America has had its national traumas — its Antietams and Pearl Harbors and 9/11s — but what we haven't faced since the Battle of New Orleans is proper ground invasion, a shooting war with a foreign occupying army. Rather than accept this as good fortune, the absence of this test of mettle has been a source of insecurity in some quarters, so we've enacted our Stalingrads on the battlefield of the screen.
Red Scare trash Invasion U.S.A. (1952) lent its title to an '85 Chuck Norris actioner, itself riding the popularity of John Milius's 1984 Red Dawn. (And does anyone remember the Kris Kristofferson miniseries Amerika?) The best of the lot, Milius's Red Dawn imagined a Soviet-Cuban allegiance linking up in Rocky Mountain Colorado, where they meet opposition from high-schoolers-turned-partisans, a savage, bracing film drawing heavily on wartime Brit-invasion fantasy Went the Day Well? (1942).
Now it has been remade, as all films perforce must be: 2012's Red Dawn begins in Spokane, Washington, as the clock winds down on the quintessentially American pastime of Friday-night high school football. Hothead quarterback for the home-team Wolverines, Matt Eckert (Josh Peck), loses a squeaker in front of his girlfriend, Erica (Isabel Lucas), his sheriff dad (Brett Cullen), and his big brother, Jed (Chris Hemsworth). Hanging at the margins of town life, prone to plopping down at the dining room table with a sixer just for himself, Jed is an ex-Marine gone a little slack without high-pressure warfare to keep him taut and motivated.
Jed doesn't have to wait long for a new mission. The following morning, the sky is dotted with countless parachutes, and Spokane has succumbed to a sneak attack by the dastardly . . . North Koreans? Picking up a few stragglers along the way, Matt and Jed head for the hills loaded for bear. Once apprised of the developing situation — an officer called Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee) is now "acting prefect of this district," resistance is futile, etc. — the escaped form up their own resistance. They're called the Wolverines, and they model themselves, per Jed, on "the Vietcong, mujahideen, even the minutemen," with the de facto commander drilling his accidental recruits into a home-grown run-and-gun guerrilla insurgency.
Single-mindedly action-oriented to the point where Milius's film seems relatively ruminative, this Red Dawn is handled by promoted stunt coordinator Dan Bradley who, when the original came out, was already making a living going headfirst through glass. Here, Bradley's highest accomplishment is Matt and Jed's initial escape through the invader's tightening roadblocks, a sequence that rides on snap-decision adrenal instinct, with Matt off-roading the family's Dodge Ram around backyard pools, the disjointed, dashed-off design of the scene fitting the total disorientation of the experience. But even after Jed has drilled the Wolverines to "keep [their] shit together in a firefight" and they've been battle-tested and born again hard, Bradley sticks to the same "film the hell out of everything and hope it all shakes out in the editing booth" approach. What should be Red Dawn's centerpiece — the Wolverines' tactical assault with the backup of some out-of-retirement Marines on a police station that the occupying forces have converted into their headquarters — is scarcely more legible than the first panicked moments of takeover.
Milius, a well-read student of military history, filmed his maneuvers with clarity, took every pain to make his invasion seem practically feasible, and applied the same care to the human details of his story — the relationships of brothers and sisters in arms, the attrition on both sides of a war. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen's Eckert brothers were half-wild country boys in over their heads who only knew how to shoot straight, and audiences responded because they knew kids like them. Hemsworth is an Alpha recruitment poster, strong and silent until the script demands he deliver patriotic pregame pep talks; Peck's the Selfish Youth who needs to learn "there's no 'I' in team" — both stock characters with nary an atom of individual truth to them.
It is possible that Bradley feels obliged to keep up the blitz on the audience to keep us from focusing on the manifold improbabilities here. How could North Korea, a malnourished, ingrown nation of 25 million hope to enforce martial law on the vast, densely forested, and well-armed Pacific Northwest? Didn't the filmmakers see Team America: World Police? What high school quarterback would be wearing a Dinosaur Jr. shirt in 2012?
Or perhaps I should say 2009, which is when Red Dawn was actually filmed — and who knows how many uncredited interventions led to its final form. As for the unconvincing casting of North Korea, it's no surprise to learn that they are a hasty post-production substitution for the Chinese who, in the movie as initially scripted and shot, had come to collect on the U.S.'s massive overdue debt, like a billion loan sharks on a feeding frenzy. This might have added a sorely missing topicality to this otherwise wholly egregious production, but the occupying army of businessmen who run the movies depend on overseas box office like America depends on foreign oil, and gone are the days when we could cheerily offend one half of the world for the entertainment of the other. Very soon, it seems, Hollywood will have perfected the art of making movies that batter no one's sensibilities, except that tiny minority who have a shred of dramatic or aesthetic discrimination, themselves a veritable North Korea in their isolation — though there might be more of us than they think.