Red Dawn [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (29th June 2013).
The Film

I have no grand illusions. John Milius’ original “Red Dawn” (1984) is not a war picture for the ages. It’s really only a classic if you put the word cult in front of it. Still, I won’t pretend I don’t enjoy the ridiculous Cold War relic starring a young Patrick Swayze, and even younger Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey as a rag-tag band of anti-Bolshevik teens called The Wolverines. Nor do I dare think it an unentertaining picture. Sure, it’s cheesy, but it’s a fun movie all the same. Perhaps even a funny one, if only because it’s so unabashedly entrenched in the early 80's, and the ideology of the era, that it’s hard to not find it at least a little amusing. So, no, it’s not a great movie, and hardly a perfect one. But it is at least competently put together, with Milius supplying solid direction, and a script, co-written with Kevin Reynolds, that has rounded characters and a well-structured plot. And, like any decent 80's movie, the original “Red Dawn” doesn’t pull any punches. It’s bloody and violent, so much so it earned one of the very first PG-13 ratings; back when PG-13 actually meant something other than “this movie contains not a single f**k (of either kind).”

The same cannot be said for the re-done “Red Dawn”. The newer picture is a mostly humorless (at least, its humor is not intentional), high-octane, action-centric remake from first-time director and veteran stunt coordinator Dan Bradley. Forget charmingly silly; this is a remarkably stupid movie in a very bad way. Bradley—helming a patchwork script by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore (that reportedly had ghost re-write polish by Tony Gilroy of all people, though you wouldn’t know it)—jettisons character and complex plot for endlessly elaborate, but bloodless action sequences that are more a waste of my time than anything. I admit, I enjoyed the first 20 or so minutes of this, and even the later action scenes are stimulating at first in terms of sheer scale (the kind of stuff you’d expect from a former stunt-coordinator; every scene is big, bombastic, and never simple)—but then they go on… and on… and I yawn, because there is literally nothing backing them up. No supporting story. And feeble characters that resemble cardboard, played by a few usually more charismatic actors who give painfully dull performances that are as flat as the stuff the characters are seemingly made off. Worst of all, “Red Dawn” has been sanitized by the studio, and their focus groups, into a pussyfooted PC-fest. Does that sound at all appealing, or remotely worthy of the “Red Dawn” name? No? Well, at least were on the same page, because it really isn’t.

Let’s compare the opening sequences (and what follows) of the original and the remake to understand why the latter is the lesser of the two productions. After a brief, minute-at-most scroll of text that sets the scene, mentioning the mounting tensions between East and West, Milius’ “Red Dawn” opens with an incredibly effective, nearly iconic, sight of the parachutes descending upon a schoolyard; Soviet soldiers quickly dispatch a teacher who questions them, and all hell breaks loose. Little more than five minutes into its runtime, most of the major characters that make up The Wolverines are introduced and running for the hills out of town. It doesn’t both stop or explain—its pure panic. Explanations can, and do, come later. Over the course of Milius’ film, The Wolverines return from whence they ran, now insurgents retaliating in rat-a-tat recourse, their end goal of beating back the Russians always in sight. But, sprinkled in between its scenes where teenage terrorist stare down enemy helicopters with weapons in hand, Milius also indulges in sequences that step back from action and reveal character; relationships ebbing and flowing in response to the terror of war.

The remake starts off with an overlong cascade of clips playing over credits. The various news sources explain this “Red Dawn’s” geo-political landscape—the economic downturn, the rise of a Russo-Asian alliance, an increasingly aggressive North Korea, and so fourth, and its effective but much too long an insight into the era of the 24-hour news cycle, and the proliferation of propagandized opinion parading as news in modern mass media. Following the lengthy credits, the film then shifts to a field, too; but not one with Soviet soldiers, but rather football players playing at their Homecoming game. At this football game, most of the major characters are introduced—Matt (Josh Peck), the quarterback; Matt’s friend, a nerdy, techie, school newspaper type, named Robert (Josh Hutcherson); Erica (Isabel Lucas), Matt’s girlfriend; and a handful of others, including Matt’s older brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth), who watches from afar. Events then move to a bar, where still more townsfolk are introduced, and back stories are relayed in passing fashion; then Matt finally arrives home, as the town slips into a mysterious blackout, meeting his father (Brett Cullen), the town police chief who needs to run off an keep the piece in the chaos of a powerless night. At home is once again Matt’s older brother, Jed; a war vet recently returned from the Middle East. The brothers have an uneasy relationship. Their mother’s death, and the younger brother’s anger at feeling abandoned by the older in the aftermath as he went off to war is alluded to, but never explicitly stated. As morning arrives—the power still out—it is only then that paratroopers descend on the small town; and rather than a few hundred as seen in the original, this is thousands, all dropping from CG troop carriers planes, some which explode in mid-air as a battle between the US Air Force and the invaders ensues above. Jed and Matt begin a quick getaway amidst the chaos; their father makes a brief appearance to tell them to “get to the cabin”, and attempts to escorts them out of town, as bombs go off, bullets fly, and bodies fall from the sky. The boys get split from their father, in a series of increasingly outlandish, physics-defying car crashes, but manage to pick up many a teenager—played by Adrianne Palicki, Edwin Hodge, Alyssa Diaz, and others—along the way.

