duty, even on leave, generally don’t walk around with three days worth of stubble. Hollywood’s man children may favor the ratso look, but the Corps frowns on it. Adrianne Palicki (From the upcoming GI Joe: Retaliation) might just have a future in action movies, but Josh Peck, as Hemsworth’s brother seems out of his depth, and his supposed growth and transition into a leader falls completely flat. He just can’t play a man others would follow. About the best that can be said for the rest of these kids is that they just don’t make much of an impression. The older actors do better. Jeffery Dean Morgan does well as a Marine Sergeant who throws in with Hemsworth and his teenage troops. Will Yun Lee has the thankless role of Captain Cho, a North Korean officer who hunts the Wolvernes . He does a good steely eyed gaze, but really isn’t given the chance to do much of anything else.
Like the original Red Dawn, this movie lacks much of an ending and mostly just seems to run out of time. The ending scene of the original featured narration by one of the surviving Wolverines telling the audience that “In time, this war, like all wars, came to an end.” And maybe that’s not a bad description of the remake. In time this movie, like all movies, comes to an end. But while it’s on screen it feels silly and dated, and you don’t believe any of it for one second.