RED DAWN over Colorado, as the Commies come to Calumet, the all-American hamlet in this infamous fantasygasm from The Year of Our Ronald 1984. Infiltration, nukes and elite paratroops pave the way for Soviet hordes descending through Alaska while on the southern border (Mexico down for the count) “the whole Cuban and Nicaraguan army came walkin’ right through”. World War 3 is on with a surprise invasion of the heartland, but it didn’t dawn on the Reds that they’d come face-to-barrel with ferocious “Wolverines!” Thank Jesus for well-armed teenagers.
“Boys! Avenge Me! AVENGE Me!”
When a disorienting attack on their small town in the Rockies shatters life as they knew it, a handful of teenagers, led by the slightly older ‘Jed Eckert’ (Patrick Swayze) take to the hills and begin to fight back, accumulating arms and experience as the greater war rages elsewhere. Surprised and flummoxed occupiers eventually bring in experts in guerrilla warfare to wipe out the resisters, who dub themselves ‘Wolverines’ after their high school football team.
The original script written by Kevin Reynolds posited a small-scale anti-war story but studio honchos escalated the idea into what emerged as a $17,000,000 mini-epic, directed by blood & thunder John Milius, who added his own machismo material to the screenplay. Even with the absurd set-up, critics—mostly to the left of center—weren’t well-disposed to the red-meat Milius to start with, thanks to Conan The Barbarian and his glee at baiting them with outrageous statements. So they demolished the movie not so much because of how it was made but for the “why?” factor. Still, it struck a nerve with action-hungry audiences and those less-discerning about politics and agitprop. A gross of $38,377,000 placed it 22nd in 1984—an apt year for something like this if there ever was one.
Dropping the fanciful notion about how such an attack could take place and have any success, and the shoot-your-way-through-it considerations of how fast and how well the kids become arse-kicking guerrilla fighters—AmeriCong—how effective is the rest of it? A: it gets the job done—and no, thank you, yours truly is not a right-wing apologist who mainlines Q-sense and alternative facts. I’m a liberal. Just not a cringing wuss. You can be one and not the other, whether either side of the Grand Chasm can concede it or not. Since the movie takes a political stand, we reserve the right to respond in the negative to part of its intent (fear the world, buy ammo, learn to drink deer blood) and yet enjoy the action, acting and accoutrements. **
Colorado was played by locations in next-door New Mexico, and Ric Waite’s excellent cinematography is a strong plus. So is the stirring Coplandesque music scoring from the great Basil Poledouris. Swayze delivers an impassioned performance as the leader of the group, and there is a fine job from Ron O’Neal as Cuban officer ‘Bella’, who has revolution-honed sympathies for the underdog (us, this time). William Smith commands attention as Soviet search & destroy expert ‘Strelnikov’ (coyly referencing Doctor Zhivago). Harry Dean Stanton gets a rouse-the-spirit scene. Best of all is the much-missed Powers Boothe as laconic pilot ‘Andy Tanner’, who briefly joins the band and tries to offer some sensible advice. There’s enough furious action for three movies.
The other “Wolverines!” were locked & loaded by Charlie Sheen (brother ‘Matt’), C. Thomas Howell (stone killer ‘Robert’), Lea Thompson (damaged ‘Erica’, who fancies Boothe), Jennifer Grey (‘Toni’), Darren Dalton (‘Daryl’), Brad Savage (‘Danny’) and Doug Toby (‘Aardvark’).
More adults on hand to fret or perish over 114 minutes: Vladek Sheybal (smug Russkie general), Ben Johnson (for Americana’s sake), Lane Smith (the quisling mayor), Frank McRae (teacher whose lecture on Genghis Khan is rudely interrupted), Roy Jenson, Pepe Serna.
* As the fake-genial, demented spectre of Reaganism and his even worse spawn began to reduce native common sense to comic book level, crass-act Hollywood sniffed the wind, flexed pecs and shoveled forth the dudes-who-never-served revisionist idiocy of Invasion U.S.A., Top Gun, Firefox, Heartbreak Ridge, Uncommon Valor, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, Rocky IV, Missing In Action and a frothing platoon of lesser circle jerks. For what it’s worth, Red Dawn is the best of the batch. Foolishly remade in 2012, to a barrage of scorn.
Milius, who gets a lifetime pass for the marvelous The Wind And The Lion, only directed two more features, both war films, the interesting WW2 saga Farewell To The King and the d.o.a. Vietnam offering Flight Of The Intruder. Both were box office flops. Down but not out, he did deliver the rousing mini-series Rough Riders.
** When this came out, I was working at a famous—and adamantly leftish—bookstore. Gasps of astonishment emanated from some humorless co-workers when they found out I didn’t hate this movie. As if that de facto made me a fan of the military-industrial complex and a budding orc of the moron movement. A buddy—genial rock’n’roll stoner—was aware of the situation: he got a perverse delight by showing up, finding me stocking shelves and saying loudly enough to be heard three aisles away “Hey, I LIKE Red Dawn!” Ah, the 80s. Who would have thought we’d degenerate to the point where their simplifications are almost nostalgic?