What follows the entertaining, nay even engaging, opening scenes is a lot of nothing, despite the overarching tone of doom and gloom that attempts to darken the action to come later. The character development set up in the opening minutes, and every bit of dialogue and suburban life seen in the early sequences ultimately leads nowhere. Rather than development, the characters back-stories and relationships were quick establishments to set the story on its more action-oriented way. The brother’s initial uneasiness was only there to establish a central conflict that the screenwriters could turn to when the danger of death isn’t daring enough. Hutcherson’s character’s nerdy, photographer, persona only shown at the stadium so that later they have a member of the team who’s a techie, and can hack computers and things. And so on. Even the massive invasion, and all-out war in the streets shown in the first scenes of the morning after the blackout are never bested.

In fact, the small Washington town in which “Red Dawn” is set—although supposedly under a sort of martial law, with the more important townsfolk not locked away in a make shift prison on the local high school’s football field—most people walk freely in the streets, into crowded Subway sandwich shops. Yes, Subway sandwich shops. Somewhere in the middle of the “Red Dawn” remake is what I consider one of strangest scenes ever committed to film. Not that it’s particularly perplexing—or at all artistically abstract—but instead just beyond bizarre. As two of the film’s teenaged resistance fighters—played by Hutcherson and Connor Cruise (superstar scientologist Tom’s adopted son)—flee a botched bombing of an unexplained ceremony the invading North Korean’s had set up for themselves in the town center, they duck into a Subway sandwich shop. Sorry, but what the hell is going on here? The shop is full of customers happily eating away; apparently a foot-long Turkey Bacon Avocado on wheat (or whatever) is totally available in a country overtaken by invading communists, and civilians are free too go wherever they please. That kind curbs any impending sense of danger for the townsfolk away, doesn’t it? But that’s not the silliest part of this little aside. The teenage twosome stops as they enter the establishment, and one asks the Subway Sandwich Technician behind the counter for some artesian bread. The camera lingers in the shop just long enough for the product placement to sink in before the boys burst through the backdoor, into an alleyway, as Credence Clearwater Revival blasts on the soundtrack. This scene is sadly one of many odd sequences that have no place in a story about barely trained high schoolers engaging in guerilla warfare against an invading army that outnumbers them 10,000 to 1. Not when so much of the rest of the runtime is an overly serious, action-packed, absurdity of another kind. Was the Subway scene supposed to be funny? It doesn’t really play that way on screen—or, at least, doesn’t seem like that was the intent, although I personally thought it was hilarious in its inappropriateness.

The filmmaker’s attempt at updating the original’s conceit—which was so deep-rooted in the decade of Regan—in a modern context, for modern movie audiences, doesn’t really work. “Red Dawn” was originally completed in early 2009, and scheduled for a theatrical release in 2010, but was one of a small number of films—the others being what was at the time a Guillermo Del Toro helmed single picture adaptation of “The Hobbit”, the 23rd James Bond picture (which became “Skyfall” (2012)), and the impending “Carrie” (2013) remake—affected by original production studio MGM’s official bankruptcy filing in the spring of 2010. Unlike those other pictures, however, which were mostly in pre-production, and very much like Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s “Cabin in the Woods” (2011)—which curiously also starred Chris Hemsworth—“Red Dawn” was already a complete package when it was put on the shelf.

MGM eventually sold the film off (this Blu-ray makes no mention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at all; not on the packaging or in the opening and closing credits) and the new owners (Film District) went about making it ready for an eventual release in the latter part of 2012. When it came off the shelf nearly three years after it was filmed, the picture needed considerable work to make it presentable in the vastly different cinematic landscape of today, where China is suddenly a major market. The film’s supposedly timely plot—which initially portrayed the invading army as Chinese, not North Korean—was taken to task for being vaguely racist (a claim, honestly, I think is probably still applicable; only the film is now more broadly antagonistic towards Asia as a whole) and it was deemed financially irresponsible to release without changes (again, China is huge movie market right now). Supposedly, most of those changes were cosmetic—using CG to repaint vehicles, re-composite posters, and re-costume actors with the appropriate signifiers. But from a few interviews online, it seems some character roles were expanded, too—namely the primary antagonist, Captain Cho (Will Yu Lee). And that’s sad, silly and sort of pathetic if true I’d hate to see—although, innately interested in—what his part looked like before the rewrites, and reshoots. Even in the expanded form, Cho is a cartoon character of a villain, and Yu Lee has a dozens lines at most. And the funny thing is, even after all the reshoots and rewrites, and needless reworking of the original formula, the Russians are still involved, aiding the Chinese-turned-Korean army, their faceless Spetznaz about as developed as Cho.

