After North Korean forces set foot on American soil in a clandestine invasion, one character utters that “this was bound to happen sooner or later.” He may just as well be referring to the fact that yet another beloved ‘80s title has been tapped for a remake by Hollywood; this time around, it’s “Red Dawn,” John Milius’ moderately beloved 1984 paean to small-town might and Soviet panic. Dan Bradley’s version won’t sway anyone who already construes the mere prospect of an update as something resembling sacrilege, and it’s unlikely to leave as potent an impact on its current generation, but it stands well enough on its own as an efficient, exciting tale of teenage insurgency.
Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) quietly returns home to Spokane, Washington after a tour in the Marine Corps. His dad, Tom (Brett Cullen), is surprised by Jed’s return, but takes it in stride; his little brother, Matt (Josh Peck), is still a bit sore about his absence. That will all have to wait, though, once a blackout hits and a foreign siege manage to invade their town and much of the country the following morning, leaving Jed and Matt to marshal the forces of fellow fugitives in the nearby wilderness. Their ranks include Toni (Adrianne Palicki), still harboring a high-school crush on Jed; Erica (Isabel Lucas), Matt’s current flame; student journalist Robert (Josh Hutcherson); and the mayor’s son Daryl (Connor Cruise).
Each is introduced briskly, though not insultingly, as a respective archetype within the first ten minutes of the film—the alpha male, the hot-head, the tech whiz—and the inciting invasion drives them all to Hemsworth’s other cabin in the woods to regroup and unite as a guerrilla force to be reckoned with (and one that happens to embrace an expected team name-turned-battle cry). Even once divorced from the original film, Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore’s screenplay is a standard-issue affair of tough calls, old grudges, corny lines and military strategy, but these kids make savvy use of the technology at hand, despite actual communications having been compromised.
Like this spring’s “Cabin in the Woods,” 'Dawn' was shot back in 2009—before Hemsworth hit the big time with his starring role in 2011’s “Thor”—and left in the lurch by a bankrupt MGM. His stoic persona still goes to good use here, imperative without getting too gung-ho. (The film generally sees a reduction in the original’s overwrought jingoism, although the appearances of fellow freedom fighters led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan sees an increase in scene-to-scene “Semper Fi” sentiments.) Setting aside the curious lack of family resemblance between them, he and Peck are suitably collaborative and contentious, although the latter is often burdened with the more tearful end of their exchanges.
Cullen makes a strong impression in his few scenes, carrying the air of a man who credibly respects one son’s taciturn personality while encouraging a younger son who had to grow up both mother- and brother-less. As a cop (and, for all we know, a veteran himself), he similarly conveys authority under pressure and anger once captured without ever going full-on Harry Dean Stanton about it. Not to sell the supporting players short, the best that can be said about Hutcherson, Palicki, Lucas and Cruise is that they each serve their roles equally well, alternately young and helpful and frightened and brave and swooning and rarely ever more outstanding than any given moment requires them to be.
A long-time second unit director and stunt coordinator making his directorial debut, Bradley employs a shaky camera and yet has a vital eye for establishing clear action geography in every ambush and skirmish, a benefit perhaps of his experience on the 'Bourne' series. The film hardly goes ten minutes without an action scene, and with a sense of physical stunts dominating a degree of visual spectacle, those sequences lend weight to the idea that these kids are both crafty and vulnerable in such circumstances. The borderline breakneck pace only becomes a hurdle in the film’s last ten minutes, when multiple threads seem set up for third-act payoffs and hastily abandoned for the sake of wrapping this puppy up. (And the less said about a surreal bit of Subway product placement, the better.)
Does this film share the era-appropriate stakes of the original? Not necessarily; in the here and now, it’s hard to believe that North Koreans, even with a little help from some friends, could feasibly carry out an overseas operation like this. (Knowing that the film’s villains had originally been conceived as Chinese forces goes a little way towards rationalizing this sort of scale.) Still, it’s easy to take most films’ war-torn elsewheres for granted, and taken on its own merits, “Red Dawn” is a victory of small battles and heavy artillery, sentimental but rarely too hackneyed, energetic without becoming too silly. [B-]