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RED DAWN (1984)

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, April 7, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: In film history, ‘Red Dawn’ is notable as the first release to carry a PG-13 rating, and there was a remake in 2012. But now the original 1984 film has been given a Blu-ray, special-edition upgrade by the Shout! Factory on its boutique Shout Select label. Here’s my Aug. 12, 1984, Deseret News review.

The trouble with writer/director John Milius is that he often drops the ideas that make his movies interesting in favor of mindless action. In “Conan the Barbarian” it was no great loss. In “The Wind and the Lion” it hurt. But never has this tendency been more frustrating than in “Red Dawn.”

“Red Dawn” offers an incredibly interesting premise, spends the first half of the film setting it all up, then sinks into a comic-book mentality as it becomes a combination John Wayne war saga and John Wayne western.

The film opens explaining that it is the near future. NATO has been dissolved, nuclear weapons are gone from Europe, and the United States stands alone while there are revolutions all around her.

Then the action begins on an extremely powerful note, as a high school class in a small Texas town listens to its teacher, who is, ironically, talking about our violent history. Paratroopers land in the schoolyard and the soldiers, clad in jungle fatigues, shoot and kill the teacher, then open fire with machine guns on the classroom windows, killing many students.

There follows a mad scramble as youngsters race every which way, trying to escape, and we follow a few who hop into a pickup truck, stop by a small roadside station to pick up some goods, then head for the hills.

     

        Russia invades McDonald's in 'Red Dawn' (1984).

After a month of fear in the wilderness, three of the boys return to town to see what’s happened, and are terrified to see that it resembles the Communist invasion of Afghanistan, with wire fences, Soviet troops driving around in tanks and posters of Lenin on every wall.

Gradually we learn that Russia has joined with Cuba in invading the United States, marching up from Mexico through Texas in traditional ground-warfare style, avoiding the use of nuclear weaponry.

There are some great scenes through all this, in particular a moving exchange between two of the boys and their dad, beautifully portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton, who is locked in a concentration camp.

At this point there are already a few plot holes beginning to form but they can easily be forgiven because the story is so powerfully related. But by the beginning of the second hour, “Red Dawn” begins to turn into a formula action film, with the kids turning into resistance fighters, stealing weapons from the Soviet and Cuban troops, and killing the communists right and left.

     

In fact, the entire second half of the film seems like little more than carefully choreographed violent vignettes, and the climax is a ridiculous Main Street shootout right out of “High Noon.” What was at first a fascinating idea about how World War III might be fought if the Soviet Union took on the United States by means of conventional warfare, becomes a stereotypical action picture, and its power is lost.

Still, “Red Dawn” has its moments, and, if only for a while, offers some food for thought. And there are some very good performances here — particularly the aforementioned Stanton in a very small role, Ben Johnson as an old rancher who helps out the kids and Powers Boothe as a seasoned Air Force pilot who finds himself accidentally in the midst of these self-styled freedom fighters. Among the kids themselves, Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell and Lea Thompson are most notable.

“Red Dawn” is the first movie to be released with the new PG-13 rating, bestowed for the violence, which is considerable, but, of course, in a wartime context, along with some profanity and implied sex.