The biggest compliment one can pay Red Dawn is that you care when people die. That may seem an odd thing to say - we should always care when people die - but the value of human life isn't exactly something that high-concept Hollywood movies do well. But the character work in this remake of John Milius' 1984 film about a communist invasion of America is strong enough to make you feel a pang of loss that's missing from similarly minded studio efforts this year (here's looking at you, Battleship). And that's largely thanks to Chris Hemsworth, who once again proves more than capable of offering an emotional anchor no matter how silly the material is.
And Red Dawn is built on a mountain of silly. A communist invasion of America at least made some sense back in 1984. It requires a concerted suspension of disbelief to buy into North Korea conquering America in this day and age. And that's not a patriotic complaint, it's a narrative one that gets more and more problematic as the film unfolds. To be fair, the initial invasion is a thrilling sequence that involves Jed (Hemsworth), a marine home from Iraq, and Matt (Josh Peck), a high school quarterback, racing wildly across their small home town as it's filled with paratroopers from the sky. Not unlike the escape from suburbia that opens Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, it's an exciting start that sets up a world in which all the rules have suddenly and violently been taken hostage.
Once the action slows down, however, and you're given time to think about what's just happened and how the Wolverines, a band of rogue teenagers including Adrianne Palicki and Josh Hutcherson, are going to survive against their heavily armed invaders, the silliness settles back in. But even with all of the doubts that come with the premise, the movie would fare better if it didn't seem as though the entire middle section was one giant montage constantly skipping over crucial transitional information.
A training montage is one thing, but Red Dawn is never, ever concerned with continuity or how the Wolverines get from point A to point B. One second they're in the woods talking about going somewhere, the next they're suddenly there. It doesn't serve a film about people thrust into an inconceivable survival scenario to skip over all the things they need to survive; it look as though they've got magical access to anywhere in their city, and that the invaders don't really have much of a stronghold on anything. This unbalances the entire underdog structure of insurgents versus invaders, which in turn saddles Hemsworth with having to repeatedly talk about how dire their situation is instead of director Dan Bradley actually showing the stakes to us.
Yet even with editing problems threatening to unravel it all, the cast holds Red Dawn together. Hemsworth is clearly the film's secret weapon, but the supporting players all have fine interplay with one another. They deliver humor and heart in measured doses, so once the bullets start flying, we do actually care if they're hit. And when the bullets do fly, the movie is at the top of its game. There's a scale and situational awareness to each of the film's action sequences that's impressive enough to not only suck you back into the story, but it make you wonder why the rest of the movie struggles with comparatively simple things like establishing geography and locations.
Had Bradley found a way to make the drama as effective in the non-action scenes, Red Dawn might just be a new pop-culture gem like the original. But he didn't, and it isn't. It's entertaining for the most part, with good character moments and fine action, but it's held back by an uneven roller coaster of tone and quality.
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