Movie Review – Red Dawn (2012)

Fairly generic action film rumbles along, delivering tacit thrills and some inane spills, ultimately never quite delivering the rousing, rip-roaring action films Red Dawn aspires to be. Competetant, sure. Energetic, yes. Hell, Red Dawn delivers a fair few action-oriented moments that really elevate its otherwise lame-duck scripting and characters, but in the end, it comes across as a poor man's Michael Bay outing, minus the sexy women and transforming robots.


– Summary –

Director :  Dan Bradley
Year Of Release :   2012
Principal Cast :  Chris Hemsworth,  Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Connor Cruise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Will Yun Lee, Edwin Hodge, Brett Cullen, Matt Gerald, Kenneth Choi, Brett Cullen.
Approx Running Time :   95 Minutes
Synopsis:   When North Korea invade the United States, a band of high-school kids, led by a returned soldier, take the battle to the invaders by fighting a guerrilla war to tip the balance back into the home side’s favor.
What we think :  Fairly generic action film rumbles along, delivering tacit thrills and some inane spills, ultimately never quite delivering the rousing, rip-roaring action films Red Dawn aspires to be. Competent, sure. Energetic, yes. Hell, Red Dawn delivers a fair few action-oriented moments that really elevate its otherwise lame-duck scripting and characters, but in the end, it comes across as a poor man’s Michael Bay outing, minus the sexy women and transforming robots.


Thor Goes To War.

After languishing on the shelf for a few years after MGM struck financial trouble, the modern updating of Red Dawn arrived in 2012 to a dull thud of unmet audience expectation. I’m not quite sure what the expectation was, but the response to Red Dawn – the 2012 edition – seemed lackluster at best. Having now seen the film, I wouldn’t say it’s the worst film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the best. It’s a half-cocked, middle-ground, PG13 adventure lacking balls to deliver real thrills, something approximating a tweenage idealist action flick and a dumbed-down “hoorah” chest-thump for the good ol’ US of A. Red Dawn is nothing if not well intentioned, at least from the film-makers desire to update the concept of the US being invaded (a topic covered by the similarly-themed Aussie film-from-a-book, Tomorrow When The War Began – a story which is remarkably similar in both initiation and outcome, to the point where I’d say some lawyers might want to take a look at it) and how the inhabitants of the invasion might feel about that. Jingoistic, simplistic, and altogether generic, Red Dawn is a pleasant enough diversion without really bringing in any consequences.

God, I'm so hot.
God, I’m so hot.

Filmed prior to MGM’s financial collapse in 2008 – the same collapse which saw a halt brought to production of both the James Bond and Hobbit franchises – and released only in 2012, Red Dawn sees a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth do a solid job of leading a bunch of young Hollywood actors into battle against the Evil North Koreans, who have just happened to invade the Pacific Northwest (one of the most strategic areas of the USA, apparently!). Exactly why MGM chose to sit this film on the shelf, instead of throwing it up into cinemas and recouping at least some of the expense given to making the thing, I don’t understand, but even a mediocre film such as this would have made back its profit, surely.

I don't want to alarm you, but you and I have just synced menstrual cycles.
I don’t want to alarm you, but you and I have just synced menstrual cycles.

Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) has recently returned home to Spokane, Washington from a tour of Iraq. He has an antagonistic relationship with his brother Matt (Josh Peck), although this is soon pushed aside when they wake one morning to find the North Korean army has invaded their town. Finding refuge in the woods around the town, and meeting up with several other escapees, they soon learn that many of their friends and family have been isolated in special prison camps. Matt’s girlfriend, Erica (Isabel Lucas) is one such prisoner, and so Jed and Matt, together with their rag-tag band of teenage insurgents (including Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki and Connor Cruise), plot to become the thorn in the foot of military commander, Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee). Calling themselves The Wolverines, they become more and more daring as they find success easy to come by. However, the emergence of Russian counter-insurgency experts expedites the seriousness of their plight to thwart the Korean menace, which involved the audacious plan to retrieve a highly guarded secret communications device from under the noses of the invaders.

How to demolish a building.... and a car and a person and a street....
How to demolish a building…. and a car and a person and a street….

Problematic scripting and mediocre story aside, the film has one major redundancy that it simply cannot overcome: the invasion by North Korea. While a film like Tomorrow When The War Began tells practically the same story, albeit using Australia as the invaded country, and some conglomerate of Asian powers as the invaders – which is more likely to succeed considering the lack of military we have compared to the vast continental area requiring protection – Red Dawn’s inability to convincingly get us to think the US could be invaded by a country and teetering and insurmountably mired in iniquity as North Korea leaves the film floundering in the awkward province of not being able to suspend our disbelief. According to scuttlebutt surrounding the production of the film, the central invading power was changed from China to North Korea after a version of the script was leaked online and upset a bunch of Chinese folks who thought it went a little too far. I have to say, Chine would make a much more convincing – if still entirely unlikely – invading army for the US to defend against.

