ReThink Review: Red Dawn - Somehow, the North Koreans Are Coming!

Once or twice a year, North Korea tests a missile (often ineffectively) or says something inflammatory, causing America and the media to experience a brief spasm of worry over the intentions of the mysterious, hermitic country. I'm half Korean, and while that definitely doesn't make me an expert on North Korea, these concerns about North Korea and whether they'll attack the U.S. or South Korea always strike me as being pretty ridiculous. After all, North Korea is an incredibly poor country whose citizens are often subjected to horrible famines and are making do with technology left over from the Cold War and little electricity. When I think of North Korea, I'm more likely to think of images like these than a scary military threat. All that footage you see of marching North Korean soldiers with their hardware and missiles is all for show to maintain national pride. A few weeks ago, I told a friend that I'd bet most North Korean soldiers would probably surrender for a few Big Macs and an iPhone 3GS.

That's why the 2012 reboot of the 1984 cult classic Red Dawn strikes me as being so dumb. In the film, North Korea (aided by the Russians and a secret weapon that disables electronics) invades and occupies the United States. That's right, you're supposed to believe that a country of 25 million that can't even keep the lights on at night is going to take over the United States. Watch my ReThink Review of Red Dawn below (transcript following)


The original Red Dawn came out in 1984 and tells the story of a Russian invasion of the US and a group of American high school kids who take up arms against them. With Cold War tensions running high, a scrappy B-movie like Red Dawn made a lot of sense and became a cult classic, helping launch the careers of actors like Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Charlie Sheen and Lea Thompson. Now we have a reboot of Red Dawn, where the enemy isn't a militarily and economically strong superpower, but tiny little backwards North Korea, an idea so laughable that I'd like to think even the dumbest American viewer would have a hard time believing it.

The new Red Dawn takes place around Spokane, Washington where Jed Eckert, a Marine and Iraq veteran played by Chris Hemsworth, is home for a visit when North Korean soldiers parachute in and quickly take over the town. Jed, his high school-aged younger brother Matt (played by Josh Peck), and a few of Matt's football buddies (played by Josh Hutcherson, Connor Cruise, and Edwin Hodge), are able to escape to the Eckert's remote cabin, where they're joined by more youngsters, including a former classmate of Jeb's (played by Adrianne Palicki) who used to have a crush on him.

After learning that the kids' parents have either been executed or imprisoned, Jeb leads the group, who call themselves the Wolverines after their high school's mascot, through a mini boot camp and launches an insurgency against the occupying forces, setting up ambushes and hit-and-run attacks to destabilize the North Koreans and, in Jeb's words, "create chaos".

Unfortunately, Red Dawn falls short on a lot of basic levels, starting with the action scenes. Maybe I've been spoiled by excellent military fare like 'Band of Brothers', or it's that military movies and video games have been getting more gritty and realistic in general, but the battles in Red Dawn just didn't strike me as that interesting, substituting a lot of shakycam for good choreography and staging, while poor editing often left me unclear on where the fighters were in relation to each other. The film also suffers from a severe lack of self-awareness, with only one mention of 'Call of Duty' or other games in the militainment genre which the Wolverines would've grown up playing while picking up battlefield strategy.

The new Red Dawn spends more time fleshing out characters than the original, but not in any way I found particularly compelling. I appreciated the shoutout to insurgents like the Viet Cong and the mujihadeen, with the tacit acknowledgement that Americans would use the same so-called terrorist tactics if the US was ever occupied by a foreign army, but it's then followed by a gross, naive oversimplification of America's role in the Iraq War, where Jeb served. I also felt like the horrors and hardships of war were never properly evoked.

But I just couldn't get past the ridiculous notion of North Korea invading and occupying the United States. When the film was shot back in 2009, the villains were Chinese, which would've made more sense. But in an illustration of how international the movie industry has become and how powerful China is in our increasingly interconnected economies, the filmmakers were forced by the distributors to redub and digitally change the villains to North Koreans so as not to anger the Chinese government.

That's why in the new Red Dawn, we have North Korea -- a country with the population of Texas where millions are malnourished and most get only a few hours of electricity a day -- not only toppling the world's biggest military, but actually holding territory. Even if the North Koreans supposedly have a secret weapon and are getting some aid from the Russians, the US, NATO, and an army of contractors couldn't successfully occupy Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most undeveloped and uneducated countries in the world. I know it isn't a documentary, but the new Red Dawn would've only been more ludicrous if Ludacris himself was in the movie. But if you still want to get your jingoism on, the original Red Dawn is still a pretty good time.

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