The 1984 cult classic “Red Dawn” 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. At least the premise is as grandiose as any in the action genre: The United States has been invaded … not by aliens, but by Commies! Despite doing OK at the box office (a buzzkill statistic for a film to become a “cult favorite”), “Red Dawn” did become a rallying point for both survivalists as well as extreme right-wing organizations in addition. Still, in the end, it is your basic action film. It was poorly 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)
(NOTE: I expanded this review by reorganizing it, giving a little more opinion, adding some trivia and the updating of links on Feb. 11, 2018.)
Back in 1984, the Red Menace had re-emerged in force 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 heated up considerably for World War III as the Cold War wouldn’t end for another six years, “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 in an invasion of 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 is your mood-changer) 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 Eckert.” 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 Morris,” a sensitive teen who becomes a cold-blooded killer bent on revenge after losing his family.
While the group ultimately runs out of physical and psychological 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, so let’s go …
- “Red Dawn” was the first time three-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Swayze worked with Jennifer Grey, who plays the tough “Toni Mason.” 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 his nominated turn in “Ghost” and the solid surfer-crime flick “Point Break” (click here for my review) is quite earnest and commanding, while still having heart. He’s so watchable on screen that even a milquetoast effort such as this one isn’t a failing mark on his resume. Swayze was also nominated for “To Wong Fu Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” and “Dirty Dancing.” He died at 57 in 2009 of pancreatic cancer.
- 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. Even just the little extra effort Boothe gives elevates his character beyond the sale lines he has to deliver. Boothe is also known for “Southern Comfort,” “Nixon” and “Sin City.” He died at 68 in 2017 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
- Golden Globe winner and two-time nominee (not for this one) Sheen isn’t any different here than the others. He has a stock character doing stock things and he doesn’t manage to elevate the younger brother in any way. Sheen, of course, would go on to a bad-boy rep in Hollywood while being the heart and soul of TV’s magnificent comedy “Two and a Half Men,” but then see his personal life spin out of control. I liked him with D.B. Sweeney in “No Man’s Land” (click here for my review) from 1987, which is the year of the release of his most-recognized film, “Wall Street.” His nominations came for “Two and a Half Men” while his win was for “Spin City” on TV.
- Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Grey is another who didn’t get much of a chance to elevate her character, but she’s watchable and doesn’t stumble. Still, her character is emotionally fleshed out slightly more than the other female lead, Lea Thompson as “Erica Mason.” Grey got her nomination for “Dirty Dancing” and you’ll remember her as the sister in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” She was in her second film in this one.
- Thompson was only in her third film after “Jaws 3D” and “All the Right Moves” from the year before with Tom Cruise. She would be on top of the box office with “Back to the Future” the next year and this one wasn’t exactly a career builder. Still, Thompson is watchable and you don’t cringe at the stereotypical stuff she does and says. She’s also “Cathy Davis” in the “Jane Doe” series of TV movies.
- Howell was supposed to bring menace and violence to his character and he does the latter, but he’s not good enough to do the former. He does do a competent enough job so as not to evoke derision for his work here, but it comes close at times. Howell has had an exceptionally prolific career of 208 acting credits since his first with an uncredited TV movie role in 1977 at age 11. He’s been in “T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Hitcher.”
Basically lost in the film 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 into to find the “Wolverines,” who doesn’t underestimate his foes.
- O’Neal, who plays the Cuban officer “Col. Ernesto Bella,” and he has more than a few passes in front of the camera and makes the most of it. However, even more would have been better here. O’Neal is best known for his role in “Super Fly” and was in “The Final Countdown” (click here for my review).
- Tough-guy Smith plays out his character much as you might expect: He is tough and unemotional. It’s not much of a piece of work, but he did cash a check. Smith has been in “Conan the Barbarian,” Clint Eastwood’s “Any Which Way You Can” (click here for my review) and even an episode on TV’s “CHiPs.” He was in the very popular TV mini-series “Rich Man, Poor Man” in the 1970s.
- Both Oscar winner (not for this one) Johnson, who plays “Jack Mason,” and Stanton, who plays “Tom Eckert” (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!” I liked Johnson in the Jamie Lee Curtis horror flick “Terror Train” (click here for my review) and he won for “The Last Picture Show.” Stanton was with Clint Eastwood in the marvelous “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review). Johnson died at 77 in 1996 of an apparent heart attack while Stanton died in 2017 at 91 of natural causes.
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.
In the final analysis, although “Red Dawn” tries, its characters come off as being one-dimensional and it is just a solid action film (forget whatever politics are assigned to it by whichever side of the political spectrum is doing the name-calling).
“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” (click here for my review) 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. Here are the other films from 1984 that I’ve reviewed:
- “Cannonball Run II” (simply awful sequel) – click here for my review
- “The Flamingo Kid” (outstanding) – click here for my review
- “Night of the Comet” (OK sci-fi thriller) – click here for my review
- “Revenge of the Nerds” (hysterical comedy) — click here for my review
- “Splash” (wonderful Tom Hanks comedy) – click here for my review
- “Top Secret!” (hilarious comedy) – click here for my review
- “Up the Creek” (horrid “Animal House” rip-off) – click here for my review
Additional 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 “Red Dawn” as No. 15 in its list of “The Best Conservative Movies” in 2009.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “‘Red Dawn’ was the given code name of the military operation in Iraq that captured Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003. John Milius felt honored by that.”
- 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. Although this is “reported,” I highly doubt the “report” that is attributed to Soldier of Fortune magazine. First, the CIA doesn’t investigate such matters domestically and I’m sure the production company notified everyone who needed to be notified of the transport. So, it sounds like a public relations ploy at the end of the day.
- Frank McRae, who plays the teacher “Mr. Teasdale” and makes an early exit when paratroopers land at the high school, was a foul-mouthed supporting cast member in the great underrated comedy “Used Cars” with Kurt Russell (click here for my review) as well as “48 Hrs.” and “Rocky II.” I also liked him in “Dillinger” from 1973 (click here for my review). He played six games in the NFL for the Chicago Bears after playing college football at Tennessee State, where he had a double major in history and drama.
- “Red Dawn” was the first film released in the United States under the designation “PG-13.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The film made the Guinness Book of Records for having the most acts of violence of any film up to that time. According to their calculations, 134 acts of violence occur per hour, 2.23 per minute.” Finally and directly from me: “Ha! Compared to today’s gut-wrenching CGI effects and violence, this one is mild in comparison.”
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