Tuesday, September 18, 2012

80s Revisited: Red Dawn

Red Dawn (1984)
Directed by John Milius; screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius, story by Reynolds; produced by Sidney Beckerman & Buzz Feitshans

This flick made a much bigger impression on me when I was in junior high. The Cold War was still in the process of ending then; the fears of getting blown up or invaded any day were still pretty fresh. And though this movie plays on those pretty effectively in its opening, it really doesn't know what to do with you when it pulls you in.

I keep hearing that this movie is a conservative wet dream pro-war movie, but it's really not. There's some sort of anti-state libertarian leanings, maybe, but the picture doesn't really know what to do with them. There are times, too, when it goes into really bad taste territory and tries to be a pro-America propaganda flick, but there aren't a lot of those, either. This movie's not really about anything at all. It's a war movie that doesn't have anything to say about heroism, a movie about the pressures of combat that doesn't have any interesting points to make about people, and a movie where political ideologies conflict that has absolutely nothing to say about politics at all. It's just sort of... there.

All of that would be forgivable if the movie were at least an enjoyable B action flick, but it's not even that. It tries too hard to get us to care about characters that it never really bothers to characterize. It's just a bunch of terrible actors shouting things and crying a lot and occasionally laughing but then paying in blood for letting their guards down. This movie is really badly acted, I can't overstate that. Patrick Swayze is especially embarrassing; Milus just doesn't rein him in at all. There's no approaching these characters or identifying with them. It's Blair Witch level acting: I don't know what to do, so I'll just shout and say "fuck" a lot. Still, no one is as laugh-inducing as Harry Dean Stanton, who plays father to Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. His single scene in the movie feels like a bizarre apologia for child abuse; I'm sure it isn't meant that way, but the dialogue is really uncomfortable and sort of sounds like "See? This is why I beat the shit out of you kids, to prepare you for the Communist invasion." And then his shouting "Avenge me, boys! Aveeeeeeeeeeeeeenge meeeeeeeee!" is so hilariously over the top that a gale force of laughter is really the only response.

The movie at least tries to be evenhanded and shows us how war can debase people no matter which side they're on. It doesn't portray Communists as inherently evil, but sees Communism as a corrupting influence, which in itself is a pretty simplistic view and a little condescending on its own, but at least John Milius deigns to see the enemy as human beings, which is more than you can say about some movies from the same period. (Good example: the cartoonish villains of Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Rambo finally wins the Vietnam War or something. Though, to be fair, it's a much easier to watch movie because it's such a silly cartoon and it's so dumbly straightforward and knows what it wants to be, even if it is quite stupid. Credit where credit is due, though: Red Dawn may be boring, but it at least tries for realism. It doesn't achieve it, but it tries. Though it can never touch Rambo in its high instance of unintentional (?) homoeroticism.)

One of my bigger problems with this flick, too, is that it doesn't achieve the scope it tries for. There's this sense that what's happening is happening on a global level, but it all seems to take place in the same 300-yard radius (except for the scenes that take place up in the mesas of, um, Colorado... actually New Mexico, as if it weren't painfully obvious). I think it would have been wiser to limit the scope to this specific group of kids and the emotions they go through during a crisis, but instead Milius tries to make it bigger, and it only makes it seem smaller. Instead of getting to know these indistinguishable kids, he focuses on the action and the importance of it and it all falls flat because there's nothing to prop it up. There are no stakes because the movie hasn't established them, except with a propagandist's simplicity. And frankly, you can give an example of encirclement all you want at the beginning of this movie, the idea of invaders parachuting into Middle of Nowhere, Colorado, is pretty silly. Like, wouldn't you strike at the major centers, like New York City and Washington, DC? There's this sense of "If only we can get these guerrilla kids under control, our conquest of this fading, industry-free small town will be complete and the rest of America will fall! Onwards to Flint, Michigan!" I know this is supposed to be going on all over the US, but focusing on this one tiny nowhere town doesn't quite make the point of Americana and its values being under assault the way the film thinks it does.

The Wikipedia page for the movie quotes someone as saying liberal critics were outraged by the film. Why? There's no substance here whatsoever. The only reason to get pissed off at this movie is that it's so long and boring.


Hobgoblin238 said...

I still watch it though. I loved it as a kid and still do.

Roger Owen Green said...

never saw it! interesting.

Tom Lester said...

Are you ever going to do an 80's revisited of The Goonies? By the way, I'm a long time lurker, first time commenter. Keep up the great work.

SamuraiFrog said...


The original concept of 80s Revisited was to take another look at movies that I had only seen once or twice and had really vague memories of. The Goonies is definitely not one of those movies; I have it on DVD, I get caught up in it on TV, I've seen it at midnight shows, I think I can probably recite the dialogue. It's just one of my all time favorites. When I started this (extremely occasional) series, I figured it wasn't revisiting a place you've never completely left, you know what I mean?