'Red Dawn' may be campy and over the top, but it's one '80s movie that doesn't pull its punches.
When young people ask me what I remember about the ’80s, my stock answer is that it was a lot fun but kind of scary.
The latter part comes from memories of reading the cover of USA Today and fearing that America might go to war with Russia. It didn’t help that the Russians were once painted as the go-to bad guys in everything from movies, TV and even WWF matches.
By the third grade, I was fearful of political cartoons of Mikhail Gorbachev’s face grafted onto nuclear warheads (who could have guessed, decades later, he’d become a cuddly spokesman for Pizza Hut!).
I remember feeling a grim uncertainty as to whether then-President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev would stick to those peace talks.
Pop culture helped infuse my mild but undeniable case of paranoia. TV movies like the we’re-all-gonna-die nuclear holocaust epic “The Day After” and the Kris Kristofferson-starring, the-Russians-took-over drama “Amerika” were once plausible and terrifying.
So were the movies “Testament” and the older but never truly dated “Dr. Strangelove.” There were also que sera sera pop songs telling me that, even if the nukes dropped, “I’d stop the world and melt with you.”
The decade even closed out with an underrated cinematic interpretation of that particular Modern English tune, with “Miracle Mile” asking audiences what they’d do if they knew the world was going to end by nuclear annihilation in a couple of hours.
Adding to this discomfort was the bizarre “Land of Confusion” Genesis music video, depicting Reagan accidentally launching missiles. The only ’80s political film fantasy that gave me any feeling of optimism and American pride was Sylvester Stallone’s immortal and awfully silly “Rocky IV.”
Not only did it depict the Italian Stallion standing up to a murderous Russian boxer in the ring but suggested Rocky Balboa’s climactic speech (‘Everybody can change!”) would receive a standing ovation from Gorbachev himself.
Then, there was John Milius’ “Red Dawn [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray].”
Released in 1984 and bearing the distinction as the first PG-13 rated movie, it depicts a massive Russian invasion of a small, Norman Rockwellian Colorado town. Milius has become a figure nearly as famous as the film itself, as the director of “Big Wednesday” and “Conan the Barbarian” (to name a few) is a legendary gun enthusiast and was reportedly the inspiration for John Goodman’s Walter character in “The Big Lebowski.”
The film peaks early, spending less than 10 minutes setting up the premise. A high school history lesson is interrupted by parachuting Russian soldiers landing on the football field. Immediately, shots are fired and the school’s history teacher (played the great character actor Frank McRae) is the first of many characters to get annihilated.
Chaos, explosions and gunfire break out all over town. A cluster of teens (including Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen) run for cover. These young men, who identify themselves as “Wolverines” (named after the school mascot), hide out together in the wilderness and plan to take their town, and their country, back.
Cue the shot of soaring bald Eagles.
The Old (And New) West
Milius was clearly making a modern-day western, with old-fashioned values contrasting the late 20th century setting. At one point, things get so positively John Wayne-esque that folksy old Ben Johnson lifts up a trap door and offers two of the surviving teen girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey) to be taken care of.
It’s a touch so old school and sexist, you wait for Johnson to declare the actresses “women folk,” but he never does.
“Red Dawn” is so ultra-macho, red-meat chompin’ and relentlessly jingoistic, it makes “Top Gun” look half-hearted and downright un-American in comparison.
There is never, not for a moment, anything here resembling subtlety. Early scenes include quotes by Theodore Roosevelt and Charlton Heston (the latter figure has his “cold dead hands” declaration literally reenacted on screen).
An infamous moment, where the Russian soldiers take over a McDonalds, is not in the film but has become notorious from available stills (and is glimpsed in the trailer). Although the bit remains cut, the film doesn’t need it. Milius’s film has more than enough kitchen-sink-and-then-some moments that provoke outrage and bemusement over how far he takes his premise.
To give “Red Dawn” a break it may not deserve, it has always struck me less as the ultimate embodiment of a right wing action movie of the Reagan era and more of as an effective, what-would-you-do revenge tale of American soil being taken back from invaders.
Try a Little Tenderness
The best scene in “Red Dawn” by far is when Swayze and Sheen (playing brothers) discover the whereabouts of their father. As played by Harry Dean Stanton, Dad is a tough-as-nails patriarch, held captive in a drive-in movie theater turned prison camp.
He tells his boys (in a touch Shakespeare would have loved) to “Avenge Me!” Yet, the pain in Stanton’s eyes and the sight of his tough, high school jock sons regressing into crying children hits hard. Stanton’s brief, searing performance is truly haunting.
Been There, Killed That
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie isn’t great, as the battle scenes become redundant and the story becomes a series of melodramatic contrivances. A bigger problem than the screenplay is the editing, in which scenes sometimes end abruptly.
Milius’ film is shockingly violent and gets a lot of mileage out of its PG-13 rating. The movie is also clunky and hopelessly dated. The soulful Swayze gives it his all, but watching teens repeatedly blast Russian soldiers with machine guns and then yell out “Wolverines!” gets old fast. Yet, let it be said that Milius’ film is uncompromised, never timid and contains a rough integrity that the capable but gutless 2012 remake never had.
The new “Red Dawn [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” is a truly definitive package, for the film’s fan base and the curious. There’s a lengthy new documentary titled “A Look Back at Red Dawn,” in which the film’s editor, production designer, casting director and co-star Doug Toby recall mostly the technical trials of the film’s making.
Although it provides some in-depth discussion, it’s also dry and avoids bringing up the controversial reputation of the film and its director. On the other hand, the subsequent featurettes (carried over from a 2007 release) fill in the rest of the gaps.
Leading with “Red Storm Rising” and “Training for WWIII,” we get cheerful, lively, unguarded interviews from Milius, Swayze, Sheen, Howell, Powers Boothe and Thompson, providing colorful anecdotes of the film’s grueling shoot.
No one holds back in discussing what they thought of Milius’ vision and the filmmaker himself speaks of the political climate during the filming. Hollywood legend and technical adviser Dale Dye even turns up to recollect the rigorous training procedures he put the cast through.
The only key member absent is Grey, who was said to have disliked working with Swayze, although they later became an iconic screen couple in “Dirty Dancing” (a fact Thompson and Swayze himself brings up). The Blu-ray includes the film’s trailer and a reversible slip cover with both new artwork and the striking original theatrical one-sheet.
Something for Everyone?
Whether viewed as a conversation piece on its status as a Republican fantasy, a still-timely (if paranoid and itchy trigger-fingered) cautionary tale of being prepared for an invasion or just a campy action movie, “Red Dawn” certainly delivers.
As for American-teens-avenging-foreign-bad-guys action movies go, I actually prefer the less distinguished but enjoyable, gentler, grade-A junk that is Disney’s 1988 “The Rescue.” It features U.S. teens taking on North Korea…which may be the reason it has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray.
On the other hand, while “The Rescue” has soft PG-rated thrills, it lacks the sight of Thompson, America’s sweetheart (and a year before becoming Lorraine Baines) brutally turning Russian soldiers into liquid with a gun the size of my car.
Man, the ’80s were scary.