I suppose it is a good thing “Red Dawn” was delayed as long as it was. Most of the cast has proved themselves in other roles, particularly Hemsworth, whose bland, boring turn as Jed will instantly be forgotten now that he’s lugging around the hammer of Thor. I’m not sure audiences would so readily shout “ANOTHER!” in regards to his work on the big screen had the charismatic actor made his major motion picture bow here, rather than in his brief but memorable appearance in “Star Trek” (2009) before joining the Marvel movie universe as one of the Avengers. Like Peck, and Hutcherson, and Cruise (especially Cruise), and frankly all the rest of the cast, Hemsworth is flat out terrible. His performance is beyond bad, but I blame the bad writing—and lack of characters, rounded or otherwise—rather than Hemsworth himself. But, like “Red Dawn” as a whole, really, no matter where the blame may fall, bad is bad. And this certainly is.

Video

Shot on 35mm film, and finished on a 2K digital intermediate, “Red Dawn” could easily be mistaken for a direct digital-to-digital transfer, if not for a very fine layer of unobtrusive, and attractive, film grain. The 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded presentation, framed in 2.40:1 widescreen, is every bit as polished, and blemish-free as you’d expect from a recent release. The movie has a very modern look, with some obvious timing teaks via the DI: colors are somewhat subdued, skin tones are slightly orange, and the overall palate has a mild teal push. After a few early scenes that have issue, black levels are solid and offer good delineation. And, overall, detail is impressive. But, the camerawork distracts. Lens flares—a neat aesthetic touch when used sparingly—are abundant, but not as overused as the constantly moving, and shaking, camera. There are dips in focus because of the handheld work, and these occasionally gives way to softness; at times, select out-of-focus shots appear to have been artificially sharpened back up. However, with plenty of room on a dual layered BD-50, and, technically speaking, the transfer is faultless, with an absurdly high bitrate (advertised as 38.8 Mbps; in reality, often hitting the low 40's) resulting in an image that is free of blocking, artifacts, and other compression anomalies. “Red Dawn” looks very nice indeed, but the instability of the shaky-cam (and the inherent focus foibles in some scenes) leaves the disc from earning a higher grade.

Audio

“Red Dawn” features a rousing DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The lossless mix is terrific. Atmosphere is excellent—both in interiors, like the bar in the early scenes, which is filled with rowdy Friday night patrons, and exteriors, subtleties of rustling leaves in the forests surrounding Spokane. Dialogue is aces—clear, precise, and spatially prioritized in the proper channels. Surround use is superb—panning helicopter flyovers have never sounded so good. And, oh, the action effects are a treat, too—gunfire with explosions burst forth with authority, and incredibly powerful LFE. Ramin Djawadi’s score is predictable—a safer effort from the composer—but it carries the action montages well, and sounds great in lossless. Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French.

A note: although a majority of the film is in English, there are a few short exchanges in Korean and Russian. These scenes have default English subtitles, which are hard-corded in a clean yellow italicized text that appears in the active image area well above the lower letterbox bar.

Extras

Given the production’s troubled history, it’s both disappointing and yet not at all surprising that “Red Dawn” doesn’t contain a single supplement.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

The blu-ray is authored with optional bookmarks and the resume playback function. There are no other extras—not even a trailer.

DISC TWO: DVD

The second disc, a DVD, houses a standard definition transfer of “Red Dawn” presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound with subtitles in English, Spanish and French.

iTunes and UltraViolet compatible digital copies are also included.

Packaging

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings “Red Dawn” to high def home video in a 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack. The dual layered BD-50 and DVD-9 are housed in an Elite eco-case. The Blu-ray disc is region free; the DVD is locked to Region 1.

Overall

I’d be interested to see the original cut of Bradley’s “Red Dawn”. Was that version—with the invading Chinese rather than the CG-rebadged North Korean army—radically different? Better? Probably not. No matter how you look at it, “Red Dawn” shouldn’t have been remade. The original film is too much a product of the time in which it was produced; an update was bound to end up a mess. Though, I suppose, maybe there’s a chance it would’ve been less of a mess than this. Being entirely subjective, I admit to enjoying the first 20 or so minutes of the remake. But the picture losses all steam after that, never even coming close to a poor imitation of the original. The blu-ray offers excellent video (beset by the dreaded shaky-cam) and absolutely amazing audio. Extras are limited to additional copies of the film in various formats, which is less a bonus and more a bother. Give it a rent if you must. I’d recommend revisiting the original instead.

The Film: D- Video: A- Audio: A+ Extras: F Overall: C-

 


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