I don’t have to write this review to prove that Red Dawn, thy name is ridiculous. Everyone already knows that it’s ridiculous (though I’ll chime in on that, too). I have to write this review to wave a little flag in support of how ridiculously good it is.
The failures of Red Dawn are the sort of snort-through-your-popcorn blunders that you can see without even waiting for the trailer to finish downloading. Just start with director Dan Bradley. He is known for being a stunt coordinator on films like Spiderman 1, Spiderman 3, Seabiscuit, and three out of the four Bournes. And it feels like he’s mostly coordinating stunts here. “Hemsworth! You look awesome charging over a rooftop with an AK, so how about you keep doing that? Till I tell you to stop. [90 minutes later] Okay, stop. That’s a wrap!”
But if Dan Bradley couldn’t handle the story, it’s because the story was so uber tiny, he was probably afraid he’d drop it and never find it again. The film’s miniature arc could compete with a drunk ant’s one-legged hop and come in third for size. Unlike some writers (Christopher Nolan, we’re looking at you), screenplay team Carl Ellsworth + Jeremy Passmore didn’t pack enough into their project. And unlike worse writers (Peter Jackson, we’d look at you if we could stand the sight), they didn’t make it nearly long enough.
What they should have done: 1) improve the bad guys. The original Red Dawn wasn’t a shining star by all accounts, but at least it had Russians during the Cold War, which is a lot more ominous than totally game-planless North Koreans who were originally supposed to be Chinese, but at some point the American studios figured out that hey, we want this thing to hit Chinese theaters, so…switch the Asians! I’ve got a better idea. How about Islamic extremists? But oh, no, we couldn’t be mean….
2) Build the characters. If half a dozen of my friends and I had just seen our parents get killed and were thrown into junior guerrilla warfare together, there’d be a lot more personality coming out. People have history, they have motives, they have inconsistencies, they have rudders beneath the surface that steer what they do. But these kids are almost sheer props. They exist for the action (someone has to fire the bazooka!), not the other way around. Closest thing to what you might call character development was, of course, between the brothers, but that was tiny and mushy and spoon-fed. Like Gerber peas.
3) Linked to that, beef up the story. 93 minutes? It should have been at least a solid two hours. More realistic characters would have demanded it. For one thing, you can’t turn a motley crew of highschoolers into little G. I. Joeys in, what, a few weeks in the woods? It takes longer to get marines in shape even with the 24-7 help of drill instructors a heck of a lot meaner than Jed Eckert. And if you’re going to end before the good guys win, at least end like Braveheart. Quit killing characters off like disposable video-game extras. Am I asking for more pain? Yes, I’m asking for more pain. It’s an insult to Jed (spoiler!) for me not to feel it.
Implausible, unconvincing, shallow, short, Red Dawn is a real war movie the same way a burp is a real meal. It just reminds you of what you actually wanted to taste. So why on earth did I like it?
Because it was inspiring. Red Dawn might be artistic crap, but it isn’t jingoistic crap. “My country, right or wrong”? You won’t find that here. Rather: “My country is my country, and to let it go without raising hell would be wrong.”
But it’s even bigger than that.
Yes, I’ve got fife and drums in my blood. I look up to veterans on both sides. My dad was in the army, his dad was a marine, my mom’s brother was also a marine, and her dad served as a flight instructor in WWII, an air traffic controller in Korean, and a bomber pilot in Vietnam. But more importantly, I’ve been raised a Christian. My parents are lovers of God first, lovers of country second–and by extension. For my convictions about what this country is really about and how we are supposed to fight for it, I can thank them and their teaching, knowing that that fight will probably never be with a gun. Not for me. In fact, I’d argue that even for our men, the best battles for this apostate nation are not with guns. They are with worship. Prayer. Song. Proclaiming the lordship of Christ. Raising kids. Telling good stories. Laughing at the right jokes.
Red Dawn motivates on all levels. Its guns made me want to fight with words. Its bombs made me want to fight through raising little warriors. Its storming and sneaking and shooting made me want to tear down idols and raise the banners of truth. I loved this badly done little movie because it gave me just a bit of the same feeling that I get from Valkyrie — the feeling that I must go out right now and die for something. Jed’s life made me want to fight with mine.
For moviemakers, Red Dawn is a lesson in “If at first you don’t succeed, why don’t you go back and actually try?” As it is, I’m going to let one of the main characters sum it up for us. “We’re living Call of Duty,” he says. “And it sucks.”
Well, the film is Call of Duty. But it only kinda sucks.