The calm before the storm....
The calm before the storm….

The cast, Hemsworth aside, probably isn’t the most box-office friendly of offerings, although a few of them have has other major films come out since Red Dawn was filmed. Josh Hutcherson, who teamed up with recent Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence for The Hunger Games, has a fairly limited role in what becomes a tiresome, encumbered-by-cliche ensemble affair, featuring a bunch of no-name character designed as canon fodder for the inevitable showdown between the Wolverines and the Korean forces. Josh Peck, whose “family resemblance” to both his father (played by Brett Cullen) and his brother (Hemsworth) is barely tenable at best, gives a solid account of himself as Matt, although, like most of the characters in this film, his trajectory seems forced and trite. His rapport with Hemsworth is nice, and both actors seem to be having a good time of it, but their lines are clunky, woefully generic and lacking even the remotest charisma; coupled with the fact they look nothing like each other (perhaps they’re unexplained half-brothers on their father side?) this primary emotional relationship in the film simply meanders when it should sprint to the finish. On the female side, two token roles are given to the fairer sex to balance out all the youthful testosterone involved – Isabel Lucas and Adrianne Palicki – although it’s fair to say neither of these girls get much opportunity to develop beyond generic emotional crutches for the boys to lean on when things are down.

Yeah, about that unrequited crush you had on me in high-school....
Yeah, about that unrequited crush you had on me in high-school….

Butching up the film’s often wobbly script is screen Alpha Male, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played much the same role here as he did in films like The Losers, Watchmen and…. hell, just about every film he’s ever been in. JDM’s appearance late in the film, as one third of a group of disbanded special ops guys, seems a little ham-fisted by the story guys, tacked on as a last minute injection of muscularity in the face of what can only be described as overwhelming odds, and the film’s sudden burst of energy as it transforms from a hit-and-run guerrilla effort into a “let’s get the secret decoder” mission (seen it in U571, right?) actually improves things for a while. Unfortunately, neither Morgan, nor his military-type compatriots along for the ride, can offer much other than generic gung-ho heroics, which becomes tiresome quite quickly. Also of note is Will Yun Lee, as the central villain, Captain Cho. Cho’s the guy in charge of the Spokane sector of the invasion, and he’s the one under pressure to deal with the Wolverines incursions. Lee, much to my chagrin, is left with little to do other than glare, scowl, grimace and provide a weakly defined target for our heroes, offering nothing but an insipid character around which to focus the energy of the entire film. Cho, representative of the North Korean Army, lacks bite as a villain (although a rather brutal execution early in the film paints him as somebody with whom you do not f@ck) and his final smackdown with the Wolverines is poorly designed.


Director Dan Bradley’s eye for action is noteworthy; it’s probably the only real noteworthy element of the entire film. He gives the film a good polish, a sense of being of a larger budget than he probably had, thanks to judicious use of location filming and setting the film primarily indoors or out in the forest. There’s a juddery, almost imperceptible sense of unsteadiness within the film’s editorial style and use of camerawork to get “into” the action; bullets fly, explosions rock Spokane, and bodies fly through the air as the Wolverines go about their business of taking back their city/country. Bradley’s use of camera is everywhere it can be – he brings a sense of Michael Bay’s wide-screen action ethos to the production, ensuring every twist, turn and gun-battle is captured in all its intended terror and confusion. Unfortunately, Bradley is let down by a contrived script, and some cliched characters offering him little but gristle instead of meaty flesh, leaving the film hanging more on the action than the emotion. Don’t get me wrong, Bradley delivers as much emotive content as he can wring from a bunch of people we really don’t care about, so I guess it’s not his fault the film sucks ass when the bullets stop, but the uneven nature of action and emotion at times stalls the film dead. Visually, however, Red Dawn hits the sweet spot.

Hey! This douche just said Thor sucked ass!!!
Hey! This douche just said Thor sucked ass!!!

The overarching feeling one gets from the 2012 edition of Red Dawn is a sense of mediocrity. Perhaps it’s the diluted PG13 nature of the violence (there’s very little actual blood and gore, for a film where people keep shooting each other), or maybe it’s the rote characters and see-it-coming-a-mile-away plot points, or perhaps it’s the sense that the very concept itself is so unbelievable it cannot possibly be entertained by a serious film fan: either way, Red Dawn’s lack of impact can be laid at a number of differing elements that, when added together, prevent it from becoming a film of any significance. The cast are good enough for a film of this type, and the action is slickly directed, but the lack of soul – thanks to the weak script – is nigh unforgivable for a film with such potential. In the end, I’m loathe to recommend this film to anyone other than those seeking a below-par actioner that delivers reasonable excitement when the guns are blazing, but limps into reverse when the talking begins. Red Dawn is average at best. It’s entirely silly at worst.