Each time a Chris Hemsworth movie is released, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Antipodean heartthrob has had a curious case of the Benjamin Buttons, seemingly growing younger and less experienced with each role. After the Thor star’s turn in last year’s long-delayed high concept fright-fest The Cabin in the Woods, this week finally sees the release of the similarly long-deferred big budget remake of John Milius’ kids-vs-foreign-invaders flick Red Dawn. Filmed in 2009 but shelved due to MGM’s financial troubles, Director Dan Bradley’s big screen debut has, disappointingly, not been worth the wait.
Set in a univere where North Korea have somehow managed to amass one of the largest armies in the world, Hemsworth leads a group of teenagers who look to save their small Washington town from a full-scale invasion by the Axis of Evil. Beneath the looming shadow of the Cold War, Milius’ Russkie-baiting Patrick Swayze-starring 1984 original had a hint more plausibility about it than this muddled tale that hazily puts the blame for America’s militaristic vulnerability down to the financial crisis. Or something.
Humorously, the film’s antagonists were changed, mid-production, from Chinese to North Korean in order to maintain China’s lucrative box office, and there’s plenty of fun to be had spotting the scenes where flags and banners have been crudely digitally-altered so as not to cause offense.
Low on brains, but certainly not short on thrills, Red Dawn 2012 plays out as pure teenage wish-fulfilment fantasy, with Hemsworth’s marine Jed returning to his hometown just in time to lead brother Matt (Josh Peck) and his unfeasibly good-looking pubescent buddies in furious rebellion against the foreign invaders. As Jed moulds these frightened kids into a efficient, bloodthirsty freedom fighters, the stage is set for some ridiculously patriotic but entirely soulless shooty shooty bang bang nonsense.
As leader of the adolescent insurgent ‘Wolverines,’ Hemsworth brings bags of charisma and with his rugged good looks and steely stare it’s easy to see why, even at this early stage in his career, Hollywood execs had him flagged as a natural born movie star. However, despite his commanding turn that practically oozes machismo, the actor’s attempts at an American accent are risible, delivering lines of dialogue as though he’s struggling to chew down lumpy mouthfuls of mashed potato. His is still an imposing, courageous presence though, and as he rallies the troops, Hemsworth shows early signs of the impassioned bravura that would later see him join the ranks of The Avengers.
Peck does less well with a sullen, sulky performance that makes irresponsible, impetuous upstart Matt very difficult to take to, even when he is heroically blasting away at baddies for the preservation of the American Way. The rest of the Goonies-with-guns cast is made up of gorgeous bright young things, delivering leaden performances, including The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson and Home and Away’s Isabel Lucas, who we learn very little about, but who at least get to kill a whole bunch of baddies in a variety of violent, inventive ways.
High-octane, low-fi carnage is something Bradley does rather well, breathlessly firing through set-piece after set-piece of blistering, bullet-pumping action. Early scenes that see our heroes awaken, bleary-eyed, to huge squadrons of dark, menacing jets filling the skies are scarily effective, their sense of terror and bewilderment palpable, as invaders come parachuting in during a rollicking, high-speed car chase escape to the hills. It’s an exhilarating opening, but Bradley forgets to slow things down afterwards. There are plenty of cool homemade skateboard-bombs and skyscraper-leaping stunts, but the director refuses to allow his characters any time to breathe so we might feel anything for them.
The invasion’s supposedly devastating emotional fallout is never properly dealt with, with nobody seeming all that upset when their parents are massacred right in front of them. These kids go from playing football to executing enemy soldiers overnight, their miraculous transformation explained away through a ham-fisted training montage that swiftly gets all the boring exposition stuff out of the way, so we can get to the gnarly bits with tanks and booby traps. So little is made of the kids’ transformation, for all intents and purposes, they may as well be grown-ups, rendering the film’s ‘Teenagers Go to War’ hook redundant. Consequently Bradley’s picture bears more resemblance to Chuck Norris’ cheesy 1985 Invasion USA than to the film it reboots.
Red Dawn doesn’t properly introduce us to its characters or their motivations, skirting over important plot points, such as how they are able to get a hold of shedloads of guns and move around the military occupied town relatively undetected. There’s plenty of exciting shouting and shooting, but little in the way of emotional investment, the director overlooking that it helps to have scenes of these guys shootin’ the shit, so that we can get to know them too. As such, we never get a feel for what is truly at stake here, and when brothers-in-arm become casualties-of-war the film doesn’t pack the emotional punch it surely ought to. Also, criminally for a film about rebellion and uprising, there is a distinct lack of rousing, tubthumping speeches to stir the soul and get us punching the air for the Wolverines’ cause, in the way Milius’ cult-hit original did.
The mid-picture arrival of Watchmen’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a galvanising, brassy U.S. marine is welcome, lending a bit of gravitas and magnetism to a relative personality-vacuum of a film. However, things quickly devolve into seemingly endless scenes of explosions and machine guns being fired down corridors that become dull real quick.
The film’s failure to create any sort of emotional involvement with its characters scuppers any chance a devious, late plot twist has of tugging on the heartstrings, leading audiences to wonder what might have been. A seasoned stuntman who has delivered sterling work on the Bourne series, Bradley clearly knows his way around an action scene. However, this browbeating, outrageously jingoistic film shows he’s got a long way to go if he’s to prove he’s got the brains to match his brawn.