Why is it that films that spend the longest time on the shelves feel so unfinished? Reportedly filmed three years ago, Dan Bradley’s strikingly incompetent “Red Dawn” is now being dumped in theaters, stitched together with scotch tape and falling apart at the seams, letting casual racism and misanthropy to spill out the sides. Less a movie than a demo reel for Bradley, the prolific second-unit man making his directorial debut, “Red Dawn” ladles on the chaotic violence in a mostly crisp shooting style that obscures the actual point of all this nonsense, suggesting the filmmaker had absolutely no concept of what was ever going on with that pesky first unit of any of his films.
“Red Dawn” begins with the generic sights and sounds of the Pacific Northwest, as a football team loses while star player Matt (Josh Peck) goes freelancing downfield. This story-significant showboating is seen by returning war vet Jed, and as Chris Hemsworth’s shoulders slump, you very clearly see the dynamic at play. One of these boys is a man, and the other… well, fingers crossed.
Our brief introductions to this world, where each lead has an accompanying bland white girlfriend and Hispanic and black buddies in silent support, are interrupted by explosions and action as a military siege occurs, rampaging through the suburbs in strategic formation. At first it seems that the North Korean insignias on these parachutes and tanks are a joke, since North Korea won’t exactly be invading anyone anytime soon — this is furthered by the notion that this generic locale isn’t exactly begging for villainous takeover.
Of course, anyone following the project knows the story behind this film’s unfortunate Orientalism. Shot and conceived with villains from China, the producers wrapped the project before realizing they would need Chinese box office. Of course, the fury of the Chinese is a political paper tiger, since they don’t seem to mind that a few minor reshoots can change the identity of a Chinese citizen into a Korean without any recasting. The producers gambled that China’s outlook would be, “We’ll indulge your bullshit Yellow Peril as long as you confuse us with Koreans, because that’s okay.” There are words for this. “Being racist” and “indulging racists” seem to fit nicely, though your mileage may vary.
Given his military training, Jed hoists a group of friends on his shoulders and whisks them to safety, heading into the woods to regroup. “Red Dawn” ditches the first act exposition within only ten minutes, creating a film of training montages leading to explosive action sequences. The movie might as well place emphasis on the rugged physicality and backwoods handsomeness of Hemsworth rather than the drama between Jed and Matt, particularly because Hemsworth and Peck don’t look like they’ve ever shared the same restaurant booth, let alone mother.
Part of the novelty of the original “Red Dawn” was seeing kids forced to take up arms to defend their land. It was something of a taboo-breaker in that aspect, establishing that the Cold War would reach such heights that it would claim our most innocent. It’s impossible not to note, however, that this taboo has been shattered time and time again — let us not forget that “The Hunger Games,” which pits children against each other in bloody combat, saw it’s first broadcast rights go to ABC Family of all channels. The notion of kids with guns has been branded, marketed and sold, no matter how many school shootings take lives, so the idea of turning children into action figures is long past its transgressive appeal. Take that away and you have another generic actioner set in another generic town — and the filmmakers have, casting a group of actors clearly too old for their roles, even if this was shot before Hemsworth‘s “Thor,” Josh Hutcherson’s ‘Hunger Games,’ and whatever Josh Peck is up to these days.
Even the invasion element seems obscured. With the exception of a few loose radio broadcasts that tell us nothing, we don’t exactly know what’s going on in other cities. That would be compelling if unbelievable (no one has a working cell phone?) if the stakes were clear. But once these kids head off into the woods and begin training to defend their town, we’re entirely unclear as to what the timeline is. Given the narrative’s emphasis on guerilla tactics used against the Korean army, it’s uncertain exactly how much time is passing. Days? Maybe months? Just weeks? It’s literally impossible to tell, though if it’s on the long side, these suburban “kids” do an excellent job keeping healthy and safe in the woods.
It’s about halfway through the movie when the realization kicks in — our leading character is going to be Matt, the football star. This comes only after we understand that he’s been given the lion’s share of screen time. Hiding in plain sight, Peck struggles to command the screen in any lasting or memorable way. It’s likely the result of a heavy re-edit that emphasizes action over character, and we’re forced to assemble Peck’s Matt as a series of slumped shoulders, half-muttered excuses and petulant scowls. You keep wondering when the real leading character will emerge, and when the real movie will actually begin. Keep waiting. [F]