In 1984, ultra-conservative filmmaker John Milius, a self-described "Zen fascist," unleashed his neo-con nightmare "Red Dawn" on an unsuspecting moviegoing public. Now, his more-than-a-little-dated vision of an "inevitable" communist invasion of American soil (and resulting teenage insurgency) has been remade for today's undiscriminating patriot.
Less in keeping with the spirit of American bravery and honor was the decision of original studio MGM to change the racial identity of the dirty red invaders from Chinese to North Korean. A shameless attempt to appeal to commercial interests it may be, but an act of cinematic valor it is not.
Much like the original, the remake's invaders parachute into Spokane, Washington and begin a military occupation that is catastrophically disrupted by a ragtag group of Hugh Jackman-less youths called Wolverines, but for a post-9-11/post-Soviet Union/post-Reagan-era jingoism world, the villains were refashioned as Communist Chinese (very likely just collecting interest on all the loans they've given the U.S. over the years.)
The "Red Dawn" remake was shot in late-2009, before lead Chris Hemsworth had swung his first hammer as Marvel's Norse force Thor, but after sitting on a shelf for years, the film was aging less like wine and more like fruit. With Chinese audiences playing an increasingly crucial role in international box-office, the floundering MGM made the classless decision to change the villains from Chinese to North Korean through dubbing and computer manipulation of various insignias featuring Chinese characters of the People’s Liberation Army.
The digitally-altered North Korean forces are led by Captain Lo, played with stoicism by actual bonafide Korean Will Yun Lee in a case of being accidentally appropriate for a role.
Lo brutally murders Hemsworth's dad, turns a high school football field into a makeshift POW camp, and posts propaganda signs like "You Deserve To Be Here" and "Corporate Corruption" that are torn straight out of John Carpenter's "They Live." There's even a token massive Russian with a blue cap.
A hastily patched-together preamble has news footage showing the threat of North Korea, clearly tacked on, and several tense scenes between Captain Lo and his "Korean Military" associates feel shockingly out of place since they're dubbed like some 1970's Shaw Brothers kung-fu movie. I half-expected a junkie to be snoring through an involuntary heroin nap in the theater seat next to me, that's how trashy it felt.
Unlike a lot of old B-movie 42nd Street fare, "Red Dawn" really does try for a certain air of verisimilitude, which is why the poor dubbing and obvious CGI sign manipulation seem so glaring. Director Dan Bradley, a former stunt coordinator who makes his debut here, stages nearly every scene with handheld pseudo-documentary urgency, and knows how to construct tension just as well as he can frame a panoply of explosions.
Still, the movie has a lot of weaknesses, from its shameless minute-long Subway product placement ("That was good!" coos one of the Wolverines after gulping down a stolen Cold Cut Combo), to the fact that the entire cast seem like they were recruited from a J. Crew catalogue. And though these kids may be more ethnically diverse than their '80s counterparts, let's just say Vegas odds for the survival rate of non-Caucasians should be LOW. Sorry, Connor Cruise, daddy can't bail you out this time.
Alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ken Choi's U.S. Marine was clearly included from the outset to be the token positive portrayal of an Asian person, whatever nationality that might be. The actor is no stranger to switching things up, having previously played a Japanese Nisei U.S. soldier in "Captain America: The First Avenger" as well as a Chinese gang leader on "Sons of Anarchy," so he had little issue with the changeover.
"I had one line that I had to re-dub and that was it," Choi told About.com. "They really did their best with it. My one line, I think I was in there for 40 minutes because they wanted to get it just right. To re-translate everything, they wanted to get it so that your mouth is moving exactly the same as what's coming out of your mouth."
If that's Choi trying to do damage control on the studio's behalf, it was too little too late. By the time the film reveals the magical super weapon that turns into the third act Macguffin (via a screenwriter's greatest weapon: tedious exposition), any ra-ra flag waving is a pointless exercise in covering up the symbol "Red Dawn" filmmakers really worshipped… the almighty dollar.