Movie review: ‘Red Dawn’ (1984)

rdThe 1984 cult classic “Red Dawn” (it did OK at the box office, too) is a decent action film with a decent cast and decent work, but there are a few too many stereotypes for it to have risen to any greatness. It became a rallying point for both survivalists as well as extreme right-wing organizations in addition to being your basic action film. It was remade 28 years later, but that’s another review for another day.

‘Red Dawn’ (1984)
(1984; 114 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by John Milius and starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey)

FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVED WE’D BE INVADED (MILITARILY)

Back in 1984 the Red Menace had resurfaced and the U.S. had President Ronald Reagan in the final year of his first term in office. After the spineless foreign policy of the Carter years (remember that little thing about Iran seizing our embassy and ol’ Jimmy basically did nothing?), Reagan put oomph back into our armed forces and took a tough attitude in foreign policy.

So, as the potential remained for World War III (the Cold War wouldn’t end for another six years) and “Red Dawn” came to the big screen and highlighted fears about what would happen if we were invaded by Commies. “Red Dawn” portrays Cuban and Central American troops under the command of the Russians to attack the U.S.

The plot here is simple: a group of teenagers form a ragtag band (the moniker “Wolverines” is their high school mascot) that begins guerilla warfare against the occupiers in the wake of the invasion. The boys get some basic supplies and hole up in the mountains. First they hunt and stay away from “town” (a quick deer hunting scene) before venturing back; they find the Commies in power and burning books; they leave but wind up entrusted with a friend’s granddaughters for safekeeping (with a guerilla band?); and begin their war against the invaders.

Everything is just about stereotyped from hunting for food, to confiscation of firearms (a soldier’s hand is seeing taking a pistol out of a dead American’s hand and there’s a bumper sticker with the ‘I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold dead fingers’ slogan), to putting “troublemakers” in a prison camp and all the predictable characters and their flaws.

Patrick Swayze is the focus of the film as the leader, “Jed.” He and his brother, Charlie Sheen in his first big-screen role as “Matt,” make the band into a formidable fighting unit with C. Thomas Howell as “Robert,” a sensitive teen who becomes a cold-blooded killer bent on revenge after losing his family.

While the group ultimately runs out of gas, the movie ends (of course) on a predictable note (the message about the U.S. winning the war was added at the insistence of the studio, according to IMDb.com). With only two survivors (sorry if this is a spoiler … too late), there are a lot of doomed characters in this one.

Anyway, it’s better to write about the actors.

Red Dawn” was the first time Swayze worked with Jennifer Grey, who plays the tough “Toni.” They would work together on another, better-known film … “Dirty Dancing.” You don’t get to see much in the way of chemistry here, though.

Swayze, whose credits include “Ghost” and the surfer-crime flick “Point Break,” is quite earnest and commanding, while still having heart. When it turns out that one of the Wolverines have betrayed the group, Swayze wavers on an execution of the traitor (but Howell doesn’t hesitate).

Powers Boothe probably does the best of any single actor, as he plays “Lt. Col. Andrew ‘Andy’ Tanner,” a U.S. Air Force pilot shot down in a dogfight. He helps the group with some basic warcraft but ultimately is a doomed character. Boothe is also known for “Southern Comfort,” “Nixon” and “Sin City.”

Basically lost is the chance to let veteran actors Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton and Ron O’Neal have more exposure. The same goes for William Smith, who plays “Strelnikov,” the anti-commando specialist brought in to find the “Wolverines,” who doesn’t underestimate his foes.

O’Neal, who plays the Cuban officer “Col. Ernesto Bella,” has more than a few passes in front of the camera and makes the most of it. However, more would have been better here. O’Neal is best known for his role in “Super Fly” and was in “The Final Countdown.” Tough-guy Smith has been in “Conan the Barbarian,” Clint Eastwood’s “Any Which Way You Can” and even an episode on TV’s “CHiPs.”

Both Johnson, who plays “Mr. Mason,” and Stanton, who plays “Mr. Eckhart” (who is Swayze’s and Sheen’s father), have brief stints that could have been much better, especially Stanton who was being held in the re-education camp and tells his boys, “Avenge me!”

Just about the only prophetic moment in the film comes when the guys decide it’s time to come down from the mountains for the first time after the invasion. The conversation concludes with: “We need food.” “We need to know.” “Right.” Information, or data if you will, is shown to be just as important as sustenance.

Red Dawn” was the 20th ranked film at the box office in 1984 and brought in $38.3 million (right behind Tom Hanks’ comedy “Bachelor Party” and the year’s No. 1: Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop” at $234.7 million) on a budget of $4.2 million, according to Box Office Mojo and IMDb.com.

Other cast and film notes (via both IMDb.com and Wiki):

  • One of the radio announcements is “John has a long mustache,” which is the same message the French resistance gets before D-Day in the World War II classic “The Longest Day.”
  • The National Review Online named the film No. 15 in its list of “The Best Conservative Movies” in 2009.
  • The film’s replica of a Russian T-72 main battle tank was accurate to the point that it was reported that CIA personnel followed it while it was being transported and wanted to know how it got into the U.S.
  • Grey was in her third film here after “Jaws 3D” and “All the Right Moves” the year before with Tom Cruise. She would be in “Back to the Future” the next year.
  • Frank McRae, who plays the teacher “Mr. Teasdale” and makes an early exit when paratroopers land at the high school, was in the great underrated comedy “Used Cars” with Kurt Russell as well as “48 Hrs.” and “Rocky II.”

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