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Viking Night: Red Dawn

By Bruce Hall

September 25, 2012

Apparently, the director told them all to look as stupid as possible.

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When I was a kid, the threat of a Soviet invasion seemed like a pretty reasonable concern. Anybody with half a brain could look at a map and see the inevitable surprise attack, a 2,500 mile march across the Bering Strait and down through Canada. But it took a visionary director like John Milius to show us what would really happen if the Russians took over the world. He alone knew how they would come after Old Glory, ruthlessly tearing down everything good and decent about our great nation. He alone knew of the suffering and sacrifice that would ensue.

And he alone knew the slaughter would start with the 8 a.m. World History lecture at Calumet High School in Calumet, Colorado.
Sound crazy? Then you haven’t seen Red Dawn, an incredibly fetishized story of a heinous attack, the fall of a nation, and a plucky band of attractive teenagers who take up the fight with a vengeance. We meet them moments before the assault, when the impossibly handsome and manly Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops his younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and some friends off for class. As he drives away, Russian paratroopers pour out of the sky, sneering and scowling, picking off the fleeing tots with rocket launchers like it’s a video game.

Why? Because they're Russians, and therefore obviously evil.

Jed manages to round everyone up and head for the hills. There they decide to form an insurgency, with Jed in charge. Their big plan is to kill as many Russians as they can until they either win, or are forced to fight a boxing match with Dolph Lundgren. Eventually they pick up a pair of feisty girls (Jennifer Grey sneers, Lea Thompson growls) and a lantern jawed Air Force Major (Powers Boothe, who apparently used to look like Jeremy Piven). The group borrows the moniker "Wolverines" from their school mascot, and commences jacking up anything and everything with a big red Commie star on it. Each time, the Russians respond with ghoulishly theatrical public executions.

Why? Because they're Russians, and therefore obviously evil.

The Communists put a detachment of flamboyantly dressed Cubans in charge of Calumet, and the war of wills begins. Who will blink first, the Russians or the Wolverines? Over the course of what must be the mildest Rocky Mountain winter in 30 centuries, the movie lays it out for us. Unfortunately, what is clearly meant to be serious contemplation on good old fashioned Yankee self determination becomes the most hilarious war movie parody since Doctor Strangelove. Red Dawn takes itself very seriously, the way stupid people do when they want to trick you into believing they’re not stupid.




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Much like the film itself, neither the Russians nor the Wolverines seem to have an end game. So most of the story is an incredibly clumsy game of cat and mouse between two military forces who seem embarrassingly ignorant of how to use military force. Red Dawn is a classic case of a film that dumbs the story down to the level of its intended audience, which in this case seems to be teenage boys who listen to John Cougar Mellencamp and drive second hand pickup trucks. I put most of the blame on Milius , who is a good writer, but here seemingly had no idea how to connect with his actors or their story.

Scenes are weighed down with lost glances and awkward pauses, as if nobody was entirely sure when they were supposed to speak. In one example, Jed and another character get into a heated argument. Charlie Sheen and Lea Thompson are standing by, but are given nothing to do or say. Sheen looks like he’s passing a kidney stone as he valiantly tries to hold an expression on his face for two minutes. Thompson may not have known the camera was rolling. The result is a horribly awkward scene that jolts you out of the story, and what was meant to be a meaningful and emotional exchange ends up looking like a parody of one.

The film is wall to wall with this kind of accidental slapstick. There’s the scene where Jed uses an animal call to signal his team and then the camera pans left to show them all sitting right behind him. Or how about when Swayze puts his hand to his ear like an Indian scout, claiming to have heard something strange - nanoseconds before a tank plows into frame like the Kool-Aid Man. But by far my favorite moment comes next, when Powers Boothe literally rolls up his sleeves and fights the tank, while the kids scream and cry and the armored beast belches great clouds of water vapor like a badly maintained Universal Studios ride.

As a kid, I totally bought into Red Dawn. Today I can say that while this is without question a stupendously bad film, it still delivers the precious gift of laughter. And it’s of the riotous, uncontrolled, pee your pants and cry like a baby variety. I still respect John Milius for having the guts to see this calamity through to the end. And I respect Patrick Swayze for giving it his all - he clearly took his role as terrorist sex symbol very seriously. I love Red Dawn now more than I ever could have as a boy, and seeing it again was like watching it with new eyes.

This isn’t a war drama with a message, it’s a soupy mess of Cold War propaganda red state paranoia disguised as one. Red Dawn is, without question, the finest comedy-drama about high school kids fighting off a Communist invasion of Colorado that anyone has ever made. And you can quote me on that.


     


 
 

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